Thursday, January 24, 2013

SPAIN: Pened'es in Quality Focus

Alt Pened'es Bodega St.Joannes vineyards
Winter in the Pened'es DO of southeastern Spain usually means air temperatures in the 40's and an average rainfall of about 2 inches each month.  The sun always seems to be around in this the largest vine region and greatest wine volume Denominación de Origen of autonomous Catalunya. Wide and open, it is sandwiched between the East-West fortifications that are the Pyrenees mountains and coastal Garraf Massif wherin lies this Catalan Central Depression with its tiers of plateaus, coolly influenced by the great sea to the South.
La Morella, height of the Garraf Massif

These lands are an ancient crossroads, having survived with more than 2000 agrarian years of wine production in a swath of island hamlets and then a galvanizing 17th century farming boom. These people of the land,  these hard working Catalans persevered;  persisted following centuries of invasions and foreign occupations, only to be followed by decades of isolation, an outlawed culture/language, vineyard decline and even a tragic civil war. Yet, the proud Catalan culture remains alive and vibrant.

Climatically Mediterranean, Penedès, with its wide range of micro-climates, is divided into three elevated tiers or sub-zones filled with mixed soils of limestone, sand and clay:
  • Baix Penedès (Bajo)takes in the low-lying coastal areas. Unsurprisingly, this is the warmest part of Penedès and specializes in the production of full-bodied red wines from Garnacha, Cariñena and Monastrell grapes. The main village is the historic Vilafranca del Penedès. 
  • Medio Penedès forms the middle plain section of this DO and has the highest level of production. Vineyards are located at elevations of 825 to 1649ft (250–500m) and provide the majority of the region's Cava grapes (MacabeoParellada and Xarel-lo) as well as Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), and introduced international favorites like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Across the Lower & Middle Pened'es, other international varieties such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc share acreage today with traditional white varieties of Malvasia de Sitges, and Moscatell d'Alexandria, producing a wide style of delicious, uniquely Spanish still table wines.
  • Alt Penedès is also known as Penedès Superior. Its vineyards are as high as few in Europe, having altitudes of 1640 to 2625ft (500–800m), also enjoy the region's highest rainfall. Some of Spain's most remarkable white wines are produced here from cool-climate grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and the local Parellada.
 Central Depression in Catalan Yellow
Attempting to standardize the regions production and quality, the Regulating Council of the Denominació d'Origen was founded here in Catalunya in1960. Currently, the Regulating Council has about five thousand wine producers in its ranks, with about two hundred and seventy cellars(bodegas) which are aligned with almost 140 companies dedicated to aging and exporting an annual wine production of nearly 70 million liters from more than 26000 hectares of vineyards.  That's a lot of juice!.

Being close to cosmopolitan Barcelona, the region is also the epi-center of Spain's modern day wine revolution. Vilafranca del Pened'es is at the center of  still wine production, and is also the home of regions largest producer and perhaps its greatest innovator, Jaime Torres. Introducing then new ideas such as stainless steel fermentation and temperature controlled tanks, Bodegas Torres was the first in Spain to experiment with international varieties in the 1870's.  Today, it is the largest winery in Spain. A century later, innovative Bodegas Jean Leon (Ceferino Carrión) introduced single cuvee or single vineyard (pago) bottlings in the 1960's, and advanced international marketing strategies for the regions improving still wines.

Pened'es is today synonymous with Cava, a traditional method sparkling wine, having its origins from José Raventos of Codorníu in the early 1870's following the bodegas vineyard replanting to native varietals after the widespread devastation of phylloxera. The nearby small town of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia is said to be the birthplace of cava, where almost 90% of Spain's sparkling wine is produced today. Uniquely, it is the product of a blend of indigenous grapes: an acidic flagship, Xarel.lo, widely planted and fruity Macabeo(Macabeu) and the native Parellada, that give this sparkler its special character. Increasingly, Chardonnay is making its way into this traditional blend.

Cava regulations were established by the Ministy of Agruculture in 1972 with the El Cava Regulations Board, and then adopting a delimited 'Cava Region' in 1986 to comply with EU standards. A further refinement of regulated practices was established in 1991 with a singular Cava DO. The regions Cava Regulatory Board recently announced that cava for export had increased by 50% in volume over a ten year period from 2001. Catalonya's sparkling wine production would then seem to be in effervescently good shape.  However, things are not all bubbles in cava town.  Merce' Rossell, Chairperson of PIMECAVA, sets a higher bar, saying recently, "we have to sell cava as an exclusive, glamorous product", indicating the importance of a 'quality' prestige, as with Champagne.

Beyond product marketing, there is currently also a Pened'es classification overhall in the works after 50 years of developing regulations.  In an October 2011 issue of Decanteur, it was reported that the newly elected president of the Regulatory Council of the Penedès DO was leading a campaign to further demarcate the region into sub-zones that would help promote superior sub-regions.  Josep Albet, owner of the Albet I Noya winery says that the existing appellation was outdated and not reflective of the great diversity of terroirs within the DO.  The current process of determining the new sub-zone boundaries is challenging enough, and then still requires approval from the Penedès Wine Council.

With a renewed focus on the region, Robert Parker's July 2011 The Wine Advocate rated 18 distinctive wines of the Pened'es from 8 different producers as exceptional or outstanding. As the region continues adopting quality over quantity, the Pened'es of late has been selling fewer bottles abroad than the volumes seen in its high water mark from 2007-8 as announced by the Spanish Wine Market Observatory. But, according to the prestigious Catalan Institute of Wines and Vineyards, these are today wines representing the best of the region; world class wines of improved and improving qualities. For the rest of us, our focus on searching out the fine wines from the Pened'es continues to be a rewarded quest of value and quality.

And then, there's Barcelona, that cosmopolitan, thriving Catalan metropolis, where annually a quarter of the worlds cava is consumed!  As seen here, perhaps there are unique qualities in just living to consume life!

Salutacions e Bona Salut!

This entry Posted from Barcelona, Spain

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