It can be difficult to capture the spirit of the Penedès DO from only considering the wines that are produced within its boundaries. Three separate appellations, Penedès, Cava and Catalunya all claim the same land adding further confusion with their overlapping allowed styles of wine. As a result, two neighboring vineyards in the same DO may be growing grapes for different wine styles using different grapes for two different appellations. To illustrate the point, in 2016, of the 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of total vineyard area within the limits of the Penedès DO, only 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) were registered to Penedes itself, while the majority belonged to Cava DO, destined for sparkling wine production.
The physical geography of the region hints at why the region appears to have a fractured personality for its wine. Penedès consists of the land between the Montserrat mountains and the Mediterranean coast, immediately to the west of Barcelona in Catalonia. Culturally and economically, Penedès is inseparable from the city nearby, and benefits from a thirsty populace, as well as the cosmopolitan influence from Barcelona and its tourists. The region spans a broad range of altitudes where grapes can be grown from foothills to shore, separated climactically into three unofficial zones. The lowest zone, referred to as baja-Penedès (baix-Penedès in Catalan) or Penedès marítim, is also the warmest and wettest, being essentially a flat coastal plain. Though historically dedicated to Moscatel grapes used to make sweet fortified wine, it is now planted with red and white Spanish varietals for still table wine: Garnacha, Tempranillo, Cariñena, and Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and the trio of Parellada Macabeo and Xarel-lo. Medio-Penedès (mitja-Penedès) is a broad valley 250-500 meters in elevation (800-1,600 feet) protected behind low coastal hills. It experiences a more continental climate with larger diurnal shifts than in baja-Penedès. This intermediate altitude is ideally suited for Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo destined for sparkling wine, Tempranillo, and Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The highest zone extending up to 850m in elevation (2,800 feet), called the alt-Penedès or Penedes Superior, experience the coolest overall climate, with dramatic continental shifts in weather between seasons and pronounced diurnal swings in temperature between nighttime low and daytime high. The grapes that do best here are cool climate varietals such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gewurztraminer. These regional designations only begin to capture the diversity of microclimates that are created, as elevation, gorges, streams and valleys increase the complexity of the terrains.
Though most grapes grown in the area are still indigenous, Penedès has also developed a reputation beginning in the 1960s for quality wine made from international varietals. Miguel Torres, the son of a local winemaking family who trained in France, was the first to explore matching Bordeaux and German varietals to individual climates in the Penedès, looking to the quality of the resulting wines as his guide rather than the winemaking traditions of the area. His success has inspired other Penedès producers to plant international varietals in their vineyards.
The production of Cava, Spain’s ubiquitous sparkling wine, is the main product from the vineyards of the Penedès, even if it is bottled under the name of a different appellation. Though Cava can be produced in nearly any region of Spain, most Cava is still made from fruit sourced from Penedès, most commonly Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo grapes grown in the medio-Penedès. Cava has faced many challenges in recent years, mostly stemming from the tension between large volume-oriented Cava houses and the small quality driven Cava producers which share the same appellation. One of the many attempts to resolve this tension has been the creation of Classic Penedès, a category within the Penedès DO rules, specifically designed to protect quality minded sparkling wine producers who switch their production from the Cava DO to the Penedès DO. Longer minimum ageing requirements, a commitment to organic viticulture, and lower yields are all examples of the heightened requirements for sparkling wine produced under the Classic Penedès label. It remains to be seen with which appellation quality minded sparkling wine producers will decide to affiliate.