Tuesday, May 11, 2010

JOE GO TO SPAIN: Part 2 - in Cava country at Raventos i Blanc

In Spain's most developed and wealthy region, Catalunya, Sant Sadurni d'Anoia has got to be one of its most prosperous towns. A short 30 minute drive from Barcelona, the region of Alt Penedes and the village of Sant Sadurni are the home base of Cava production. It is also a popular destination for Spaniards and foreigners alike for a taste of wine tourism close to the big city; what Napa Valley is to San Francisco, Penedes is to Barcelona.

Cava is big business. Ever see a black frosted glass bottle of Freixenet at any celebratory reception you have attended? A gold label bottle of Cristalino in your local corner store? A selection of cava by the glass at any number of restaurants you have visited? In other words, much like lemonade, cava was a popular drink and it still is (thank you, Guru). There is no shortage of inexpensive juice being fermented and re-fermented in bottle, to be packaged, marketed and sold by any number of larger companies and co-operatives. Competition is fierce, particularly in the ever popular $10 and under segment. Some wineries prefer to not enter into that game, opting instead to make a better quality range of wines which they can sell more based on the quality of the wine and unique story of the winery.

Raventos i Blanc posseses a unique story as well as quality wine, produced from their own organically grown grapes. I will not go into an extended history of the Raventos family, which is tied into that of the Codorniu family, producers of one of the world's mega brands in cava. If you want such a history, I would go to Catavino for the full account. The short version is that, in 1986 Josep Maria Raventos i Blanc and his son Manuel, after owning the original Codornium vineyard holdings and selling off the fruit, created a winery specializing in estate grown and bottled cavas. In fact, the Raventos winery directly faces that of Codorniu across the street.

Josep Maria Raventos i Blanc, the son of current president Manuel Raventos, and grandson of the winery's founder, also Josep Maria, is relaxed and welcoming. Gesturing towards the handsome offices and interior of the visitor center, he says "My father was in to all of this - it is beautiful and I understand why he wanted this, but what I would like to do now is invest even more in the vineyards." We hop in his older Land Rover and tour the property, and it does become apparent that Josep is truly interested in viticulture, continuing to work to understand the unique quality of his family's vineyard holdings and the indigenous vines which compose the cava blend: macabeo (viura elsewhere in Spain), parellada and xarel-lo. He is humble, pointing to what he calls his first mistake: a young pinot noir vineyard. He says that its growth cycle is too rapid for proper maturation in this Mediterranean climate. Much more interesting in his mind are the older vines of xarel-lo - a grape you will see planted all over Penedes - and parellada, characterized by the reddish tone in its leaves. Pointing to an older xarel-lo vine which had toppled over, he quickly props it up against a stake and kicks some dirt over it to balance it. Then he calls over his vineyard manager, currently driving around a small tour group from Florida and Puerto Rico, to discuss his concerns about the site. The vines which Josep, his family and crew cultivates are either trained en espaldera (trelissed) or lie simply en vaso, without any training whatsoever. Generally the latter is for older vines and the former for younger vines, though there are some older vines with an espaldera salvaje, a more home-made, rustic looking approach to training a vine.

A few features of the vineyards. They cover about 90 hectares. They are typically calcareous clay, more clay on the lower lying ones and more calcareous on the more highly elevated ones, with a large amount of stones from pebble to mini-boulder size. There are some sites which are more sandy, and some which are loamy. A planted cover crop is employed between rows, consisting largely of barley, which will typically dry up and be plowed away by mid May or so. No herbicides or pesticides are ever used, the only treatments being sulphur as necessary to prevent oidium and mildew. Josep's grandfather commissioned a lake to be built in the midst of the vineyards and forest area, to add to the biodiversity of the property.

Josep drops me off back at the winery, compliments me on my backpack ("que chulo, tio"), lets his childhood friend and US export manager Francesc know that he wants a bag like that next time he visits San Francisco, and is off. Francesc and I lunch on some tortilla, iberico, and habas catalanes, paired with the 2002 Raventos i Blanc Manuel Raventos. It's really good, still primary and youthful. He points out the late 19th century furniture and shares some cool historical documents, we take a few goofy photo's and then are off for a quick tour of the well designed, modern gravity flow winery.

We then headed back to the tasting room to taste some wines, focusing on still wines with which I have only a passing familiarity:

2005 Raventos i Blanc Gran Reserva de la Finca Cava

Still a light-medium straw yellow color. Toast, apple and citrus aromas lead to a very bright, focused palate. Good toast, depth of flavor and buoyant acidity. Really tasty and well balanced. This wine sees four years of aging on the lees and is composed of 40% xarel-lo, 25% parellada, 10% chardonnay and 5% pinot noir.

2009 Silencis Penedes

100% xarel-lo. Fresh apples and pears, some yellow skinned fruit and melon on the nose. Similar flavors on the palate, with decent concentration and a soft texture explained by some battonage to stir up the lees (do not recall for how long).

2009 Perfum di Vi Blanc Penedes

50% Muscat, 50% macabeo. Floral, jasmine inflected nose. Some white peach and lychee as well. Same on the palate, which has around 9g residual sugar but finishes cleanly. This would be good on a warm sunny day or with a Chinese stir fry.

2009 La Rosa de Raventos i Blanc Penedes

50% merlot, 50% pinot noir. Though it does include a healthy dollop of Josep's mistakenly planted pinot noir, this is not bad as far as inexpensive rosés are concerned. It's a pale, medium pink color and has some fresh strawberry fruit on the palate. Much more finesse and drinkability than many other Penedes rosés, which can be a tad bit coarse and heavy given their reliance on cab and merlot.

Thank you very much to Josep and Francesc for sharing your time and putting this together on relatively short notice - much appreciated. Francesc, hope that the vulcan cooperates and you get back to Barcelona soon. And Josep, next time you visit San Francisco I will point you in the direction of a good bike shop to find that Ortlieb mochila.

Next up: Why cava sucks and what people need to do to change it, according to Rafael Sala at Vega de Ribes