An age-old land of vines, its grape-growing traditions going back to the times of the Romans and even earlier, the Penedès region is synonymous with wine. Here, the colour, aroma and flavour of fine wine impregnate the air and dazzle the senses. Wine-making is closely linked to the history and culture of this tenacious and hardworking people, who have maintained their traditions and garnered worldwide renown for their fine white and rosé wines and their popular sparkling cava.
The great Catalan writer Josep Pla once described this region as “an immense swathe of vine-covered land, prodigiously gentle, one of the noblest places in the country, practically sublimated by the intelligence, tenacity and work of humans”.
To get to know the Penedès region well, the ideal plan is to take a bike ride through the vineyards, filling one’s lungs with fresh, aromatic air, before visiting a winery, succumbing to the sweet, delightful flavour of famous D.O. Penedès wines and enjoying the memorable experience of an authentic tasting. Take your time as you enjoy the finest local dishes at the many slow food restaurants, relax at country hotels where wine therapy treatments are available and, above all, learn everything there is to know about cava and wine culture.
During your stay, pick grapes at harvest-time and tread them in vats; try such local delicacies as xató (a rich salad) and gall (rooster), outstanding dishes in Penedès cuisine, join a pinya to support a team of castellers devoted to building human pyramids in Vilafranca, delve into history by visiting medieval castles, which transport us back in time to the period when this was no man’s land, the border between the Christian and Moorish kingdoms … The Penedès wine and cava region offers all this and much more.
As could be no other way, our route must begin in the vineyards that tint the landscape all shades of green. A relaxing bike ride through fields around Subirats, where ecological vines grow, to breathe in the gentle perfume given off by the grapes, aromas that lead us gently down to the local wineries, where we can experience a unique, unforgettable tasting, as the wines here are made in the traditional, natural way.
Or, on horseback, look over the landscape from a different perspective, deeply breathing in the aroma given off by the grapes. At a leisurely trot, as the gentle breeze wafts in from the nearby Mediterranean, open your lungs, close your eyes and let yourself go …
Next, dismount from your horse, or park your bike and start walking, unhurriedly, just wandering, guided by your instinct, following your nose. If these senses do not deceive you, you will soon find yourself before the Albet i Noya, Torres or Mas Comtal wineries, some of the finest and most authentic in these parts, where can enjoy a tast (tasting) of fresh white or rosé wine. If that is not enough and you want to become an expert, the enologists at these establishments will be delighted to share their secrets with you.
When you are ready, sit down at a table at Cal Saldoni, the first slow food restaurant in the region. There, you can enjoy delicious cod with figs or a succulent snail casserole with black pudding, amongst other outstanding dishes in which traditional Catalan cuisine is given a modern twist, all prepared using the finest fresh, local ingredients. The restaurant, which adjoins the Albet i Noya celler (winery), serves an “enogastronomic menu”, as well as offering the chance to taste organic white wines produced at the neighbouring bodega.
In the afternoon, if you so desire, visit Vilafranca, the county capital, and discover more about wine culture at the Vinseum, the Museum of Catalan wine cultures. Here, we can learn about the ancient links to wine culture that have marked the history, culture and traditions of this area.
By the end of your visit you will know, for example, that xarel·lo, macabeo and parellada are some of the local grape varieties of indigenous grapes from which the famous Penedès whites and rosés are made, and that the Phocians, an Ancient Greek people, were the first to cultivate vines in the region, in the fourth century BC.
In the evening, we can rest after an intensive day’s wine tourism at the Cal Ruget Biohotel, the first rural accommodation establishment fully committed to the environment, sustainability and to using organic food produce grown in the hotel’s own market garden.
Enjoy your dinner unhurriedly, savouring the rich seasonal fare cooked with all due care by the chef and his team, then sit down before the fireplace or in the garden to chat about the day’s adventures with other guests. Then, in one of the exclusive rooms in this converted farmhouse, all decorated in authentic country style with a differentiating touch, enjoy some richly-deserved rest, sleeping deeply amid the silence of the surrounding fields.
Next day, build up your forces with a real country breakfast prepared lovingly by the folk at Cal Ruget. What awaits us now is the ruta de la verema (wine harvest route), an unforgettable experience in which you will take part as just another harvester. Hop on a bike and cycle to the vineyards. Once there, help to pick grapes, to carry them to the bodega and then tread them in the vats as countless generations of Penedesencs (the name by which the people of the Penedès region are known) have done before.
Having trodden the grapes, you can also help with other tasks in the wine-making process. No doubt, by the end of the day you will feel tired but very satisfied and proud, as if you had been a wine-maker all your life, sharing your experiences with the other harvesters.
All this hard work deserves a reward. The wine harvest route is followed by another: the xató route. Xató is a traditional local dish, a salad of endives, cod, anchovies, tuna and arbequina olives with a dressing of romesco sauce made from tomatoes, peppers, garlic, almonds and hazelnuts.
You can find the most delicious xató in Vilafranca, at such restaurants as Cal Joanet and Cal Ton. Xatonada is even tastier if washed down with a good white or rosé wine and accompanied by a spinach, aubergine or courgette omelette, as is customary around here. If you can persuade the chef, they may tell you the secret of their recipes. Or make the dish for yourself at a xató workshop – you won’t be sorry!
And for dessert, try the catànies, chocolate covered almonds invented in the early twentieth century by the pastry chef Joan Tres, at Cal Catani. You can find catanias at Forn de Joan, a bakery in the centre of the capital, close to Plaça de la Vila and the Basilica of Santa Maria. And if it is market day, that is to say, Saturday, don’t miss the chance to purchase a delicious Vilafranca coca pie, a dough base made from flour, eggs, sugar and butter, to which is added cumin and aniseed. Coca pie has been prepared in this traditional way in Vilafranca since the eighteenth century.
Next, take a walk through the narrow streets of the old town, rich in history and culture. The outstanding sights here include the fourteenth-century Gothic church of Santa Maria and two medieval mansions, the Palau Reial and the Palau del Fraret.
In the evening, visit the Acbua Spa in Can Bonastre Wine Resort to enjoy relaxing wine therapy treatment. Surrounded by ancient vineyards and overlooking the sacred mountain of Montserrat, you will be transported to heaven at this wine resort, located in a sixteenth-century farmhouse where many more surprises await you.
Enjoy a delicious dinner at the Restaurant Tribia, which specialises in traditional cuisine made from seasonal ingredients, dishes paired with the finest wines and sprinkled with Na Joana arbequina olive oil, produced especially for patrons. The team at Can Bonastre wish you many sweet days and dreamy nights of wine and roses in one of the hotel’s 12 exclusive guest rooms.
Every day throughout our visit brings unforgettable new experiences… Today, we’re going to join a team, or colla, of castellers, builders of human pyramids. You have several options, but perhaps the most authentic is in Vilafranca, the very heartland of castells. The castellers de Vilafranca, one of the oldest such groups in Catalonia, founded in 1948, and one of the most popular among fans of this sport, invite you to join in one of their training sessions, forming part of the pinya, or base.
Although you may notice such after effects as a bit of back strain the next day, you will never forget this experience. If you are lucky and your trip coincides with the local festa major celebrations, you can also witness an unforgettable display: on the Feast of St. Felix (August 30), the four leading colles of the moment meet in the town square, or Plaça de la Vila, to see who can build the most daring, original and formidable castells ever seen.
After sharing a table with the colla members, wolfing down some tasty barbequed meat with botifarra, mongetes i all i amb oli (sausage, beans and garlic mayonnaise sauce), we can spend the afternoon in Sant Sadurní, a town known as the “capital of cava”, to learn all about this sparkling drink, invented by the Catalans, at the Cava Interpretation Centre.
A guided tour of the Codorníu, Freixenet or Raventós bodegas, followed by a workshop on the art of cava, practically turns you into an expert on the subject. Anyway, if even that is not enough and you still want more, you can enjoy a cava therapy session at El Moli de Pontons. The very height of luxury.
To really discover and feel yourself part of the rural environment, one great option is to attend the traditional rooster fair. This fair, whose origins go back to the Middle Ages, is held in Vilafranca during the week before Christmas.
Should your stay not coincide with this seasonal period, you can learn everything you want to know about the Penedès rooster at Espitlles rural farm. The Penedès rooster is an autochthonous poultry species characterised by colourful plumage and excellent meat. The visit to this farm is best rounded off by enjoying a delicious dish of gall farcit amb cava (stuffed rooster in cava).
Then, in the afternoon, we can travel back in time and learn more about local history by visiting the Castle and Church of Sant Martí Sarroca or the monumental ensemble of Olèrdola, a Bronze Age archaeological site and the earliest settlement in this region from which remains are conserved. Or, if you prefer, relax all your senses with a stroll beside the water in the FoixPark.
Once you are starting to feel tired, L’Olivera rural hotel will welcome you with open arms and offer you all their best services. A relaxing soak in the hot tub at the spa followed by a neurosedative massage or beauty treatment using 100% natural cosmetic products can be the ideal prelude to a romantic dinner amidst vineyards at the Can Pau Benet restaurant.
Here, you can enjoy authentic Mediterranean cuisine made from the most natural ingredients. Finally, before bed, you and your partner can delight in a dream massage applied with arbequina olive oil. Sweet dreams and wonderful memories of your journey to the land of white and rosé wine and cava.
© Roger Jiménez – Slowing Catalunya
Photography © Enoturisme Penedès – Turisme de Subirats – Cal Saldoni – Vinseum – Cal Ruget Biohotel – Can Bonastre Wine Resort – Granja rural d’Espitlles – Castellers de Vilafranca – Turisme de Sant Sadurní – L’Olivera