Pénedes and Priorat: A Spanish wine journey at the foothills of the Pyrenees (Part I)



A vineyard in the Penedès region.
  • A vineyard in the Penedès region.

“Ladies and gentlemen: if you look out the windows on the left side of the plane, you will see the Pyrenees Mountains.”  Luckily, I found myself on the left side of the plane; my usual is to be on the wrong side. As I slid open the plastic window shade, there were the Pyrenees in all their snow capped glory.  This is one of the most beautiful ways to begin one of the most beautiful journeys in the world.

The Pyrenees Mountains run along the French-Spanish border giving locals and tourists a winter wonderland of skiing; and hiking, bird watching and climbing in spring and summer.  The Pyrenees also offer a background setting to the Pénedes and Priorat wine regions in the autonomous region of Cataluña in Northeast Spain.

I find myself on a five day trek through this part of Spain in search of what some have called the best-known unknown wines in the world. From cava to refreshing white wines to powerful reds, northeastern Spain is the place for wine lovers.  The Pyrenees give this area altitude so the vines can grow deep into the soil and attitude so the vines can offer up grapes full of flavor and character.

The first day I find my masia, or country house, in the small town of Vilobí del Pénedes, a town just under 1,000 in population in Pénedes region.  The masia named Cal Ruget Biohotel is a typical Catalan country house owned and operated by husband/wife team Florian Porsche and Veronica Grimar. After my first hour in their lovely masia, I want to take them home with me. There isn’t anything they wouldn’t do to make your stay the most comfortable and memorable you’ve ever had anywhere. The masia is surrounded by vineyards, olive trees and farmland. Florian and Veronica make their own olive oil and jar peppers, tomatoes and other local vegetables. The masia follows the “bio” philosophy offering foods and beverages that are produced within a 100k (62 mile) proximity and sustainable to the region; everything used then is recycled or made into compost. For more information about check out www.calrughetbiohotel.com.

After check-in, lunch beckons at a local eatery named Restaurant Cal Pau Xich -- it’s just a name in case you’re wondering if it means something. It’s a Sunday afternoon and the place is filled with families  from grandparents to newborns. In this part of the world, Sunday lunch (or dinner as is this is the big meal of the day) is still revered. Don’t make any other plans except for lunch if you are here on a Sunday because you will be dining for three hours, if not a little longer. Appetizers of tomatoes, garlic and toasted bread; plates of local greens served with grilled artichoke and foie gras; platters of grilled lamb and turbot make for a filling and thrilling lunch. As the meal is enjoyed over laughter, music and stories, wines are poured to enhance the flavors of the food.

Refreshing Xarel-lo (pronounced cha-rel-o) from the Segura Viudas winery cleanses our palate in preparation for the first bite of the garlic and tomato laden bread. This is followed by the Rene Barbier, a lighter red wine that surprisingly does justice to the greens and grilled artichoke. We finish up lunch with the heavier dishes paired with the Mas D’Aranyo 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon/Tempranillo blend.  I would say that Sunday lunch in this part of the world is like Thanksgiving: a sharing of good food, good wine and good company.  Oh, why can’t every day be like Sunday?

Overstuffed and ready to conquer the hills and undulations that are the geography of this part of Cataluña, I set off with a new set of friends to work off the lunch and see the sites. It’s mid-January and the vines are being pruned in preparation of budbreak. The fruits of the pruning will be evident during the next harvest. My little group and I wander past olive trees and vines that are under several stages of pruning. A few small pickups whiz by picking up clouds of the red clay soil that is part of the geographical make-up of the region.

As I squint to shield my eyes to the dust, I make out small signs here and there in the native Catalan language. The walk has taken only 20 minutes but has transferred me from one world to another, just like the flight that brought me from one continent to another. The town has become a distant flicker of lights coming from small buildings. In this area of the world, January brings early nightfall and late sunrises.

As the last angle of light fades into the horizon, my group and I arrive at the masia where hosts, Florian and Veronica, have prepared a light snack paired with a variety of cavas. Cava is what Spaniards call their sparkling wine.  Made mainly with indigenous grapes of the region (Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada), you can now find cava that has Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the blend. We are served a variety of styles but the stand-out is the Segura Viudas Rose.  After the big lunch and long walk, this cava was refreshing with light red fruits and a perfect pair for the cheese, jamon Serrano and almond biscotti.

Not sure if anything can beat Day One, but tomorrow brings visits to a cava house, walks among the now dormant vines and more food. I can’t wait for Day Two of one of the most beautiful journeys I've ever taken.

Image: Beira via Wikimedia Commons.

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