Parés Baltà open for “extreme wine tourism”

16 07 2009

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.

14 07 2009

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. Degorge “en directo” for wine tourists

11 07 2009

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

8 07 2009

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

6 07 2009

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:

Wine Bike Tour & Wine Pleasures in the High Penedès

28 06 2009

foto16A cycling tour of the Catalonian countryside interspersed with a visit to local sights and a regional winemaker; sounds ideal doesn´t it? Cycling up undulating roads through the pine trees of the high penedes overlooking the Montserrat mountains, sipping wines and seeing local sites of interest seems like the perfect way to spend the day.

Our group of five set out at half past nine for the start of the day. Combining a passion for wine and cycling, the plan was to cycle to a nearby winery, stopping along the way to take in the feel of the place. I was lucky enough to be in with a group with a real knowledge of wines; two locals who were researching local winemakers and a former wine exporter. All were keen to experience products direct from the source with descriptions from the people who make them.

But there were many stops to enjoy first along the way to the winery. Our first stop was La Llacuna, a traditional village with small windy streets leading to a picturesque courtyard. A crowded restaurant overlooks the plaza, spanish chatter filling the square. The village square, dappled with bright light and with olive tree dotted about, is where the summer fiesta takes place, when the fountains water is changed to cava. Sadly that was not the case on that day, so on we cycled. Biking through the village and beyond, past old buildings and tiny churches, it´s hard to believe that busy Barcelona is only thirty-one miles away.

Wine & bike webA dusty track lies to the right of us, we turn and suddenly from the tall trees we have moved into fields of wheat and poppies growing wild, the smell of hay wafting from the grass. The sound of crickets and birds are in the air and the weather is phenomenal. I can´t work out why everyone else isn´t out here too, experiencing this for themselves. The track gets smaller and smaller until we reach an opening, which winds us down to sheltered and secluded spot to rest in during the warmth of the day. In between the trees there lies a pond created by a spring of fresh mineral water, with a young family playing nearby. Here we stop and take the opportunity to refill our water bottles directly from the mouth of the spring. The water tastes unbelievably cool and fresh, invigorating us on this hot summers day.

After we manage to tear ourselves away from the spring, we head towards the winery. We spot vineyards hidden through the hills, sudden pockets of order in the wild countryside. Lavender bushes lined the roads up to the winery, creating not just an exqusite smell, but attracting clouds of butterflies overhead. The actual wine visit I won´t describe here, as it has been depicted in past blogs. Suffice to say, the location was stunning, the host genial and the wines delicious. After some Montenegro, Riesling and Merlot it was back on the bikes for the final leg.

rentadorsThere was a final stop on our way home, the old communal washing site of Sant Joan de Mediona where women would gather to chat and socialise during their chores. Women could work together by the river and collect water from the village fountain next door. At this point the sense of past and present intermigled, and it was easy to believe that women even now oculd come here to wash their clothes. After taking plenty of photos we journeyed on, where we knew food and drink would be waiting. 43

Finally, our cycling finished, all that was left to do was enjoy the nibbles, sip the cava and reflect on the wonderful views and experiences of the day.

Amy Wilkerson, Wine travel writer for Wine Pleasures.

FINCA MAS RODÓ Wine Pleasures´summer visit to a young winery with a lot of potential

5 06 2009
Mas Rodo1
I enjoyed the pleasant contrasts of Mas Rodo, a family-owned and managed winery and vineyard set in the High Penedes, from the unnamed entrance to their deceptively simple-looking bottles of wine. The unidentified gate that turns into a long driveway may confuse some strangers, but once we arrived inside the property, the family was nothing but welcoming and forthcoming. The winery itself has several pretty, old stone buildings, but the heart of it clearly is their Wine Cellar, an arresting stone structure encased in a bright, modernistic, wooden shell. (Notably, this was designed by Carles Sala and was a finalist in Spain´s ¨Living with Wood¨architectural competition.) Together these old and new buildings overlook what is one of the largest estates in the region, but surprisingly the winery maintains relatively low production. And although the winery currently sells only merlot, riesling and montonega, each wine was memorable, and there is the promise of many more varieties to come.Mas Rodo2
The estate has been growing vines for decades, but Mas Rodo was formed just five years ago. In 2004, the approximatey 150-hectare estate was purchased by the Sala family. During the tour, Oriol Sala emphasized the intensive thinning and pruning of vines, hand-harvesting of grapes, a rigorous second sorting of the harvest, and the resulting low production of wine. These techniques are meant to ensure a quality that sophisticated wine connoisseurs could appreciate, but Mas Rodo´s more ambitious goal is to make high quality wine that novices or connoisseurs can understand and enjoy. They hope to achieve this range with their quality standards and marketing and educational efforts. The Mas Rodo bottle labeling was designed to attract and edify consumers. The front label is simple and elegant, providing only the company name, year, wine, and a brief but vivid description of the wine.The back label provides specific details on the grape, the soil and land it was harvested from, its fermentation process, and even production figures for the vintage
Mas Rodo5The winery anticipates being fully open this summer for tours and free tastings. I am already looking forward to bicycling through the undulating green hills of Mediona one autumn day, and revisiting Mas Rodo. Perhaps their muscat will be ready then, or I can enjoy sipping in their Wine Cellar the lovely montonega, drinking in as well the spectacular views of their vineyard awash in orange and red-golds set against a backdrop of the lush Penedes mountains.
Anne Shih.
Here’s the video made during the wine tasting: