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Destinations · Europe · spain · Penedes · Essence ·


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Penedès. The Tuscany of Spain

Penedès is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe. Its history reaches back to the time of the Phoenicians, who began cultivating Chardonnay grapes here in the 6th century BC. Penedès is located less than an hour's drive from Barcelona and is like an uncut gem in that it has been, unbelievably, relatively untouched by tourism. This, despite being recognised in recent years as an innovative and exciting region on the wine maps of Spain and Europe, largely thanks to the many small, family-owned wineries that make wine differently. Their philosophy includes a passion for organic and biodynamic farming methods as well as the preservation and reintroduction of forgotten local grape varieties.

There are various explanations for why Penedès has retained an aura of being an undiscovered place, despite being so close to Barcelona. In fact, Penedès is statistically one of Spain's most frequently visited wine-growing regions with armadas of tourists and cruise ship passengers flocking to the giant wineries of Torres, Freixenet and Codorníu. But after having forayed into Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, the heart of the Spanish sparkling wine (Cava) region, and having viewed the Codorníu winery building designed by the Catalan Art Nouveau architect and Gaudi rival Josep Puig i Cadafalch, the tourists rarely venture any further into Penedès. Hardly anyone other than the true wine connoisseurs even make it to the capital of Penedès, Vilafranca del Penedès, and the Museum of Wine located in its Royal Palace. Some people call this phenomenon the "Barcelona Effect", meaning that Barcelona is so close, so large, and so saturated with all possible cultural and gastronomical delights that after spending a few days in the Catalan capital most tourists who venture beyond the city only make it as far as the resort town of Sitges. Many tourists also flock to Tarragona and its Roman amphitheatre as well as to Figueres, the birthplace of the father of Surrealism, Salvador Dalí, and home to the extravagant Dalí Theatre and Museum. In other words, despite its strategic location Penedès has apparently not been enough of a magnet for tourists to the Barcelona area. In contrast, Rioja -- another well-known wine-growing region in Spain -- is located in a more remote area and is famous for wineries designed by star architects. Even though the beauty of Rioja's natural environment may not exceed that of Penedès, it has become a separate tourist destination in and of itself. But, who knows, a few years from now things may have changed!

In terms of landscape, Penedès is sometimes referred to as the Tuscany of Spain. However, unlike that Mecca of Italian wine, Penedès is a more industrialised region, and its industries often brutally intrude on the otherwise idyllic landscapes of cypresses and proud, old hilltop estates. But this is nevertheless a true paradise for lovers of wine and food. Prices are also still much friendlier than in Tuscany, which has become a well-travelled destination for gourmands. The recent economic crisis has, however, left its mark on Penedès as well. For example, the best restaurants in Vilafranca del Penedès and nearby towns are open for dinner only a couple of nights a week. The locals cannot afford to each at the restaurants and the number of tourists has fallen. But, a bottle of wine at a restaurant costs only two to three euros more than it does in the store or at the winery. And guests at the local restaurants are greeted like family members, pampered and offered the best foods and wines.

One of the characteristics of Penedès is its proximity of the sea and the system of mountains and valleys that divides the region into separate zones and also provides for a very special type of soil. The elevation ranges from 250 to 750 metres above sea level, which ensures at least three separate growing zones that are reflected in the quality and character of the region's wines. The climate is also very conducive to growing grapes: plenty of sunlight during the daytime (leading to high levels of alcohol in Penedès wines) and a pleasant coolness from the Mediterranean Sea in the evenings that also brings the necessary moisture to the grapevines. Thanks to the various elevations in the region, the harvest season is very long. In addition, this region stays green and fresh throughout the summer and winter. The mild, warm climate also favours organic farming techniques, because the grapes ripen slowly and do not quickly succumb to rot, which is most often traditionally fought with chemical means.

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"It seems this will be a great year for wine in this region. Provided, of course, that it does not rain. But everything we've harvested so far has been simply fantastic," says Silvia Roig, who represents Parés Baltà, one of the best-known wineries in the region. Parés Baltà was established back in 1790 and since its inception has cultivated grapes organically. Today, of course, they have the corresponding certification as well. During its whole existence, Parés Baltà has changed owners only once; it now belongs to the Cusiné family, who have managed the winery for four generations. The youngest members of the family have only recently begun attending school, and the grandmother is 93 years old. The current owners are her two grandsons, while the actual winemaking process is in the hands of their wives, which is definitely something that makes Parés Baltà unique. Even though the number of female oenologists has been growing in recent years, and many of them are very innovative and bold, the winemaking trade is still stereotypically very male. Marta is a pharmacist by training, and Maria Elena is a chemical engineer. After getting married, they both returned to university to study viticulture and oenology. The moment the family entrusted the two young women with the winemaking process was surely a challenge but also a turning-point in the history of Parés Baltà, radically changing the winery's style and adding it to the list of the most innovative wineries in the region. When asked to characterise the new generation of winemakers, Marta and Maria Elena answer, "The new generation are people that have travelled a lot, worked abroad across the globe, are open-minded and merge knowledge and winemaking techniques from different parts of the world, using ancestral techniques such as biodynamics, the use of ceramic tanks, natural yeast, no sulfites, and applying them to local winemaking, considering the different local soils, microclimates, grapes and viticulture."

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The new generation of winemakers is always trying out something new, whether it be new varieties of grapes or new blends and varietals, and strives to work with local varieties of grapes, for example, Xarel.lo for white wines. Parés Baltà's newest innovation is Rosa Cusine Cava from 100% Granatxa grapes. The winery green harvests some varieties of grapes, which means removing some of the grapes before they reach maturity, thereby making the flavour of the remaining grapes more concentrated.

In accordance with organic farming principles, Parés Baltà uses only natural fertilisers. The winery has 300 sheep, which are allowed to pasture in the vineyards after the harvest until the following spring, grazing on the grass and leaves between the vines and fertilising the fields. Parés Baltà also keeps 30 bee hives, which not only produce outstanding rosemary honey but also pollinate the grape vines.

This year Parés Baltà also received certification for biodynamic winemaking. This means that they not only grow grapes according to the phases of the moon, but they also prepare a special type of compost, which has become a type of ritual for the winery. "The vineyard is like a microcosm, and each creature and being in it has a reason to be there. Traditional farming methods are focused on producing beautiful fruit by destroying everything that disturbs it, a process that also influences the environment and our health. Growing organically means to not harm the environment and along with it human health. But biodynamic farming goes a step further and tries to cure the soil, which has suffered for long enough, having been poisoned by pesticides, herbicides, etc. In a way, biodynamic farming is like homeopathy -- it tries to give the vines enough energy and information so that they can manage on their own. Without artificial help. Biodynamic farming also relies much on ancient knowledge, because such knowledge has not appeared overnight; instead, ancient knowledge has grown out of a long period of study and observation," says Silvia Roig. Parés Baltà and several other wineries in the region have been farming biodynamically for several years, and the results are obvious: their vines are much stronger and healthier than many others.

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A part of Parés Baltà's fields are located in the Garraf and Foix nature reserves, near the only river in the Penedès region that never dries up, although by the end of August the river looks more like a narrow dribble of water thirsty for some rain. A 4x4 vehicle is needed to get around here. Hidden between the cliffs and mountains in this region are two natural water reservoirs surrounded by almond trees and an almost tropical-looking jungle of green. I can hardly think of a better place to refresh a city-weary soul. The silence can almost be felt on the skin, and the green caresses the senses like velvet. The children of winemakers come to swim in these paradise-like waters, and the water is deep enough to allow diving from the surrounding cliffs. Grape vines grow on the slopes of the cliffs, practically in the middle of the jungle, between century-old trees, blackberries, rosemary and lavender. The small fields look like patches on an otherwise wild and untouched carpet. But wild boars are fierce rivals for the winemakers. Just as in more northern climates wild boars know exactly when potatoes have reached maturity, so here they know when the grapes are ready for harvest. The winemakers even jokingly call the boars their "quality control" division, although in reality this is not a funny matter. Sometimes the boars are more nimble than the winemakers and make a lunch out of their grapes. Besides, this being a natural preserve, the winemakers are not allowed to fence in their vineyards.

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Parés Baltà also owns a small winery in Priorat, one of Spain's currently most prestigious wine-growing regions. This year it has created its first sulfite-free wine. Sulfites, in combination with artificial yeast and other chemical elements still used in wine production, are often associated with headaches the morning after consuming wine. Silvestris 2011 is a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and comes from a very new field of grapes that has been farmed organically from the very beginning. Unfortunately, Silvestris is currently available only in very limited quantities, because sulfite-free wines are still considered experimental. As Marta and Maria Elena say, "The most important problem with these wines is ageing and transportation. A key thing with these wines right now it is to guarantee their stability in the long term and predict how they will react to long-distance transportation."

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