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Nestled between the Serra de Garraf mountain range and the Mediterranean Sea lies El Penedès, a patchwork of vineyards, forests, streams and small hamlets, and one of Europe’s most ancient viticultural regions. Among the blues, greens and toasted colors, I pull up to Cava Guilera, a small, family-run winery specialized in long-aged cavas. I’ve come to speak with Marta Guilera, spokeswoman and head of communications, to understand the traditional cava-making process and learn just how hand-crafted this multi-million dollar industry can still claim to be.


Marta greets me with a wonderful smile and girlish bangs, her zest for life and love for her land evident from her first words. “Benvingut Jon! Tot bé?” Marta says in a warm Catalan. Less than one hour from Barcelona, I’m now surrounded by a carpet of pink almond trees in bloom with the iconic Montserrat mountain towering in the distance.



Strolling through 80-year-old vineyards of Xarello, Macabeu and Parellada grape varieties, Marta introduces me to her father, Pere, a soft-spoken man, head winemaker at Cava Guilera and leading advocate of 100% sustainable, premium quality cavas. “Ask him anything”, she prods me excitedly, “if Spring 2004 was windy, or how much it rained in August 1999.” Proud yet reserved, Pere offered a few words on how his cavas reflect his family’s vineyard as well as the history and geography of his native Penedès.


The sun, the rain, land and wind - every crop is different and we want to highlight each of the characteristics of every single vintage,” he explains.

I learn that the region's dry land and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea create a microclimate whose unique characteristics and challenges are gracefully dealt with the knowledge passed down from generations of cava producers.


"We keep to the handcrafted way of cava making and don’t age our wines in wooden barrels: only the grape aging on lees,” Pere tells me in a low, sweet Catalan.

"All our cavas have a fine bubble that delicately explode on the palate.” As I’d soon see for myself, Pere explained how fruit-driven flavors grow in intensity with the passing of years, producing a flavor profile both complex yet versatile, easily paired with food or drank by the glass.



Sparkling Wine: An Age-Old Family Tradition


Started in 1927 by Marta’s great-grandfather Isidre Guilera, cava making at the time was anything but a sure bet. Today Cava Guilera is one of nearly 200 wineries in the Penedès region and produces a mere 25,000 bottles per year using as little by means of modern technology as possible. As opposed to larger names like Freixenet or Codorniu, all bottles in Cava Guilera are Reserva or Gran Reserva and aged for a minimum of 24 months, a select batch for as long as 12 years, the result graceful and harmonious. According to the Consell Regulador del Cava, Catalonia’s cava governing body, Gran Reserva cavas must be aged for a minimum of 30 months and pass strict quality controls - in 2016, only 2% of all cavas on the market were classified as Gran Reserva. And those are the ones Pere is most excited by.

In my 12 years living in Catalonia I’ve had the pleasure of learning the language, culture and character of this freedom loving, fiercely proud people. As in any language, there are words that do not translate easily or directly, as is the case with the Catalan word seny (pronounced “sen”). The concept of seny can be described as an innate combination of reasoning, wisdom, communication, awareness and great sensibility. I’ve also heard it described as ancient wisdom bound by integrity and action. Listening to Pere, his entire life seemed an embodiment of seny.


Sitting on a worn picnic table under the shade of fig, pomegranate and olive trees, I see Marta bringing over a few bottles with a humongous smile on her face. “Everything my father said is absolutely true”, says Marta, giddily. “He just forgot to add one thing: cava is, above all, about fun."



Cava culture means to be close to people

And fun it is. Far from the price tags and diamond-studded bottles associated with Champagne, cava is an everyday drinking wine and in Catalonia is treated as such. “Cava culture means to be close to people”, Marta tells me. Not only is this evident in Cava Guilera’s philosophy and fair price policy, but the summer concerts and nights in the vineyards they hold. "Cava is landscape, culture, joy and time, all of which are great values that could influence us in such a positive way. That is why we want to take cava off its pedestal and socialize with it,” Marta says, furthering her father’s vision.


Multi-Award Winning Cava: Passion, Purpose and Love of Craft


Cava Guilera was recently awarded 3 gold medals for their 2009 Brut Nature Gran Reserva at the coveted Vinari Awards, the most important in Catalonia in recognition of the region’s best wines and cavas. A fourth award celebrated the winery’s Musivari, the first cava label in the world to print in braille.


Beyond the awards it’s the Guilera’s family purpose, sense of place and love of craft that attract me most. Food and drink are gateways to understanding and celebrating a region’s heritage and vehicles through which storytelling, expertise and generations of commitment are practiced. This passion is what inspires Cava Guilera and what makes me forever curious to explore and share Spain’s rich cultural and culinary diversity.


After several bottles were opened, I asked if I could see the cellar. Descending the steep staircase Marta turned to me, smiling, and said “you guys have it all wrong in your country. You wait all year for one big occasion to open a bottle of champagne or cava. Here in Penedès we drink everyday.” Logical enough, I mused, if you live among vineyards.


“So how do you celebrate the important stuff?” I asked. Marta paused for a moment, “we open a Jeroboam!


Jonathan Lerner is the Founder and CEO of Tailored Tours Barcelona, a creative travel studio based in Barcelona which curates unique cultural & gastronomic experiences across Europe.


This September we're heading to Spain to discover the very best in culture, the arts & gastronomy as we go behind the scenes with top chefs, access private tastings, master classes & more. Join us !



 

The evening started playfully: a handful of people gathered around an open kitchen top staring at rocks of different shapes and sizes, deciding which were edible. As per the chef’s instructions we were all to choose one, close our eyes and let the rocks melt in our mouth. Thus began our Friday evening and 10 sensational courses which took us from the beaches of Catalonia to the mountains of Navarre, ending at grandma’s kitchen table - lentils and all - in the Basque Country.


Those rocks - or at least the edible ones - were idiazábal, a delicious, gooey, highly textured cheese native to the Basque Country, coated with slowly melted pure cacao, giving its marbled exterior. The non-edible rocks were gathered from various coves and beaches along the Costa Brava, a stretch of wild coast between Barcelona and the French border. Before my relief of not having broken a tooth set in, a second, equally curious morsel was placed in front of us: an olive, anchovy and wild seaweed tapenade spread over

quinoa and topped with trout roe, all resting on a paper thin crispy wanton.

At this point we were given an option: to go sit down at our respective tables, or stay - and watch, interact and even joke - alongside the chef. The concept is simple and ingenious: a truly open kitchen. No barriers, no backstage (even the silent dishwasher is in the front of house), no bar. Everyone, from the chef and server to the patrons, are in the kitchen, the room’s decor striking a beautiful mix of world-class stainless steel and cozy, worn wooden benches and chairs. The floor to ceiling glass windows seemed to invite people in right off the street (as if an open seat were available).


And so the evening flowed, from slow-cooked artichokes stuffed with quail eggs served over an avocado emulsion and tender teardrop peas from the nearby Maresme region north of Barcelona and available for only a few weeks per year; to faux-ravioli, which instead of pasta was made with a painstakingly thin outer layer of potato stuffed with mushrooms alongside truffle mayonnaise; to the chef’s take on surf 'n turf:

exquisitely pan-seared scallops atop a circular slice of butifarra, a typical Catalan sausage, served with orzo and plankton, set in the oven for a few minutes to allow the various flavors to merge. The braised ox tail, served with a conversation-halting black molé made with more than 15 ingredients ranging from clove and anise seed to cinnamon, chocolate and three types of chili, created a beautifully complex flavor profile, at once earthy, creamy and spicy.


All ingredients are meticulously sourced by Michelin star chef and owner Xabi Bonilla, who, plate after plate, took us on the most sensorial of culinary adventures as places, textures - even childhood nostalgia - seemed to come alive. From his birthplace in San Sebastián and childhood in Navarre, to his decade of living in Barcelona, Mr. Bonilla has seamlessly woven together personal anecdotes and gorgeous gastronomy to create one of Barcelona’s most brutally creative and freshest supper club concepts today, his current

concept opening less than 2 months ago.

At a time when so many restaurants in Barcelona seem to have found a winning, if not stagnant, formula: dim filament light bulbs, shiny metro-tiled walls, varying takes on tapas classics - Mr. Bonilla’s brainchild seems to reinvent it all, from food to design. "If it were up to me, I'd have everything hanging from the ceiling - the light bulbs, the plants, even the speakers", says Bonilla, "but city hall wouldn't let me."


Like Barcelona itself, a city steeped in avant-garde history from art and architecture to design and gastronomy, Bonilla's one man show offers a whimsical, supremely professional and endearingly personal take on each dish he prepares. Presenting his faux ravioli, he asserted, "this is the only dish that has been with me since the beginning", said with a mixture of pride and sentimentality. When asked why, he simply relied, "because I love it."


Even the wine, Azul y Garanza, a wonderfully drinkable organic wine made by friends of Bonilla back in Navarre and translated as “Blue and Madder” - the latter a low-growing plant native to southwest Europe and used to create red pigment since ancient times - brought images of wind-swept fields to mind. As for the restaurant name, Santa Rita, when I asked Mr. Bonilla why he chose it he answered non-nonchalantly: “oh, it’s just a joke from my childhood,” which I accepted without thinking any more of it. It was only after our second dessert, a homemade chocolate bar filled with lentils topped with luscious hazelnut whipped cream, that a friend from Cádiz leaned over and asked me “you know the old Spanish expression about Santa Rita? De lo que se da no se quita” translating to “what is given can never be taken away.” I chuckled and continued eating my chocolate bar with lentils, at once in Barcelona and at the same time back in Bonilla’s grandmother’s house in the Basque Country, grateful that this experience will never be taken away.


Santa Rita Experience

Carrer de Venezuela, 16

Barcelona, Spain

Jonathan Lerner is the Founder of Tailored Tours, a creative travel studio based in Barcelona, Spain, specialized in curating unique cultural & gastronomic experiences.


Photos by José Varela.