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Oeno-gastronomical symposium in the region of Penedès

On 4th October we flew with a group of 15 from Prague to Barcelona to spend five wonderful days binging on Catalan gastronomy. We chose the hotel Ricard as our base opposite the marina in Vilanova i la Geltrú on the Costa Daurada rather than the previously visited condominium at Canyelles called Muntanya i Mar where the "sea view" was in fact a dual carriageway intersection...

Penedès is a wine region consisting of 26,000 ha mainly dedicated to the cultivation of white grapes. 19,000 ha are taken up by Parellada, Xarel-lo and Macabeo, used in the production of Cava, the world's largest-selling sparkling wine, the remaining 7,000 ha are planted with grapes used for still white and red wines.

Visiting wineries in Catalunya

Miguel Torres
Miguel Torres, wine personality of the year in 2006 (Decanter magazine), is one of the leading members of the family winery of the same name in the Penedès region, which is among the most renowned wine producers not only in Catalunya but in the whole of Spain.   

Since our last visit in 1998 little has stood still in the house of Torres near Vilafranca del Penedès in Spain's autonomous Catalunya region.  Investment is visible in the number of stainless steel tanks in the Mas la Plana complex, where Miguel Torres has his home.  Here over 100,000 visitors a year from all corners of the earth, as well as a further 5,000 wine professionals and VIPs, come through the gates in busloads each year.   Included is a free guided tour and tasting as well as a train ride through the new winery and a sensory wall that gives people a sights and sounds of the vineyard through the seasons experience.  At the time of our preliminary visit last year was the eve of the Spanish Formula 1 Grand Prix, and next to us in the cinema and tasting room and restaurant was a Finnish delegation, following the fortunes of Matti Räikkönen with the driver's father Kim (the fathers of Michael Schumacher and Mikki Hakkinen both visited Bodegas Torres on the eve of the Spanish Grand Prix and their sons both won their races...!)

Our visit began in the nursery and research centre, in which all grafting and the research into older Catalan varieties takes place.  Unlike most wineries all young vines are prepared in situ, 2 million plants are grafted in the nursery by up to 40 workers who perform up to 40,000 grafts per day when at full stretch.  3 million Euros a year is spent on r & d, and a small area is set aside for cultivating and analysis of indigenous vines, some sent in by people who have vines planted by forbears in their back yards or vineyards.  A total of 26 varieties are genetically analysed for DNA. One such is Garró, six or so plants of which are being cultivated under plastic sheeting with 100% humidity, allowed to grow as much as possible at the moment solely for their wood and their greenery.  In time a cutting will be taken from each bud, each of which gives a new plant.  One plant gives up to 40,000 buds a year.

Microbiological and chemical analysis is undertaken in the laboratory complex on every product before it leaves the winery, cork quality is routinely monitored for TCA and other faults, the water quality for the winery is also scrutinised, at harvest time the must-weight levels, alcohol, yeast levels and volatile acidity occurrence are carefully monitored, so as to stop the line should any faults be found, working in 3 shifts round the clock at this time.  Laborious and painstaking classic research into yeast improvement is undergone longterm.  In total one year yields around 140,000 analyses, 500 samples a day are also checked.  The Gerstel Olfactory Detection Port is a device wherein a trained nose notes down the scents and smells coming through, say banana, coffee, leather, recording the exact second the notation was made.  During a thirty minute period of intense concentration a trained sniffer may register a whole page of smells from a single source.  

Attention is paid to ecological aspects, all solid residual matter and all water is recycled, an artificial lake at Mas la Plana, contains fish, frogs, newts and other creatures. The company currently has 830 employees in Spain, 100 in Chile and 40 in California. 95% of all profits are ploughed back into the firm.

Later we visited the 6km-long underground cellar, the museum of wine related artefacts, founded by Doña Marguerita, mother of Miguel Torres, and were shown the new production halls with a glass wall to asllow visitors to see inside, which are due to open in 2008 as well as tasting the entire range of Torres wines, not only from Catalunya, but also from  Ribera del Duero, California and Chile.  The visit was capped by a gastronomic delight of Catalan specialities prepared by chef Sergi Millet (formerly of El Bulli) in the winery's own stylish Mas Rabell restaurant, each dish accompanied by a chosen wine, finishing with 20-year-old Torres brandy, orange liqueur and their own olive oil from the Arbequinas variety (during the course of the second visit with the group we were repeatedly offered 30-year-old Don Jaime I brandy - their purchases were taking a very long time and good sport Luís, the export manager, kept on bringing more bottles...  you can see the effect on the photo of one happy participant!).

Freixenet a Segura Viudas
The Freixenet group based in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia is a colossal family business, which can count on owning 15 wineries in 8 countries of 3 continents.  This company produces more than 200 million bottles of sparkling and still wine, which puts it in first place among the world's producers of sparkling wine.  Freixenet also owns brands such as Champagne Henri Abelé as well as having holdings in California, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Australia and Marocco.  Freixenet (in translation "ash tree") was founded in 1861 by Francesco Sala i Ferrés as "Casa Sala".  A visit to the headquarters of Freixenet can be compared to a visit to the most famous cellars in Champagne.  For this reason perhaps the entrance is carefully guarded by none other than the esteemed Benedictine monk - Dom Pérignon!

Jean León
The icing on the cake was our trip to the so-called "state-of-the-art" winery, Jean León in El Pla del Penedès, founded in 1963 by Jean León, whose real name was Ceferino Carrión, who at the age of 19 left Spain, to seek his fortune in Paris, New York and finally in Hollywood where, along with the young actor James Dean, he founded the restaurant La Scala in Beverley Hills. At the beginning of the 60s Jean León visited the Penedès region along with his consultant (at the time the Catalan tongue was banned by General Franco), in order to find the best sites to plant vines - Pagos Jean León.  On 150 hectares of land the planted varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay (sazenice were obtained from the very best winemakers in the very best sites:  Lafite-Rothchild, La Lagune a Corton Charlemagne), in order that wines from these international grape varieties could be offered in his restaurant alongside the best sounding Bordeaux châteaux.  This pioneering instinct aroused the interest of the young Miguel Torres, freshly new graduate from the enological faculty of Montpellier.  Their subsequent friendship lasted up to the death of Jean León, who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, decided to spend the final two years of his life on his yacht, selling his winery to the family firm of Miguel Torres - both having been the first pioneers to plant internastional varieties in Penedes.  The Restaurant La Scala is now run by Jean León's daughter, who still offers Catalan wines of this prestige name.

Torre del Veguer
The commune of Sant-Pere de Ribes, in which the chateau of this name can be found, lies a 10-minute taxi ride from the railway station in Vilanova. Here Marcel Pérez Pago the director was awaiting our visit. Alongside him was his busines partner Mathias Poniatowski (whose uncle, Prince Poniatowski, is the owner of the famous winery in Vouvray in the Loire valley).

Our group dedicated the final day of the trip to Barcelona, where we used the tourist buses to see the whole city - from the Olympic stadium, through the port, the beach in Barcelonette, the gothic quarter, the famous Ramblas, the Gaudí buildings and to sample the famous tapas of the bars of this pulsating metropolis.

Clos Barenys - Tarragona

John and I extended our stay in Catalunya in order to visit Tarragona, the Clos Barenys winery which is also included in the Mathias Poniatowski Selection portfolio.  Finally we headed to Falset in the middle of the fashionable Priorat region by train, where we were guests of the Morlanda estate belonging to the Freixenet group, before flying back home from Reus via London with Ryanair.

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