A fruity aroma wafts around our tour group as we meander through a series of century-old cellars. In these dimly lit tunnels, with their arched ceilings and walls of brick and stone, the temperature is always about 57F. In the shadows is a seemingly endless procession of wine bottles, stowed in wooden racks.
The sparkling wine in those bottles is known as cava, the Catalan word for cave. Grape growers in the Spanish province of Catalonia have been making their local version of Champagne since 1872. The cava is considered so versatile, it's quaffed as a pre-dinner drink, along with the appetizer or main course, or with dessert. Cava is also the mainstay of bars known as xampanyerias. But it's only in recent years that producers such as Codorn?u and Freixenet have been promoting cava extensively in the U.S., where their sparkling wines usually sell in the $8-to-$30 range.
If you're visiting Barcelona, try a day trip by train or car to Sant Sadurn? d'Anoia, about 25 miles west. More than 80 cava producers are in the area, but Codorn?u (www.codorniu.es) and Freixenet (www.freixenet.es) are the largest by far and can accommodate numerous visitors. Free tours at both wineries, which last about 45 minutes, take you underground to where the cava is "sleeping" as it ferments and conclude with a tasting.
Codorn?u offers the more comprehensive tour. The complex -- with its stained glass, ceramic tiles, and ironwork -- is a national historic and artistic landmark designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, an important architect of the region's turn-of-the-century Modernista, or Catalan Art Nouveau, style.
A guide greets each group in a cavernous reception hall dominated by a line of imposing brick arches. First stop is a screening room to view a video about cava's history, the Raventos family who founded Codorn?u, and the making of the sparkling wine. The tour then moves to the museum, which displays such artifacts as wine presses and bottling devices. A staircase in the museum descends five levels to Codorn?u's 18 miles of cellars, where you travel on foot and by tram.
Codorn?u cava is made of four types of white grapes, pressed into a must, or juice, that is fermented in stainless steel tanks for 100 days, then bottled along with precise quantities of sugar and yeast for a second fermentation. During the fermentation period of at least nine months, the bottles are rotated systematically, an eighth of a turn at a time -- by hand for the finest cava, by machine for the rest. These rotations disperse the sediment and turn the liquid into the clear, bubbly final product. In the tasting room, we sipped Anna de Codorn?u, a mid-priced cava with a fruity taste.
Visitors can round off the trip with a leisurely three-course lunch at the elegant Mirador de les Caves, about a two-mile drive from the vineyard in the town of Subirats. Typical dishes include fideus, fine noodles cooked in seafood broth; black rice with duck and wild mushrooms; and crema Catalana, a regional take on flan. A three-course meal starts at about $25 a person, and a bottle of cava can add from $10 to $40. Americans usually reserve sparkling wines for special occasions. With cava, Catalonians often add a little fizz to their day. By Ellen Hoffman