Pulling The Cork on Site
A number of areas traditionally producing Spain’s top-wines are already strongly anchored in the wide world of wine, but what about the many upcoming Spanish wine territories? In fact, there is no region in Spain, which does not produce excellent wine. Wine-tourism has developed into a much demanded leisure alternative everywhere and consequently there is an ever increasing number of well organized and much differentiated Spanish wine destinations to ensure that your specific expectations for a fascinating, instructive and pleasure-filled wine vacation are met. A look at the Penedès region in Catalonia should wet your appetite for more
Over the past twenty-five years, Spanish vintners have successfully been stamping their own mark on their products, clearly linking them to their terroir and making for a most diverse and enticing wine-scape. Breathtaking landscapes are interspersed not only with beautifully restored antique wineries but also with cutting-edge modern architecture. Besides Spain’s dense history, steeped in the lasting influence of different cultures, has left its traces throughout the country where castles, ramparts, aqueducts, cathedrals, bridges, or century-old farmsteads all still tell tales of its rich and variegated past. Tradition and folklore have been kept alive everywhere and the yearly calendar is chockfull of merry, colorful and at times outrageous festivals. No need to insist on the wealth of Spain’s gastronomy wherever you go. As a result, Spain has fast become a coveted destination for wine-travelers from around the world.
Finding your way
Wine-tourism, of course, refers to all leisure and travel activities centering directly or indirectly on wine. Maria Fustero of the Academia de Tastevins of Vilafranca del Penedès, sums up some of the advantages of wine-tourism: “Routes are not rigid, you can turn in any direction; you are free to choose and not squeezed into a prepackaged program; wine culture means no time limits, wine tourism likewise.” Indeed proper wine tourism is antithetical to mass tourism and requires some previous homework by the traveler. Criteria for planning a wine trip to Spain may vary widely: A business meeting in Barcelona may be the opportunity of a side trip to the Priorat or Penedès areas; a golf holiday in trendy Marbella to find out more about Malaga or Sherry wines; a temporary burn-out may just be cured in a wine-spa set in breathtakingly beautiful vanguard winery in La Rioja; or you may just want to check out the terroir of your favorite wine. Just some food (or rather wine) for thought before you start planning.
Mapping your route
In view of Spain’s enormous potential to attract wine-travelers, ACEVIN (Association of Spanish Wine Cities) offers a comprehensive guide to twenty wine routes spread throughout the country. Yet, if the above site is primarily centered on the wine-sector, the Spanish Association for Wine- and Gastronomic Tourism has created a web-site that links to a number of selected agencies operating both in Spain and abroad and offering a clearly client oriented service. They propose a number of already laid-out yet always adaptable routes, but are also most proficient in made-to-measure trips. Excellent examples are A Taste of Spain, a Spanish operator with a highly expert multi-lingual staff fully focused on gastronomic and wine trips, or Cellartours, a US-based agency, with specific expertise in top-of-the-line customized wine-routes world-wide. “Spain is definitely one of our most popular destinations” affirms the Cellartours’ representative here.
The spirit of place
Of course wine-culture is imperatively linked to the land and wine-tourism like no other tourist activity brings the traveler irremediably and desirably so in touch with the spirit of each specific place. So let us try to capture the spirit of a wine region which, despite receiving the largest number of visitors (almost 500.000 a year) and having pioneered wine-tourism in Spain, has preserved a remarkable authenticity, and as such is no doubt paradigmatic of other wine areas in Spain.
The Penedès region at some 40 km. (25 miles) south of Barcelona, is protected by the majestic massif of Montserrat. Its magnificent vine-strewn Central Valley yields many of the prestigious wines and world famous cavas of DO Penedès, DO Cava and DO Catalunya. “Cava grapes mainly proceed from the valley as they need freshness, while the higher calcareous slopes imprint more character, more terroir” explains Josep Maria Albet, President of DO Penedès and also one of Spain’s earliest organic wine producers. It is his goal for DO Penedès, producing already over 50% of organic wines, to become the first fully organic DO in the world. The family winery Albet i Noya in Sant Pau d’Ordal receives some 5000 visitors per year.
Nearby lies smaller Cavas Guilera owned by Pere Guilera, who heads the Congress for Art, Viticultural Landscape and Wine-tourism with the ambitious goal to take all necessary measures to preserve the landscape and to combat increasing urbanization with ruralization, as Ton Mata from prominent Bodegas Recaredo coined it. A number of international experts in landscape preservation and wine-tourism are regularly called in to participate and results have been highly tangible.
Intrinsic to the spirit of place are of course its people. Not only the smaller but also the large, world-wide known wineries, like Torres, Freixenet or Codorníu are not only family owned, but also family run, often for many generations. Like the family Cusiné of Parès Baltá, where the fifth generation is now gradually taking over. Not only Josep and Joan Cusiné but also their young wives, a pharmacist and a chemist, now accomplished enologists are taking the business to new heights and their wines are receiving impressive international ratings. If you want an unforgettable tour to see for yourself what efforts and expertise underlie each bottle produced and each sip you will have at the corresponding tasting, do the trip of their vineyards in 4x4 which will take you through the gently rolling vineyards in the valley, up into near inaccessible slopes, where the Foix river springs and where small terraced patches of vines are grown to perfection.
“90% of wine tourists use a car, but it is biking which truly brings you in touch with the terroir” stresses María Fustero. And this is exactly what Paddy Mannion, a locally integrated Irish expat running El Molitours, understood a long time ago. He is fluent in both Spanish and Catalan and has acquired in-depth knowledge on the history, landscape, amenities and moreover the wine-culture of the area. “We would have never found all these exciting places on our own” smiles Ralph Strauss, an architect from Brentwood, CA, treating his two sons to a trip into the Penedès.
Indeed all agents involved are keenly aware that wine-tourism is intrinsic to a new kind of knowledgeable, well-documented travelers, who know what they want. Quality and personal attention are key. “Practically all wineries are investing seriously now in offering up-to-date differentiated visiting and tasting facilities” says Nuria Salas of Consorci de Promoció Turístic de l’Alt Penedès. So wine-tourism is taking an ever greater impulse thanks to the collaboration and new initiatives among wineries, small and big. Big like the legendary Bodegas Torres, which besides 10.000 professional visitors receives around 100.000 wine-tourists a year, offering full explanation of their scenic winery tours in no less than ten languages.
Also in-house shops get an ever more attractive image and are handled more efficiently in regard to display, invoicing and shipping. You fancy a specific wine that you have just tasted, you can readily receive it at home. On-site wine sales are growing to such an extent, that for example at Albet i Noya it constitutes their largest single point of sale.
A traveler’s repose and repast
Probably due to the vicinity of Barcelona and the coastal area, in contrast to other emblematic wine areas like La Rioja, good restaurants and accommodation facilities are as yet not so numerous in the Penedès. However, you can sample some of the best regional cuisine at a number of places throughout the area. Food is outstanding at two recommendable rural hotels at almost opposite ends of the Penedès region: Biohotel Cal Ruget, a charming getaway in Vilobí wholly conducive to relax and wellbeing, including their organic cuisine with produce from their own garden or Ostería Ibai, a pretty country inn in Sant Pere de Ribes at only 3 km. from glamorous coastal Sitges, where the scent of freshly baked bread invites you to a delicious breakfast before heading into wine-country. And if you feel like being pampered, you may want to drive up to Can Bonastre, a beautiful wine-spa with amazing views of Montserrat and a splendid dining facility called the Barrel Room, housed in a prior 19th century cellar.
Of course there is a number of nice restaurants, like Cal Xim on the small village square of Sant Pau d’Ordal, where Santi Domingo, a TV personality, serves delicately wood-fire grilled dishes: roasted fresh duck liver with a confit of the delicious recovered Ordal peach, tiny slightly pink lamb cutlets with parsley topped chickpeas from Anoia, cod stuffed squash flowers on a bed of roasted samfaina (ratatouille) and from November to March his famous grilled artichokes.
The two major towns in the region, around which many of the bodegas are clustered, are Vilafranca (the region’s capital) and Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, where cast iron street markers come in cava cork shape. They feature more than one gastronomic milestone. Cal Ton in Vilafranca receives wine-visitors from the US, Singapore, Rusia, Japan … It must be his delicate mini-canelones (as traditional here as in Italy), or perhaps the fresh shrimps from nearby Vilanova, a silky magret of autochthonous duck, or crisp poularde from Penedés. You get the idea! And for afterwards, the bar at the luxury hotel Torner i Guell, a rehabilitated Modernist mansion, offers over forty different gins.
This article is meant to give you an insight in all the good and exciting things awaiting you in any of the wine destinations throughout Spain, a sort of script in which you are cordially invited to star.
Over the past twenty-five years, Spanish vintners have successfully been stamping their own mark on their products, clearly linking them to their terroir and making for a most diverse and enticing wine-scape