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While Cava can be made in many of the DOs throughout Spain, almost 90 percent is made in the Penedés DO. With good money available to vineyard owners who want to sell early–picked grapes to Cava producers, there is little reason to grow grapes for high–quality table wine. There are excellent red and white wines made here, but sparkling wine is the 800–pound gorilla among the vines. The Torres family can afford to do otherwise, but there aren’t many others.

The Torres name represents one of the world’s great wine producers. In the 1940s, Miguel Torres, Sr. was promoting and selling his wines in the United States, China, Australia, and South America. By the 1960s, he was building an all–stainless–steel winery at his family’s facility in Penedés. Miguel Sr. and his son, who joined the winery in 1962, removed all of the then–common, often dirty cement tanks and replaced them with the latest stainless steel models, capable of ensuring sterility and the retention of fresh fruit flavors. In the early 1960s, this was no small accomplishment. At that time in America, Robert Mondavi had yet to visit France and to return, fired with his ideas of a focus upon specific varieties and on French oak barrels and coopers. Stainless steel, the mid–twentieth–century invention that has allowed fresh white wines to be made around the world, was still very new in California. Torres’ adoption of steel was the first of many brilliant moves; the Torres operation continues to evolve today, adding to the DO’s reputation as a place of innovation.

And if Cava is king in Penedés, there are a number of producers who have helped to crown it. Josep Raventós, Codorníu’s founder, deserves his reputation as the first innovator creating a wine fashioned like Champagne in 1872. The elevation and, particularly, the limestone soils make the decision seem obvious in hindsight.

The Penedés region is routinely broken into the Alt–Penedés, the Medio (or Mitja) Penedés, and the Baix–Penedés, reflecting the disparities in elevation within the DO, with some vineyards planted in sites higher than 2,800 feet. All of the grapes (the dominant three—Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada) at those altitudes can be intensely tart, more akin to the structure of chilly Champagne than the fat–styled sparkling wines California tends to produce.

For most American consumers, the image of Cava is limited to the wildly successful grocery–store brands. While those might be excellent values, there are complex and layered versions of Cava, as well as rich Rosado styles (using Monastrell, Trepat, or occasionally Pinot Noir). Though few of them will be large–scale sparkling wines, there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, the best are using more Xarel-lo (to give greater complexity) and leaving the wines on the lees for long spells, rivaling Champagne’s aging regimens. By law, however, nine months on the lees is enough to meet Cava’s regulations. Reservas must stay 18 months on the lees, and Gran Reservas require 30 months.

With so much worldwide success, Cava may always rule the roost in Penedés, but other creatures have finer plumage. The Torres Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon (dubbed Mas La Plana) helped put Spain on the map in the 1950s and 1960s, and despite a crowd of worthy rivals, the wine continues to wow the international set today.

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