Enjoying Malvasia Wine with Chocolate in the Company of Royalty (Sort of) At Vega de Ribes

Wine tourism in SpainMalvasia has a place in history, Shakespearean literature and Vega de Ribes, as I learned on a recent trip to the winery. Legend has it that the Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV, chose to die of drowning in a cask of malvasia when sentenced to death for treason. Napoleon supposedly brought malvasia wine with him to enjoy in exile in St. Helena. Shakespeare makes several mentions of malmsey, the English term for malvasia wine, in his plays; in “Henry IV”, the Prince of Wales is accused of having sold his soul for a glass of malmsey (“an absolutely penetrating wine”) and a chicken leg. At Vega de Ribes, malvasia is their featured wine. Twenty years ago the Bartra family began growing the grape, which was taken from the only other vine in the region (at the Hospital Sant Joan Baptista in Sitges).
Wine tourism in SpainMalvasia has a place in history, Shakespearean literature and Vega de Ribes, as I learned on a recent trip to the winery. Legend has it that the Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV, chose to die of drowning in a cask of malvasia when sentenced to death for treason. Napoleon supposedly brought malvasia wine with him to enjoy in exile in St. Helena. Shakespeare makes several mentions of malmsey, the English term for malvasia wine, in his plays; in “Henry IV”, the Prince of Wales is accused of having sold his soul for a glass of malmsey (“an absolutely penetrating wine”) and a chicken leg. At Vega de Ribes, malvasia is their featured wine. Twenty years ago the Bartra family began growing the grape, which was taken from the only other vine in the region (at the Hospital Sant Joan Baptista in Sitges).

The family’s ownership and involvement on the land, however, dates back Family tree Vega de Ribescenturies – specifically, the 16th century A.D. In the tasting room, Enric Bartra proudly showed us the family tree drawn up in 1869, which traces his ancestors and the property back to 1540. Just as impressively, some parts of the house though are from the 13th century when a castle and its fortifications stood on the land. While we strolled through the vineyard and winery, Enric pointed out some examples of the history that visibly remain: the dry stone walls still standing, the carob trees that are hundreds of years old, and the old and “new” wine cellars. The new cellar is Cellar Key Vega de Ribesunlocked by an oversized key that could be used in a movie set in the Medieval Ages. Engraved on the key is the year the new cellar was built – 1766. He estimated that the old cellar, still functioning and in use, is from the 15th century.

Vega de Ribes produces several other wines besides malvasia, including a sauvignon blanc, a merlot and syrah. Wine Pleasures was lucky enough to try their newest wine, a sparkling malvasia (likely the only one on the market so far). The 100% malvasia bubbly is less than a year old, undergoes only one fermentation, has no added sugar, and derives its bubbles naturally from the pressure built in the bottle rather than artificial injection. As Enric said, the best way to judge it (and the only way to enjoy it!) is to taste it. Sadly, for those of us not in Northern Spain, due to limited production the sparkling malvasia will be available only at the winery for the time being.

The Bartra family still lives on the land today and grows a large variety of chocolate tree Vega de RibesMediterranean fruit trees and aromatic plants. Aside from producing grapes for wine, Enric spoke of the family-pressed olive oil used at family dinners and the fruits picked and enjoyed during the warmer seasons. All plants are grown organically as a result of the family’s respect for and sustenance from the land. The family also appreciates their history and place in the local community. In fact, the Slow Foods Foundation for Biodiversity has awarded Vega de Ribes with its Presidium title for the cultivation of a local grape to accompany locally grown foods.

Anne Shih Wine travel writerOn offer at Vega de Ribes are several options for touring the vineyard and learning more about the estate or wines. Each tour is five euros and lasts approximately one hour. The tours range from wine tasting (a general tasting of their wines, or a tasting of their malvasia paired with chocolate “Malvasia de Sitges Tour”) to bird watching (“vineyard Birds Tour”) to specific vineyard tours (“100 Vineyards Tour”, “Centennial Carob Tree Tour”, “Dry Stone Walls and Cabins Tour”, “Mediterranean Aromatic Plants Tour”). Additionally, the property is wheelchair accessible. And of course, the only way to try the sparkling malvasia wine is to visit the winery!

Enric Bartra tells us about the Malvasia de Sitges grape variety:

Tasting Vega de Ribes wines including the famed Malavasia:

ArtCava lets YOU DECIDE: tailor – made Cava

bikeWe saddle up for our 2 hour ride to the Artcava Winery at 9 am needing to be there by 11:30. The beginning of which was a wonderfully winding 12k downhill. I remember feeling a bit guilty that I had the pleasure of cruising down the mountain upon seeing the faces of several unfortunate souls riding up. Speeding along, wind in my face, Rod Stewert in my ears, a Zen-like feeling overwhelms me – one with everything. As I also feel I AM the one with everything. Life is good this morning.

I reach the bottom thankful to see the petrol station, as that was what Anthony said our landmark was for this first leg of Wine Pleasures bike tour round two. Going inside, a blast of cold air hits me in perfect timing. Making a bit of conversation with the lady behind the counter, ever practicing my Spanish, I remember that Catalan is the language here, and I feel a bit foolish. I purchase my lemon flavored Fanta and head out to wait for the others. Mmm, Fizzy, cold, citrusy, all the qualities of my favorite Cava (minus the sugar of course). Finishing my beverage, up rides Anthony asking if I have been here long. I suspect he wants to get an idea of how difficult it might be to get home first. Emily and Nic arrive after Anthony, cruising around the parking lot, shifts my bike into the fastest set of gears.

Biking through a seemingly empty town, up this side street, and down the next, we pass a vineyard; Right in the middle of town! I am beginning to understand how dedicated this area is to it’s grapes, and therfore wine… Much of the rest of the ride to the winery is fairly nondescript other than that it is a nice ride through rolling hills and Back roads twisting and turning.

Although there is one thing I must mention.. We reach Vilafranca some 20 km from the Wine Pleasures base. Upon realizing this, I can’t believe how far we’ve ridden!

ericOn time at 11.30 we arrive at our destination, Art Cava, desaddle, and head inside. I am hit with the smell of fresh paint as I come through the door. I can see they are lighting up the entrance a bit, white washing the interior walls. Eric Enguita is there to greet us and asks if we’d prefer the English tour or the Spanish one. I am hoping the only difference is the language!

The first bit of the tour is in the “museum.” Inside there are all sorts of ancient looking, wine making devices along with many old looking bottles of wine from when I can only imagine. He leads us over to a glass case and flicks on a light inside. There on the shelves are bits of Pre-Roman pottery. Many of which had contained wine since this was the major wine making region, and the major marketplace of its time.

pupitreThe next part of the tour is about the process by which Cava is made. Artcava also caters to groups that come here and make their own! There are seven steps, I can’t remember them all but basically they fill the bottles with ‘base wine’, add yeast and suger to make the carbonation, then cork the bottles. Once corked they are refrigerated and aged in the cellar, tilted at such an angle so that the yeast will fall to the neck of the bottle for easy removal.

degorgeTo remove the yeast, the neck is frozen and the bottle uncorked. The yeast is forced out by the newly carbonated Cava. The bottle is then recorked and ready for consumption. One more thing to mention about this process is the amount of ageing while the yeast is still inside the bottles. The more time that the wine is in contact with the yeast, the more full-bodied flavor the Cava will have. The longest being 30 months, earning the title “Gran Reserva” and, not surprisingly, the heftiest price tag. Artcava’s is quite reasonable at about 20 Euros.

olivoEric continues to lead us around the facility, showing us restored rooms of an authentic wine making home centuries old. There is a central courtyard which overlooks the vineyards rather pleasantly. The courtyard is also adorned with an olive tree more than 1000 yrs old. I am told it weighs in at over 5400 kilos. Short and Squat looking, it is something out of Tolkien’s Shire. While looking out over the vineyards I ask Eric about the vines and their ages. 15 yrs being the oldest vineyard, and there is one within site that is the baby at just one year. Six years is optimal for maximum harvest; Although, older vines, produce the better grapes and have much less harvest.

As we are led to the next part of the tour I am really hoping it is the tasting. After the long hot ride, a craving to consume Cava is building inside me. It is also probably the result effective tour strategy. We sit down in a small theater for a 10 min long video, which results in the ever-increasing infamy of this beverage. Probably translated from Catalan, many of the words used to describe Cava are a bit “out there” to me as i can’t help but to giggle to myself. All in all the video is quite informative and yet another effective strategy toward creating Cava cravings.

Just before the climax of the tour, we are shown the cellar in which the bottles are stored. At a chilly 16c the bottles age with the yeast still inside. The air conditioned cellar is also a welcome change from the unrelenting heat I’ve come to know since in Spain.

copsa de cavaWe are led upstairs and Eric motions towards a small bar where we all gather on typical looking bar stools. Voila! An ice cold bottle is brandished from a cooler behind the bar. As Eric opens the bottle I can’t help but notice just how silently he does so. No matter how hard I’ve tried in the past, I can’t keep from producing a small “pop” upon opening. He pours us all a glass, and pleasantly, himself a glass too. It’s all I can do to not to wolf it down! Lucky for me, the only type that is produced here is “Brut Natura” which contains no added sugar. I believe sugar to be an additive to disguise poor quality in wine. We try two varieties, first their standard economy variety and one aged for 12 months. The first is very light, and because of its “light body” the carbonation really flourishes. The second tastes a bit more full bodied, almost like a carbonated Chardonnay with less emphasis on the “fizziness.” I must confess i prefer the first, although most wine enthusiasts would probably go for the older variety because of it’s meal drinkability.

chocsWe spend the next hour or so drinking, eating chocolate coated almonds and talking of many things Catalan. Eric tells us about his family (he and his parents run Artcava) and his interests outside winemaking. After polishing off about three bottles, we decide that we had better head out and find a spot to refuel for the ride home. Looking forward to, and somewhat dreading, the challenge of the 300m elevation increase, we gear up and ride off in search of protiens and white carbs.

Alec Cruickshank cardman9to5@yahoo.com
Photos courtesey of Nic Myers

Water to Wine Pleasures… cont

Wine Pleasures country bike tour.

The ride into town is, once again, a pleasantly rolling downhill cruise. I am beginning to wonder, “all that goes down must come back up right?” The thought passes as my stomach, growling at me, brings me back into the moment. 

We ride through town in search of a simple sandwich and a glass of fine bile la llacunaPenedès wine.  Along side streets paved with stone, I begin to realize that every store seems to be closed. Banners hang from open windows displaying messages like, “Ball de Diablos” and “La Fiesta Mayor.” Upon reaching what seems to be the town center, it dawns on me that everywhere is closed because of the festivities here before my eyes. We park the bikes out of the way and take in the unique sights. A group of younger boys and girls wrap eachother in long green cloths around their torsos. One holds the wrap tight while the other spins themself until wrapped. I am not sure why… 

human towersOnce everyone is wrapped, they begin to build human structures. Some are five people high! I look in astonishment as a very brave little boy, crash helmet secured, scurries to the top and stands fearless. All the while, horns serenade the event. This is followed by, what must be, a traditional dance involving wooden sticks that are struck together rythmically.  

After the dancers clear, a group of several children near where I stand suddenly scatter. Moments later several men dressed in devil costumes emerge carrying pitchforks.  Most in the crowd seem as oblivious to what is about to happen as I am.  “Los Diablos” gather in a circle and attach little red diABLOSfireworks to their pitchforks. One devil lights them all and, sparks flying everywhere, they parade around in a circle. Those in the crowd that had not fled to safer ground certainly did now! Luckily I am standing halfway behind a pillar and get very little of the hazard.  The danger, though, is well worth sight as sparks rain down in a most amazing display. Suddenly, POW! Then again, POW! Nearly coming out of my shoes, I realize it is from firecrackers and not gunshots. Checking to see if my reaction was noticed, I see a few children laughing at me. 

estrelaOnce the excitement has passed Anthony tells us of a place that is open on the edge of town to get what we came for. Arriving at a little sidewalk cafe we park our bikes and sit for some much needed refueling and refreshment. With no fine wine available in this bar (strange as we are slap bang in the middle of a wine region) it’s an easy choice. The local beer is Estrella Damm, and it has become a favorite of mine for it’s heavy maltiness and full bodied flavor. We order a round and three “omelette” sandwiches. The sandwich is very tasty and simple: scrambled egg, diced tomato, olive oil and salt served on hard crusted white bread. 

Refueled and refreshed, the ride home is all that is left for the day’s bike uphillevents. Almost all uphill, I guess the saying IS true. We are undoubtedly going back up! 

Alec Cruickshank – cardman9to5@yahoo.com

Photos courtesey of Nic Myers

Here are a couple of videos of the Fiesta Mayor de La Llacuna:

Theater: Dance of the Devils:

Water to wine bike tour (Penedès) – taste the difference!

panormaic view montserratI am quite pleased to say that I survived the 30 km excursion winding through the hills (sierra) of the Penedes wine region. We started out on a 3 km trek up the hill where, Wine Pleasures base is located.  Road winding this way and that, magnificent, panoramic views jump out from around the next bend as we ascend to the top.  Just as we get there, Nic’s bike gives out, and our breakdownexcursion stalls until Anthony can zoom down and retrieve another bike.  Seemingly moments later, up pulls the support vehicle and we pull the bikes out and Nic familiarizes himself with his new ride. 

We are off again, this time a pleasantly winding cruise down the other side of the hill leads us to our first scheduled stop, a natural spring (Els Canals).  The clear, fresh water pours from a rock just at the perfect spring waterheight for filling our water bottles.  Once refreshed and bottles no longer empty, down the little gravel road we shoot, skidding a bit here and there only adds to the excitement.

Our next stop after about a 20 min. ride is an ancient oak tree over 1000 years old.  Its massive trunk juts up to about 2m where several thick, gnarled limbs curl their way toward the sky.  Nic, all the while snapping photos, climbs the trunk to a perfect spot to sit and have your picture taken in this arborous wonder. 

Continuing along, not far from our oak stop, Anthony pulls his bike off the road and stops.  Seemingly there is something wrong, there doesn’t seem to be anything in sight.  He motions for us to follow, and nearly falling into our next sight I realize what we are stopped for!  A pot hole some 30m deep opens at our feet.  Only about half a meter wide and a meter and a half long, very little light is shed into the potentially massive cavern below.  There is just enough light to see some impressive stalagtite formations near the rim.  Without any climbing gear we are unable to explore any deeper than we can see; but all is well, It is rumoured that past inhabitants of the area used it for disposing of dead livestock, and who knows what else!

Before reaching the pinnacle of our bike tour, one more stop is made. abadoned houseThis time at a vacation house of Belgian Royalty used 200+ years ago.  Nearly intact, the structure is beautifully constructed from locally found stones.  A well house is also on the site. Nearly 3m across, I am impressed with the size and depth, and peering down the well there are still thousands of litres of water contained within.

abandoned monasteryAfter a short ride we reach the monastery ruins that we set out to see.  One partial exterior wall is all that remains.  All around though, we see the outlining foundation where the walls once stood.  Walking from room to room I can almost picture how the ancient inhabitants lived.  Several fairly small rooms (maybe 4m x 3m), probably living quarters shared by two or more monks at a time, connect to a larger, likely communal room.  Erected in 1155, these monks only lived here until until 1168 when lack of water forced them to move on to nearby Santa Creus. 

Water bottles empty, the same has forced us to do as well.  Only drops of the crystal clear spring water remain from our first stop.  Anthony tells us of another spring nearby, and we’re off.  Once again an exhilerating downhill leads us to this much needed refreshment.  Like the one previous, the water rushes from a hole, seemingly pierced into the face of a rock.  Strangely enough, the cool water has a distinctly different taste.  More like a difference in texture explainable only to the palate.  Drinking our fill, we top off our bottles and head into La Llacuna for lunch, fine wine, and La Fiesta Mayor…

                                         To be Continued…

Alec Cruickshank – cardman9to5@yahoo.com

Photos Nic Myers

Here’s a video we took during this fantastic wine country bike tour organised by Wine Pleasures:

Wine Pleasures visits Chozas Carrascal (Utiel-Requena)

Chozas Carrascal 1Everything about Chozas Carrascal exuded heat, literally and figuratively. It was 37o C in early June, but only the vines were standing up to the blazing sun. While we conversed in the cool of the shaded patio and main house, I felt the passion the family had for their vineyard and business, and their natural warmth towards guests.

Chozas Carrascal is a family effort which began about 17 years ago when the Lopez-Peidro family purchased forty hectares of land in San Antonio Requena. They dedicated eleven years to planting and cultivating before deeming the grapes good enough to offer under the Chozas Carrascal name. Their patience and care have begun to pay off – Las Tres, their blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and macabeo, was a finalist in a sommelier competition (La Nariz de Oro 2009); Las Dosces, their young red, and Las Cuatro, their young rose, have been listed as two of the best Spanish wines (Guia de Los 300 Mejores Vinos de Espana, 2008-9, Vino y Cata Magazine). Their attention to detail is evident on the grounds of the vineyard and winery, from the rose bushes planted at the end of each row of vines, to the sparkling cleanliness of each room used in the winemaking process.

Their main house, tasting room and cellar are also enhanced with several stylistic features and details – a beautiful chandelier lights the way to their cellar, bottle corks are playfully set into the restroom flooring, and a tour of the partially excavated old wine cellar beneath the house highlights the rich history behind the land. Their cabernet franc is an example of the family’s labor of love and attention to detail. Each bottle is signed by Julian Lopez or his wife, numbered by Julian’s father, and hand labeled by his children.

During my visit I met most of the members of the team, or family, and Chozas 2quickly saw how uniformly motivated they are by their love for Chozas Carrascal. Julian Lopez, owner and manager of the business, was clearly energized by the subject of the vineyard and his plans for the future of the business. Pieter Whaley, their export manager, translated Julian’s quick words and added his own serious sense of enthusiasm. Francesc Giron, or Xesco as he is affectionately called, is the winemaker and answered all our technical questions with good cheer. (The family was proud to tell us that Xesco is also the author of a winemaking manual, “Credenciales de Chozas Carrascal”.) And as Julian is the head of the business, Maria Jose Lopez Peidro, Julian’s daughter and marketing manager, may be its heart. She was our tireless hostess and guide, and passionate about the family’s efforts and her own individual studies to obtain an advanced degree in oenology.

During my visit I met an important guest of the winery’s, Bernadette Gerth of Qualyvines. A Dutch importer of niche and “unusual” wines, she was making her first trip to Chozas Carrascal with her team of interns and half-jokingly making large reservations for several of the wines. Aside from the importance of the quality of the wine, both the family and Bernadette emphasized the importance of the quality of their relationship. Julian is focused on developing longer term relationships with distributors that are also emotionally invested in the winery. Bernadette looks for quality, “different” wines with “style”, but also only partners with wineries that are interested in helping her promote their wines in the Netherlands.  The pair met two years ago at the Wine Pleasures Workshop Buyer meets Spanish Cellar now named Buyer meets Iberian Cellar for 2010 – a match made in wine heaven, you could say perhaps.

Chozas3We had the option of trying the wines with a light repast in the airy tasting room or charming outdoor courtyard. After touring the house, enjoying the wines and light conversation, and leisurely dipping our toes in the pool, we were on our way back to Valencia. We discovered that Maria, a young and native Valencian, is an authority on local information and city hot spots. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try her recommendations for sights and nightlife, but my friend and I enjoyed a great paella negro at one of her favorite paella restaurants.

Luckily, for those of us in the States, Chozas Carrascal’s wines are available in a few specialty shops and restaurants (i.e. Jean Georges in New York City)!

Visits are 5 euros per person, and includes a tour of the vineyard, the winery, the main house, wine tasting and light (Valencian) refreshments. You’ll want to allot at least two hours to view and enjoy the premises, wine and company. 

Anne Shih. Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures.

Here’s a video (in Spanish) on how to make a paella from Requena as opposed to one from Valencia. The latter claiming superiority in paella making. What’s your experience with paellas?

Parés Baltà open for “extreme wine tourism”

Second part of a Wine Pleasures winery visit programme I was lucky enough to witness. 

extremeOur visit to Parés Baltà was the complete antithesis to Rimarts. For starters, Parés Baltà is an older (established in 1790), much bigger winery with a staff of over fifty and five estates. Rather than wandering around the depths of the cellar, a visit to the grounds and vineyards was the order of the day. Piling into the sturdy and muddy landrover, we went around one of the five estates, seeing innumerable types of grapes as well as some breathtaking vistas. Some of the sites of the vines had been vineyards for thousand of years, since pre-roman times. 

As we travelled around the estate, our guide Sylvia let us into the silivia1secrets of grape growing. There are many factors that effect the grapes. The first, and most important, is climate. Sylvia explained that though it can sometimes rain heavily, often there are long periods of little rain. When this happens they don´t water the grapes and just let nature take its course. This seemed counterintuitive until Sylvia argued that by watering the grapes you are influencing the wine and so the wines no longer reflects the environment it is grown in. Pares Baltà want their wines to be completely natural, a philosophy that is assuredly organic. The second important factor is the soil type. Over the estates the soil quality varies hugely. I picked up many soil facts as we went, for example with clay, colour doesn´t matter to the grapes. The clay colour is the result of mineral make up and the key factor with clay is the lack of water. 

silviaMany of the grapes we saw were being grown for experimental reasons, to see how they´ll turn out and if they can improve their wines. Many of them are not yet on the wine list: as Sylvia puts it- grapes need to learn to make good wine. She claims to have caught the winemakers talking to grapes, giving them advice and encouragement. Some of their grapes are grown on land that is protected, meaning they have to work around the forest, using the land around the trees. During Eagle nesting time they can´t make any noise and have to wait to carry out any work on their grapes. Luckily the eagles weren´t nesting while we were there so up we went to investigate. The terrain by this time was getting rockier and rockier, the car lurching about as Sylvia attempted to get us to the peak. After a couple of tries we managed it, but it was a real taste of extreme wine tourism. Nestled at the top were the company bees, which were angered by our tour. Safe in the car, we learnt that the bee´s have an influence area of 10km. This means they can track their hives close to patches of rosemary and thyme and the bees will carry the aromas down to infuse the wine as they pollinate the grapes. The bees are not the only animal workers on the vineyards; sheep are also kept purely to eat the leaves after harvest and keep the plants healthy. 

As Sylvia chatted about her work and her home I really got a sense of wine as a way of life. Or, as Sylvia puts it “Everyone round here has wine in the veins.” Sylvia has worked at Parés Baltà for three years and has lived in the area all her life. Her childhood experiences are entwined with the area and the wines, with an open bottle of cava always on the table and the summer highlight of going through the grapes after the pickers had gone and bringing home brimming baskets of leftovers. 

AmyBy the end of the day I felt that I´d had a real back to nature experience and a reminder that the wine you see in a bottle has a natural beginning. And talking of wines you see in a bottle, we fit in the time to taste a few bottles before heading to the restaurant for a feast of a lunch. We tried Absis (2003) a 88% tempranillo, 12% cabernet sauvignon mix. There was a sense of caramel on the nose, smokey. The finish was subtle and complex. Oaky spicy yet chocolately, with a tanginess at the top of the lip. This wine is eighteen months in the barrel and solely hand harvested. The soil where the grapes are grown is poor and stony so the grapes are concentrated and have a low yield per acre.

We also tried the 2008 Calcari, made from a native and typical grape variety- Xarel-lo. With a grassy quality on the nose, it was creamy and tasty. Not as fruity as many of the wines I´d tried.

Amy Wilkerson. Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures

Here is a video taken during part of the extreme wine tour visit. Enjoy!

Wine tasting in Parés Baltà with Sylvia and Joan:

Cycling tours in Spain’s hallowed wine regions.

Wine Pleasures Wine Country Bike Tour in Spain

09.00 Arrive Wine Pleasures in the High Penedès (Alt Penedès)

Bike tour1We set off at 9:30 am to miss the hot midday sun. The sky was blue already so we knew we had a gorgeous day ahead of us. All kitted out with helmets, water bottles and bikes and after a few adjustments we were on our way. Familiarising ourselves with the gears on the winding road we headed off-road onto bumpy track where the suspension came in very useful. After our first hard hill climb we came across a beautiful house (Mas de Pontons)mas pontons2 surrounded by grape vines which was so glorious in the sunshine. The house had been a ruin and was converted back to its original glory which Anthony explained to us. We had a look at the grapes which were too small to eat so we set off again back onto the road heading for the village of Pontons.

The ride was a mixture of steady hills followed by long periods of free cycling along the beautiful winding countryside which was a great relief from the hot sun. Second stop was at church, just a few km from the village. This was beautiful as was a typical Spanish building and within the gardens were shaded areas which we rested in.

Once in the village we sought out a local bakery from which we bought some “Coca” which is a local bread that has a slight sweet sugary topping which was a welcomed sugar rush. We then visited the gorge that ran through the village, a magnificent drop beneath us so we held onto our sunglasses tight as we peered over the edge.

bike tour2Back on our bikes for a long steady climb out of the village we climbed higher and higher and the views became more and more spectacular. We were able to see the village below and everywhere we had seen along the way in the distance which was so great and motivated us to ride on further. With Anthony setting the pace, we each cycled in a line along the winding roads waving at the friendly locals who drove past and waved back.

News of the next stop, a local bar, meant we picked up our pace. NATURE_SOMBRAJust one more km hill to tackle and we would be rewarded by a 3km downhill cruise allowing us to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and just think about which way we were steering. On arrival we were rewarded with a crisp and fresh glass of Emendis Brut Nature and were able to laze and take in the journey we had completed. From the restaurant (Can Cuguls) we were able to see the entire route we had taken and in the near distance was the Wine Pleasures base so we knew we were nearly home.

On reflection we had a very enjoyable day with Wine Pleasures and felt so happy that we were able to experience the real Spanish countryside and local villages and the tour was so easy and enjoyable. We will certainly return and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend wine & bike as a holiday option.  

Alice, Georgina, Trish & Madelene.

Here’s our video at Mas de Pontons:

Rimarts. Desgorge “en directo” for wine tourists

Wine Pleasures – wine tasting tours.

RimartsToday we were joined by two Canadians to visit a couple of wineries, Rimarts and Pares Balta. Lois, a sommelier for Nyood Restaurant and Kultura Social, and her partner Joel were touring Spain and contacted Wine Pleasures to organise a one day winery visit programme to experience some superior Spanish cavas & wines. With that thought in Rimarts gran reservamind, we headed straight to Rimarts to meet Ernest Martinez and try some of his cavas. More of a wine maker than a seller, Ernest took us straight down to the cellar to inspect the cavas and explain some different aspects of cavamaking.

More than any of the other producers I have visited, Rimarts put a huge emphasis on handcrafting, watching carefully over every step to ensure the highest quality possible. This dedication was seen especially in the disgorging process, a 24 day endeavour that sees them turning each bottle incrementally, one eighth each day until the bottle is fully upright. Seeing as the winery is solely run by Ernest, his mother and his brother, this requires a lot of dedication from the trio. This commitment was also seen in the corking process, which involves 60,000 bottles being corked by hand. Ernest demonstrated the corking for us, which was a bit nervewracking, purely because to get the cork on he had to first get the original top off, something that he had to do incredibly quickly and then jam his finger on to stop the cava all fizzing out. Corking wasn´t something I had ever considered but it was quite elaborate and time consuming process. After the excitement of corking, we tried four wines varying in price between €8 and €23. Starting with €8 Brut Cava, my taste buds were clearly unrefined as I preferred this one to all others.

Amy Wilkerson, wine travel writer for Wine Pleasures.

Watch the video and see how the degorge is done in “seco” ie without freezing the neck of the bottle. Only Cava producer to do the degorge in this way for his range of cavas.

Wine tasting tours in Catalonia’s Cava region, Spain

Before today, I had not realised that some 95% of all cavas are produced in the Penedès region. Armed with that knowledge, it was with mounting excitement that I looked forward to my visit to one of the renowned cava producers of the region, Pages Entrena. Joan Pages Entrena met us as we exited the car and took us along with him whilst he shared with us the benefit of his experience as a winemaker. 

pages entrena 4On first sight, Pages Entrena is an impressive mixture of the rustic and the sophisticated. The premises are an old 18th Century paper mill, now filled with state of the art wine making equipment. With Ivy creeping up the walls and dogs milling in the yard, it comes as a shock to enter the wrought iron doors and be greeted with a plush, high-tech and professional environment to learn about wines. It is a small operation, with a staff of only four, but nevertheless produces a large amount of wine. A huge emphasis is put on quality, to the extent that although they grow their own grapes, they bring in other grapes if they believe their own not to reach the standards they have set. Owing to year on year differences in climatic and other factors involved with grapes, each year the highest quality is selected for their wines. 

pages entrena1We move straight past the stainless steel fermentation tanks, familiar to me from previous winery visits, and downwards to the cellar. Cava wine has a second fermentation once the wine is in the bottle, which takes place in the cool environment of the cellar. The wine is left to ferment in the bottles with sugar and yeast for months in the dark, whilst the winemakers wait patiently. Juan took me downwards, explaining the process of fermentation and holding the bottles to the light to elucidate his statements. All the while, my attention was partly on my surroundings, the atmospheric and gloomy rooms with dim lighting, stacked with thousand and thousand of cavas. The temperature is always kept between 18 and 21 degrees, a cool and refreshing change from the constant summer heat of Spain. The cellars smelt incredibly welcoming, aged and balmy; exactly what I would expect from a well stocked wine cellar. Some of the Cavas in there, for example the Gran Reserva, will have to wait at least 40 months until they see the light of day again. 

Emerging from the cellar, we took a tour of the grounds, seeing the tasting rooms, the  lab where they test quality of wines and an old, separate building, where Joan voiced long term plans for conversion into a hotel, as a retreat for visitors to Barcelona. horseWith the property surrounded by vineyards and attached to a stable with 12 thoroughbred horses, it was easy to see it as a haven against the vibrant bustle of Barcelona. I went up to have a quick peek at the horses and stroke their noses, and was slightly overawed by their obvious quality.

pages entrena2Finally, it was time to try one of the cavas, I´d heard so much about. We tried the Cava Pages Entrena Rose, made of 60% garnacha and 40% monestrell grapes. To earn the title of Cava, it must be aged for at least nine months. However, all the cavas they produce are aged for an absolute minimum of twelve months. Unlike the wines you buy at a supermarket, the bottles are dated from when they have completed second fermentation, ensuring that you always know precisely how old the Cava you are drinking is. The nose was aromatic and intensive and upon drinking it I found it fresh, cool and fruity. The taste was pages entrean3definitely that of a summer wine, for drinking on balmy evenings outside. I was favourably impressed by the overall experience of the Rose. 12,000 have been produced.

Amy Wilkerson Wine Travel writer for Wine Pleasures

Vijazz, Vilafranca del Penedès wine & jazz festival

logo vijazzThe Vilafranca jazz festival, Vijazz, is in its third year and has gone from strength to strength. This year the organisers are expecting 45,000 people to descend on Vilafranca to take advantage of this free festival to see performers that would normally be charging €50 a ticket. 

We arrived in the square in Vilafranca and were immediately greeted by the enthusiastic jazz fusion of Spyro Gyra spyro gyrawarming up for their evening gig. Amid the bustling hive of activity as they prepared for the events of the night, we were lucky to bump into Francesc Palau who was free for an interview. It was from him that I learnt of the attempts of the Penedes region to establish itself as an important wine tourism destination. The jazz is used as an enticement to bring visitors and the wine is the reason they stay; hopefully once the visitors leave, they´ll take with them a new appreciation of the wines of the Penedès

As well as being an opportunity to taste a huge range of cavas and wines, the festival was a social atmosphere that allowed me to get to know the personalities of the winemakers and personal stories behind some of the wines. Earlier in the day I had inquired after the meaning of the name of one of the Parés Baltà wines to be told ´Mas Elena´ translates from the Catalan into ´House of Elena´ in honour of one of their winemakers. The personal story helped to link the winery to the people that work there and establish it as a family business, despite its larger size. This impression of Parés Baltà was furthered when I had the chance to really talk to some of their staff at the festival. For example, Marc, who was talking me through some of the wines they had on offer, had just completed a masters degree in wine management. On top of this, Marc had spent 22 weeks travelling through the primary wine making regions of the World (both old and new), spending time in, among other places, Italy, France, South Africa and Australia. The enthusiasm he had for wine was evidently not just a job, but a passion. Even if I did not like the wines, I would have been won over by the passion shown by those who make them. 

Gente vijazzMoving onto the Emendis stall, I tried the Nox wine, named for the latin word for night. As might be expected by this rather gothic name, the grapes (90% merlot, 10% pinot noir) are picked only once the sky is dark, the theory behind this being that the lower temperature allows the flavour of the grapes to come out. The smell of the Nox would seem to bear this out, with a strong and distinctive aroma of sour fruits; of strawberries and raspberries. On the tongue it had a strong body with a bitter aftertaste. Overall it was a complex and enjoyable wine. But with so many stalls still to visit, I had to move on. At the Loxarel stall I tried the Petit Arnau with a cherry aroma on the nose, and a bold, dry taste. Whilst chatting to the owner Joseph, I got to meet Petit Arnau himself, Josep´s young son – I snapped a shot of Arnau with his wine, but he seemed bemused more than anything by all the attention!

Navigating my way past the jazz brass band promenading the streets, I Street jazz bandarrived at the Oriol Rossell stall to try their Brut Cava, which came across as a well rounded cava, bubbly and alive with a taste of almond and honey. However, by this time, my impressions of the wines began to blend in much the same way as the grapes and I could no longer trust my tongue to differentiate between the wines. It was time to leave.

Amy Wilkerson Wine Travel Writer for Wine Pleasures

Video interview with Francesc Palau with Spyro Gyra rehearsing in the background: