After our very late night I was keen for a lie-in but alas, wine was calling and it was just not meant to be. On our second day of the trip we had decided to visit the town of Vllafranca del Penedes, a town famous for its wine production, specifically cava, and only an hour from Barcelona on the train. The thought of all of the cava potential made the early wake-up at 8a.m slightly more bearable and we stopped en-route to the metro to pick up pizza slices from Santagloria, a lovely local bakery. After the short 10 minute journey to Placa de Catalunya (we really should have stayed nearer the centre of town) we did a bit of navigation (as I mentioned in the previous blog, Barcelona is a city distinctly lacking in signs) and managed to find a ticket machine for the trains. It was €10 each for a return ticket which Ruairidh covered on card but after taking the payment our tickets were not dispensed! Of course there was no-one around to ask for help and so Maeve and Ruairidh went off to find an employee while I went for the all-important coffee and green tea. Luckily they found someone who gave us some tickets and sorted out Ruairidh being charged twice before we made our way to the platform. The train we were supposed to be getting didn’t seem to exist but there was another one that said it was going to Vilafranca del Penedes and so we jumped on that hoping for the best. After sitting at a standstill in our third tunnel we all mused that perhaps getting the earlier train would have been more sensible while munching on our incredibly tasty pizza.
We arrived slightly later than expected but, hey, we were in Spain after all and took a taxi from the front entrance of the station out to Pares Balta – the winery we would be visiting. We had high hopes given that the owner of the restaurant we had used for a night cap the night before had praised the winery saying it was quite small and family run rather than your mass producing beasts and as we pulled up to the bright white farmhouse type building it seemed our positive recommendation was holding true. Our guide for the day – Silvia, came to meet us as we entered and explained that we would be the only people on the tour that day. When making the booking they had requested our wine knowledge and so had tailored the tour specifically to our needs – this was a lovely touch and definitely helped towards our glowing reviews of the place. She started out by taking us out into the vineyard. Given that it was November the vines had already been harvested but she explained how they do this completely by hand each year – the vineyard is organic and biodynamic and so no fertilisers are used. However, they do help the grapes to become the best they can be by using goats to eat all of the weeds and having bees for pollination. They also gather the dung of the goats and store it underground in old cow horns before sprinkling this onto the vineyards. It might sound a bit kooky and there were sentences used such as when the stars align and so on but generally I got the impression that the family owned vineyard really care about the production of the grapes and getting the best possible base in order to make the best wines.
After our time on the vineyard we had a quick peek into the bottling room where they keep the large silver fermentation tanks before heading over to the barrel room. The family originated with just a few wine but after the 2 sons married 2 females who both had a science background they both went to school and learned the art of winemaking bringing a modern and feminine touch to the wines as well as keeping the classics. She explained that they use a variety of barrels from French oak at the most expensive to oak from Romania! Each of the barrels lasts for around 7 years although they can be re-used if you scrape and clean after this period. She also explained that they are experimenting with storing the wine in clay pots as the Roman’s did to see the difference in taste. The whole of the winery seems very progressive and are constantly looking for new ways to improve the way they do things to produce better wine. Our final part of the tour was down in the cava cellar which felt a little like stepping back in time. The cobwebbed ceiling was damp with residue but as far as the eye could see were bottles of cava. Cava, unlike normal wine, is made using the same technique as champagne, but because it is not grown in that specific region of France is known as cava instead. This type of wine is essentially bottled and then fermented meaning a build-up of residue in the bottle. The gas comes from the chemical fermentation process which normally escapes during the production of wine but instead is kept inside the bottle. So the producers have to gently tip the bottle to allow the sediment to slip to the bottom while keeping the gas at the top (gas rises). They then quickly remove any sediment and re-bottle which reduces the pressure on the bottle to a safer level and suitable to be transported and kept in homes and restaurants as well as makes the cava pleasant to drink. This is why most sparkling wine bottles have a high indentation on the bottom, to help the bottle withstand the pressure of the gas just waiting to explode.
We finished our tour with a tasting session in the specially adapted tasting room. Our guide was fantastic and asked us for our likes and dislikes which basically consisted of us sounding like massive wineoes and saying we liked everything. We started with one of the bottom level cava’s – the Selectio which at only €5.95 was an absolute steal. It was lovely and light and Silvia explained that to the people of the area cava is a wine for drinking with anything at any time and not simply set aside for a special occasion as we might do here. Our next 2 wines were whites; the Honeymoon and the Calcari (one sweet and one drier) and she also brought us some local ham, cheese and bread sticks to try with each of the wines which helped to develop the taste. We then moved on to 2 reds; the Mas Elena and the Indigena Negre (a lighter and a more full bodied) which matched perfectly with the wine and cheese. Our final tasting was the winery olive oil which we had with fresh bread before helping ourselves to more of the wines we liked. Given the rock bottom price points I couldn’t help buying 3 bottles and the lovely olive oil for the third part of the vino trio to try back home – luckily I had had enough forethought to purchase a checked bag for the return flight knowing we were going to a winery and the fact I have no self-control. Silva was lovely enough to recommend a place in town for us to eat – El Cigro D’or and even called the taxi for us and told him where to drop us.
The restaurant was right in the centre of town and we managed to get a bit lost by turning left rather than right, meaning we wandered through a cacophony of local market stalls each selling different local produce – it felt a bit like stepping back in time! When we finally found the place, it was a gorgeous wooden beamed loft area with tables set with silver and nice wine glasses – a lot posher than our usual forays in Spain but as it had come so well recommended we swallowed the high end price tags and pushed the boat out by ordering the higher end cava which was very tasty and quite champagne like in comparison to the lighter lower end bottle we had had at the tasting. I opted for the salted cod which came with potato crisps and local mushrooms with a mushroom foam but prior to this we had an amuse bouche of a sort of cheesy humus thing which was also delectable. After our stellar meal we decided given our proximity to the wine museum (and the fact our guide had informed us it was one of the best places to drink by the glass in town). We wandered past the beautiful Basilica de Santa Maria and arrived at the museum to find a camera crew were filming a food and wine tv show which we unfortunately did not manage to become an extra on. It was €7 and in hindsight I think I would skip the museum and head straight to the bar. It is set out over 3 floors and talks about the history of wine making and how the process has been refined over the centuries. This would be interesting if you hadn’t spent the day drinking copious amounts of wine and eating a lovely meal. It was a pretty interactive museum generally and I think a good option for a morning rather than the late afternoon (it shuts for 2 hours between 2 and 4). It has some lovely views down into the square with the Basilica in the fading light and as I sat in the window to admire them I somehow managed to nod off only to be roused awake by the passing of some other rather noisy visitors. It was at this point that I decided to skip the rest of the museum and head to the bar where Maeve and Ruairidh were (I was obviously in the land of nod for quite some time). We enjoyed a nice local glass of Xino-Xano Xarel-lo – Muscat which was pretty lovely and included in the ticket price.
As time bore on we decided it was time to leave the beautiful countryside of Catalonia behind and head came into the city. The train station was a 5 minute walk and luckily we didn’t have to wait long. We all enjoyed a nice nap on the train back until being again roused awake by a large group of exceedingly loud men who made the remainder of our journey much less peaceful than the initial part. We were thinking of heading back to the apartment to drop off the wine bottles but Ruairidh, the dashing gentleman that he is, kindly agreed to carry them in his backpack and so we opted for some gin and olives at Trobador instead to fill the time before we had to meet Kathleen, one of Maeve’s colleagues who is based in Barcelona. It was lovely to sit and relax for a bit and given our excellent location at Placa de Catalunya it was easy to get to our meeting point Xampañería Can Paixano although like everything in this city it took us significantly longer than we had thought it would. We arrived to a bustling cava bar but after pushing through the crowds of people Kathleen was nowhere to be seen. We headed back outside and managed to get some data to find out she had moved on to Zero KM a cool hipster hang-out just around the corner. It was great to have some true local recommendations as this was a place we probably wouldn’t have tried on our own – the sign was made out of grass. It focusses on local produce and after ordering some wine and food we settled down to some proper Barcelona chat. In no-time at all our starters of patatas bravas had arrived (like fancy wedges) with a scallop and avocado ceviche served with crisp breads. This was absolutely delicious and for a minute I felt like I was back on Utila eating ceviche with the sun setting in the background. For main we shared some pizzetas (again never something I would have ordered in Spain but absolutely delicious!). We went for a pulled pork one and a mushroom with garlic and cheese washed down by a bottle of lovely house wine. Kathleen might have grown up in Scotland but she was a true Spaniard at heart and took us to a few very happening bars in the vicinity (this is a fantastic area to go out in Barcelona after 11p.m). We enjoyed some more drinks and great chat but unfortunately, given our action packed two days and early starts I was flagging and so we took the difficult decision to head home around 1a.m. after a fantastic day exploring and drinking our way through the Spanish wine catalogue – lifelong dreams made.