Spanish Champagne (Cava) – Penedes, Codorniu Cava Bodega and berries with cava-honey syrup
My culinary “must do” list while traveling in Spain included a visit to a cava bodega in Penedes. Penedes is the Spanish Cava region in Catalunya, located just outside beautiful Barcelona, easily accessible by car or by train. Cava, a.k.a. Spanish Champagne, has been produced in this region since 1872 when a local wine maker produced the first sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne method. The wine was called Spanish champagne until fairly recently when European Union laws prohibited any sparkling wines not made in the Champagne region of France from being called Champagne. Following the new name laws this sparkling wine was named Cava because of the extensive cave-like maze of cellars in which it is produced. We set out to explore but you know, so many bodegas, so little time. We wanted to also visit the nearby Monserrat, a monastery built around a black Madonna statue on the edge of the jagged edge mountain range looming over Penedes, so we had to settle on one cava bodega to visit on our exploration and I decided on Codorniu.
Condorniu was a natural choice. The Codorniu family has a documented history of producing wine in the region since the mid 1500’s. It was one of them, Joseph Raventos I Fajo who in 1872 produced the very first bottles of champagne in Spain using the traditional method of champagne making (fermentation in the bottle). They remained at the forefront of Champagne making ever since: they were the first to use chardonnay grapes for making their cava, the first to make rosé cava from 100% pinot noir grapes and the first to make cava with pinot noir. Their bodega in Sant Sadurni was designed by a modernist architect for the time, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, who, together with Gaudi, is considered a leader in architectural modernism in Catalunia. His design at the bodega is now listed as a National Historic monument.
The bodega has a shop that requires no appointment but for a tour of the facility you must book in advance. I contacted them on short notice (my MO) and they were gracious about it and booked us on a tour for the next day. We were driving there with our trusted GPS but made a detour earlier to see Monserrat. As sometime happens, we got into conflict with the GPS that we eventually won but corrected our course and made it to Monserrat on the proper highway. Monserrat was quite a site, with the Bendictine Abbey built into the mountain side and reachable by the Monserrat railway. We happened to be there in time for a boys choir performance and stood at the back of the impressive structure listening to their gentle voices filling the soaring space.
From Monserrat we set our GPS again and in no time made it to the Codorniu Bodega in Sant Sadurni. Getting there we passed miles and miles of vineyard with bare vines in dormant state, waiting for spring. Some of them looked as old as time and we stopped in several places to photograph. Upon reaching Sant Sadurni the largest sign you see from the road is the Freixenet bodega, a large producer particularly known for the black and gold bottle of cava they named Cordon Negro. We tried to stop by there on the way back but by then they were already closed.
Our destination, Codorniu, is a gorgeous winery with a sense of history. It is understated in its style and has an aura of sophistication and elegance. Its architecture is a testament to Catalan modernism. Several low lying buildings that fit perfectly into the landscape are spread around the gorgeous property, forming a blend of architecture, art and agriculture. Codorniu is built close to the vineyards and they control their wine making process from the vineyard to the wine in the bottle.
Codorniu is very well set for an interesting tour. A small train first takes you through the large property winding around historical buildings and equipment. The tour then took us through the old building where grapes were brought into from the vineyard for processing. Now the space is used as a museum to display old wine making equipment, including the oldest wine press dating back to the 16th century. In those days only women used to pick the grapes, while men carried the basket to the processing area. Not an easy task considering that a basket capacity was 70 kg. Our guide, who has been working at Codorniu for 40 years beginning in the cellars and moving up through the different wine making processes said that in the beginning the workers used to think of the winery owners as La Casa Grande, the big house of the family that knew the workers by name and looked after their people. Times have changed of course and now workers here come from all over the country and beyond. The old cellar below is now used for private and corporate parties with a capacity of 900 people. It’s a magnificent, authentic space that must have stories to tell if it could only speak. King Alfonso XIII attended at the winery in early 1900’s for a banquet in his honour in that very cellar.
From there we descended to 32 meters below ground to visit a 35 km of underground cellar system that left us all gasping. These are not natural caves as they have in the Champagne region. These are all man made caves. What an incredible sight. Long underground tunnels expanding in every direction all lined with champagne bottles waiting their turn so to speak. Quite spectacular. In the past workers worked there by candle light and it wasn’t until Condorniu installed generators there that workers had electrical light to light their way. The place would be pitch black without electricity. There is a story with this fact: you know how many twists you need to open the metal cage on a bottle of cava? The answer is 6. You know why? Because workers working in the dark needed to be able to open a bottle without necessarily having sufficient light to see what they are doing. This way they could count the twists and know when the cage was released.
Condorniu produces 4 kinds of champagne: brut nature (no sugar), brut (6 grams sugar per litre), sec (12-15 grams sugar per litre) and semi sec (25 grams of sugar per litre). Other companies make a dulce cava containing 55 grams of sugar per litre.
Their cavas include:
Codorniu Original Cava, made from the original grape blend that Ravenots used in 1872 (40% macabeo, 30% parellada, 20% xarel-lo, 10% reserve wine), estate produced and bottled.
Anna de Codorniu Brut, (88 points) 70% cahrdonnay, 30% parellada, 8-10 g/l residual sugar, pale golden straw colour, fine bubbles, named after Anna, the last person to carry the name Codorniu. It is 100% estate produced and bottled.
Anna de Codorniu Rose, made from 70% pinot noir, 30% chardonnay, pink and delicate, refreshing and mildly sweet (6-8 g/l residual sugar) and Codorniu’s most emblematic product.
Condriu Pinot Noir (88 points) made from 100% pinot noir, pale and refreshing with fine bubbles.
Codorniu exports 70% of their production of 40 million bottles a season, and the remaining 30% are sold locally in Spain. Export goes to the UK, Germany, USA, Finland and Japan, in that order of magnitude. Freixenet for example, exports about 80% of their production.
At the end of the tour we were gathered in the cellars underground to try some of their cava. We tried a beautiful sec nature, an unsugared effervescent light cava that unfortunately is not available outside of Spain. The delicate bubbles danced on the palate tingling as they disappeared sip by sip. The next was the Anne de Codorniu Rose, pink and lightly sweet, also lovely when served at the right time (apparently good for aperitif, sushi and dessert). We ended the tour in the bodega’s wine shop and it was hard to leave without buying. None of the cava we bought made it all the way home (we still had a few weeks of travel and there were several opportunities to open a bottle) but the two mugs I bought are here to remind me of this fabulous, interesting experience.
Berries with champagne drizzle
2 cups mixed berries: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries
3 cups champagne, either white or rose (use leftovers)
1/4 cup orange liqueuer, optional
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 large piece of orange zest
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
Combine all ingredients except berries in a pot and bring to a boil.
Lower heat to simmer and cook until liquid is reduced by half.
Let cool then refrigerate to chill.
Spoon berries into a glass or a bowl, pour champagne syrup over and serve chilled.
Spanish “champagne” is the first I ever tried in my life. It would have been qutie the adventure to visit the region.
Yes Val, it was special, especially going down to the caves below ground.