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Round table: In association with DO Penedes

Published:  21 November, 2023

At this Catalan DO’s first London outing, Harpers convened a panel to debate the region’s indigenous appeal.

The panel:

Jonathan Kleeman, group beverage director, Story Group

Graham Crawford, sales director, Oakley Wine Agencies 

Stefan Neumann MS, consultant

Peter Mitchell MW, wine buying director, Jeroboams Group

Pippa Hayward, wine advisor, The Good Wine Shop 

Joan Huguet Gusi, president, DO Penedès 

Andrew Catchpole, chair and editor, Harpers Wine & Spirit

With 28 wineries present and 60-odd wines on show, the inaugural Penedès tasting in London this autumn provided an excellent snapshot of what this small but well-formed Catalan region is all about. Designed to reflect its 10 distinct terroirs, spread between mountain and sea in this 2,500ha DO, Xarel.lo led a focus on indigenous varieties, with this emerging regional flagship joined by the likes of Macabeu, Parellada, Forcada, Sumoll and Garnatxa. Quality was high, too, with typically smaller and artisanal scale producers showing premium wines, with sustainability also being a key message from the region. 

The theme for the round table discussion centred on Penedès’ ‘indigenous appeal’ – the native grapes, their potential ‘fit’ on the modern wine list, and how such native diversity can also help with sustainability in a climate wrought by unpredictable change. 

First up the attendees learnt from DO president Joan Huguet Gusi that more than 80% of Penedès producers are organic, with the region having set a target of 2025 to reach full organic compliance, without which winemakers would no longer be able to use DO Penedès on the label. 

Staying with sustainable matters, Gusi also outlined the region’s ambitious VRIAACC project. Begun in 2011, when three Catalan wineries initiated a project to identify and develop disease, pest and drought-resistant grape varieties, this draws on (sometimes forgotten) indigenous grapes, plus their DNA to create crosses to better resist and mitigate climate change. 

“This is important for the future, our organic philosophy. Also to create varieties that are resistant to climate change… and everybody is now looking for that,” said Gusi.

The panel would return to sustainability as part of a discussion about Penedès USPs and potential appeal in the UK market. But, first up, they were keen to discuss the wines out in the busy tasting room. 

“There was a lot of minerality to a lot of the wines, terroir-driven, and quite a lot of focus on indigenous varieties,” noted Jonathan Kleeman. “But also a lot of varied styles, from leaner, fresher wines, to more rounded, richer, intense styles, but with good acidity, so quite a diversity.”

With Xarel.lo clearly being paraded as the lead-in to Penedès, with a dedicated varietal table as a centrepiece at the tasting, Pippa Hayward honed in on that grape and what it has to offer.

“Texture is a part of the wine that is immensely appealing to customers. They never come to us and ask for a wine that ‘feels nice’, but they all want that, and these Xarel.los showed some very appealing texture,” she said.

“I think with Xarel.lo there is a comparison to be made with Chardonnay – it’s very versatile, it’s capable of some very different, but very beautiful, expressions when handled in different ways.” 

The diversity found both within the Xarel.los and across the various wines at the tasting caused some hearty debate among the panel, with regard to how that would go down with UK consumers and trade. 

On Xarel.lo’s ambitions to benchmark Penedès’ offer, Stefan Neumann MS drew a parallel with the success of DO Rías Baíxas’ Albariño, saying the latter “was a very approachable style for people, easy to understand and very well defined – a bit like a one-trick pony, to some extent”.

He added: “In the tasting room here, you see more different sides of one variety, such as Xarel.lo, which is a bit of a challenge for consumers.”

Peter Mitchell MW agreed, adding that, “from Xarel.lo’s point of view, people are not going to know what they are getting, there are huge variations in style”, suggesting that there should be some move to decide on a more uniform offer, at least at the entry-level. 

Diverse appeal

For Hayward, though, that diversity in style was precisely the appeal, with even ‘entry level’ being at a fairly premium price, meaning anyway that these smallish-production wines would be a sommelier or indie merchant hand sell. 

Neumann (who consults to Fells, which is part-owned by Catalan indigenous champion Torres) was even more enthusiastic about the roster of native varieties more generally on offer. He said: “I’d love to see more indigenous Spanish varieties, particularly from Penedès… you really need more events like this to get buyers interested.” 

Intriguingly, when it came to discussing Penedès’ relationship with cava, which shares a Catalan homeland as the heartland of its wide DO (plus the fizz’s traditional indigenous blending varieties of Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel.lo), the panel split the other way. 

Hayward was concerned that linking the two would mean a necessarily premium niche region such as Penedès would suffer because of “cava’s poor image”. But Mitchell argued that, as cava is well known, well understood and making great strides at the premium level, the link to the indigenous grapes found in its blend could be a useful one. 

On to the subject of sustainability, and the panel was unanimous that, as Kleeman put it: “There is definitely a trend towards [sustainable and organic wines] in wealthier countries, where there is genuine demand being set as well.”

Mitchell went further, highlighting: “With our younger shop workers, [sustainability] really matters to them [and] we need to attract future generations to drink wine, otherwise the industry dies without them.”

Neumann added: “This is an important message for Penedès, of organic, of sustainability. If it makes that statement it will attract certain people… and that’s why it’s an important thing to do.”

Graham Crawford introduced another potential avenue to explore – namely, to use the region’s vibrant and cosmopolitan capital as a link to help enhance the image of the wines of Penedès. 

“If the whole DO is organic, it’s an incredibly strong message,” he agreed. “But if you take most consumers they probably don’t know where Penedès is. However, Barcelona is seen as a super-cool world city – it could give [the DO] a great marketing tool, which cava has never really used.”

As the panel summed up, Mitchell perhaps best encapsulated the overriding messages.

“The things the region have going for it are premium. Because the image of Catalonia in this country is very positive and, compared to the rest of Spain, it’s a region that has high recognition,” he said.

“So people already have a premium point in terms of recognition, and the whole sustainability message will become more and more important… Then there’s a lot of really interesting winemakers doing cool and funky things in their own way.”