Cava – a Spanish Wine Category in Transition

Written by Laurie Love, WSET L3, December 2020

Cava is well-known around the world as an easy-drinking sparkling wine that is also easy on the wallet. Much like it’s cousin Prosecco, for years Cava was not really taken too seriously; it was simply a fun beverage cranked out by a handful of mega-producers to satisfy the thirst of budget-conscious wine drinkers. But that is changing now. The Spanish sparkling wine category, once simply known as Cava, is undergoing a transition that aims to improve its quality and its image.

The Cava wine category is evolving from its origins as a DO (Denominación de Origen, a Spanish wine protected designation of origin) to the inception of five other sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja. These designations seek to improve the overall quality and global image of Spanish sparkling wine by focusing more on terroir and setting higher standards—for aging, for production, for winegrowing, and more—than the original Cava DO traditionally has.

To start, let’s take a look at the original Cava DO so we have a basis for how and why things are diverging in this category. At the end of this article, you’ll find detailed tasting notes for some of the wines in the divergent designations. ¡Salud!

Original Cava DO (1986)

Cava was established as an official Denominación de Origen in 1986, shortly after Spain joined the European Union. Prior to that, sparkling wine made in Spain was simply called Cava, which means “cave” or “cellar,” referring to the traditional method of sparkling wine production used by Cava where secondary fermentation happens in the bottle while it rests in the production cellar or cave. This is the same method used in Champagne. The first traditional method sparkling wine made Spain was crafted in 1872 by Josep Raventós of the Cordoníu family in Catalonia after he had spent some time in the Champagne region of France ( Raventós is considered the founder of the Cava industry.

Cava DO wines must be made in the traditional method with a minimum of 9 months on the lees (basic Cava), 15  months on lees (Reserva, 18 months beginning with 2021 harvest), and 30 months (Gran Reserva). Sweetness levels are the same as for champagne; however, Gran Reserva may only be Brut or drier. Authorized grapes include both indigenous (Xarel-lo, Macabeu, and Parellada) and international varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). The heart of Cava production is the Penedès region of Catalonia. However, Cava grapes can be from any of eight non-contiguous Cava growing regions throughout Spain (including Catalonia), and producers are allowed to buy base wines from other regions (,

It is precisely this laxity of sourcing that prompted several quality-focused Cava producers to question the DO’s commitment to terroir specificity and geographic indication of origin. From that arose five new Spanish sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja.

Conca del Riu Anoia (2012)

A new generation of Raventós, Pepe Raventós of Raventós i Blanc, broke away from the Cava DO in 2012 and established Conca del Riu Anoia (Anoia River Basin) as a potentially separate DO (Hudin 2020). Pepe felt that Cava DO had become too volume-oriented without focus on geographic origin and terroir. Among other things, Conca del Riu Anoia defines a small geographic area in the Penedès region between the Anoia and Foix rivers. It stipulates grapes must be indigenous, can only come from vineyards within those boundaries that are organically certified, and are minimum 10 years old with set yields, and wines must age on the lees for 18 months minimum (Lawrence). So far, Raventós i Blanc Winery is the only producer following this designation, which has no legal recognition (Hudin 2020). However, Raventós is an historic name in Spanish sparkling wine production, so this designation carries quite a bit of clout.

Clàssic Penedès (2013)

At the same time that Raventós was breaking from Cava, 18 Cava producers left the Cava DO and formed a subclassification of the Penedès DO called Clàssic Penedès in 2013 (, Hudin 2016). Unlike Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès is a legal designation for Spanish sparkling wine recognized by the Consejo Regulador and the EU, the first such designation outside of the Cava DO. The primary goal of Clàssic Penedès was to establish a premium sparkling wine category from a specific region within the classic growing and production area of Cava in Catalonia.

The rules for Clàssic Penedès require that grapes come from certified organic vineyards, notably the first sparkling wine category in the world to do so ( There are strict regulations against buying base wines from outside the region; all production must take place within the producer’s own premises with the Penedès DO.

Furthermore, Clàssic Penedès wines may be made in the traditional method, or the ancestral method, the only Spanish sparkling wine designation with regulations for ancestral sparklers. Traditional method wines require minimum 15 months lees aging (equivalent to the classic Reserva level of Cava), and all wines must be vintage and include the date of disgorgement. Ancestral method wines may be released after four years on lees, and label with the term “No Degorjat” (or “No Degollat”), indicating it has not been disgorged (

Clàssic Penedès went a long way toward terroir specificity and promoting organic production. But several issues remained: to use the Clàssic Penedès designation, producers had to leave the well-recognized Cava DO (18 producers as of this writing). Also, the rules allow for a laundry-list of grape varieties, including international varieties (such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling!) alongside the traditional indigenous varieties, and the designated growing region is still considered too large. For these reasons, in addition to the fact that the name may seem too generic, several premium producers opted to remain in the Cava DO while they worked independently on forming yet another more stringent sparkling wine designation: Corpinnat.

Corpinnat (2018)

Simultaneously, a band of independently-minded premium producers worked to form Corpinnat. Corpinnat, which means “heart of Penedès,” was formed in 2015 and authorized by the European Union in 2017 ( Corpinnat was officially launched in April 2018 as a terroir-driven, premium quality-focused collective. It is not a separate DO, but rather a brand and collective of winemakers and growers. Corpinnat wines are certified under the Vino Espumoso de Calidad category, its guidelines are enforced and audited by the European Bureau Veritas, and Corpinnat is an EU trademark (Hudin 2020).

The rules shine a bright light on grape sourcing: all vineyards must be certified organic, grapes must be hand harvested and grown and sourced from the strictly defined Corpinnat region, a 997 square kilometer area that encompasses approximately 23,000 hectares of vineyards ( Additionally, grapes must be minimum 90% indigenous varieties, and there are minimum pricing standards for grapes, protecting growers. Corpinnat producers are required to make their own base wine on their own premises and undergo traditional method secondary fermentation in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months lees aging. 

Intentionally, all of these rules effectively exclude large-scale producers. As of 2020, there are 10 Corpinnat-authorized producers who left the Cava DO in order to use the Corpinnat brand.

Cava de Paraje Calificado (2017)

Meanwhile, in response to the movement started by Raventós as well as Clàssic Penedès and Corpinnat producers away from Cava DO, the Cava DO Consejo Regulador created a new subclassification called Cave de Paraje Calificado (CPC) in 2017 ( CPC addresses the terroir issue by requiring single estate bottlings from single vintage certified organic vineyards. International varieties are still allowed, but the vines must be minimum 10 years old and owned and controlled by the producer. Minimum 36 months lees aging is required and wines must be Brut or drier.

The downsides are that large-scale producers can still qualify, and participating wineries’ overall production are not taken into consideration (Barnes 2017).

To complicate things even more, the Cava DO Consejo further changed the rules in July 2020 forming two new “super classifications”: Cava de Guarda and Cave de Guarda Superior. In the Cava de Guarda bucket is basic Cava with minimum 9 months lees aging. The Cava de Guarda Superior category encompasses all of these: Reserva, Gran Reserva (minimum 30 months and only Brut or drier), and the new Cava de Paraje Calificado. At the same time, the Cava DO also increased the minimum required aging time for Cava Reserva from 15 to 18 months (, thereby aligning it with the Corpinnat requirements.

Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja (2017) 

At the same time, Rioja DOCa gets into the act. Rioja, arguably the most well-known Spanish wine region, is one of the eight regions in Spain authorized for Cava production. As further evidence that quality-focused producers are moving away from the Cava designation, in 2017 the Rioja DOCa Consejo Regulador authorized a new sparkling wine category, Vino Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja, with wines so designated being first released in 2019 (Barnes 2018). The designation is for traditional method sparkling wines only. Aging requirements exceed those for generic and Reserva Cava (15 and 24 months, respectively), while wines aged 36 months or more are labeled Gran Añada ( Grapes must be hand harvested and can be any of varieties authorized in Rioja DOCa. These wines are part of the Rioja DOCa, so are not labeled Cava DO.

Throughout the wine industry, consumers worldwide are demanding more terroir-focused wines, with a movement away from mega producers to micro producers with a more hands-on approach. The growth of sales in the grower-champagne category is a good example of this. The thinking is that smaller production from a more specific geographical area yields better quality wines. Moreover, savvy consumers are looking for premium wines sourced from certified organic vineyards, and producers are responding by stipulating organic production methods. Organic production requirements are a key and growing trend ( These things are becoming more and more important to wine drinkers. On the whole, the changes that have taken place in the Spanish sparkling wine category go a long way towards meeting these market demands.

However, producers opting out of the Cava DO to follow these more stringent terroir-focused categories face an uphill climb to establish these as top-quality sparkling wines. They risk losing market share without the well-known and heavily-marketed Cava designation. Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, and Conca del Riu Anoia, are not well-known outside of Catalonia. In addition, the flurry of activity in this category (new designations and subclassifications, changing terminology, zones and subzones, etc.) all but certainly will create confusion in the market. And retailers will need to be educated and prepared to educate consumers on the differences between these designations. “As a retailer, it’s not necessarily an explanation or conversation I want to get into with every customer who’s looking for a ‘Cava,’” said retailer Andy Booth, co-owner of California-based The Spanish Table ( But with time, exposure, and word of mouth, these pioneering sparkling wine producers will reap the benefits of adhering to strict production rules while supporting the all-important and on-trend organic vineyard certifications. In the future, they will be seen as trailblazers that improved the quality and image of Cava. The proof is in the glass!


Barnes, Amanda. “Getting to Know Cava’s New Category,” December 2017,

Barnes, Amanda. “What You Need to Know About Rioja’s New Regulations,” May 2018,, and,,,

Hudin, Miquel. “An Introduction to Clàssic Penedès,” March 2016,

Hudin, Miquel. “Three Misunderstood Topics in Spanish Wine,” August 2020,

Lawrence, James. “New Breakaway Sparkling Wine Appellation to Rival Cava,” March 2013,

“OIV Focus: The Global Sparkling Wine Market,” April 2020,, https://www.Raventó .,

“Sparkling DO Penedès Winemaking,”,


2017 Julia Bernet “Cuvée Ú” Corpinnat, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $22.99

The wine consists of 100% Xarel-lo from 15-40 year old organic vineyards on calcareous soils. The wine aged two years on the lees in stainless steel tank. Disgorged 10/2019.

On the pour, the wine was very foamy with a fine bead. Appearance: clear medium lemon-gold with a fine and delicate mousse and plenty of bubbles. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of ripe red apples, quince, Asian pear, white flowers, and brioche. Tree fruit aromas dominate. Palate: dry with medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity and finish. The mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Apples!, fresh baked bread, cream tart, wet stones, Meyer lemon pith. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3 to 5 years. Quality for value: Meets expectation.

2017 Raventós i Blanc Conca del Riu Anoia, Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs, 12% ABV, $21.99

The wine is a blend of 32% Macabeu, 40% Xarel-lo, 28% Parellada from 40 year old vines sourced from the estate biodynamic vineyard called “Vinya del Llac” (vineyard of the lake), which is north-facing. The northern exposure and lake moderates the microclimate of the vineyard. Soils are clay on calcareous bedrock. Dosage is less than 6 g/l. Disgorged 3/16/20.

On the pour, very fine, delicate, and abundant bubbles that persist for a very long time. Appearance: clear pale lemon very fine bead to the bubble. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of green pear, yellow apple, white flowers, white nectarine, saline minerality, raw almond, and a touch of brioche notes. Palate: very dry with a crisp texture, medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity, and a long finish. Mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Green tree fruit (apple, pear), unripe peach, dried pineapple, touch of crème fraiche, saline, wet stone, bitter almond, touch cidery, a kiss of anise seed on the finish. Very complex aromas and flavors! Very well balanced. Quality level is outstanding. Drink now or hold 7 to 10 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

2017 AT Roca Rosat “Vi de Paisatge” Clàssic Penedès Reserva, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $25

Vi de Paisatge translates to “terroir wine”. This wine is a 50/50 blend of the indigenous grapes Macabeu and Garnatxa Negra. The Macabeu comes from calcareous, limestone, and gravel soils in plots from two subzones in the Clàssic Penedès: Costers d’Ordal and Massif of Garraf. It was destemmed and gently pressed. The Garnatxa comes from the Conca de l’Anoia subzone (central part of Clàssic Penedès) in calcareous clays and pebbles. It was macerated on skins 9-12 hours. The wine spent 20 months on the lees. Dosage is 3 g/l. Disgorged on 12/11/19 to order.

On the pour, very fine bead to the bubble and medium froth, bubbles more quiet than previous wines. Appearance: clear pale Salmon with fine beaded and persistent bubbles. Beautiful color! Nose: clean with medium intensity developing aromas of raspberry, strawberry, rose petals, white flowers, wet stone, toast, lemon, and unripe peach. Fruity and floral! Palate: Bone dry with medium-plus acidity, light tannin slightly noticeable on finish, medium alcohol and body, medium flavor intensity, and medium-plus finish. Mousse is very delicate and quiet. Flavor characteristics: Fruity! Strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, green apple, ripe Meyer lemon, chalk, licorice notes, and toast. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3-5 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

Widows of Champagne, Part 2

This is the second of a 2-part article about the widows of Champagne, namely Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin (aka Veuve Clicquot) and Louise Pommery. The first part explored Veuve Clicquot’s important contributions to champagne. This second part is all about perhaps a lessor-known but equally important widow of champagne: Louise Pommery.

Louise Pommery, Champagne and Roses

Important contributions happened during the later part of the 19th Century

Louise Pommery

Jeanne-Alexandrine “Louise” Melin Pommery was born in Reims, France, on April 13, 1819, 32 years and a generation after Madame Clicquot. Louise was raised in a female-dominant household; her mother was a widow as was one of her aunts who lived with them. She attended private schools in England and France before marrying Louis Alexandre Pommery in 1840. During her marriage, similar to Madame Clicquot, Louise had nothing to do with the family champagne business. Instead, she raised their son Louis and led a quiet comfortable existence. Before long, her life would change dramatically.

Like many in the Champagne region at this time, Monsieur Pommery’s primary business was the wool trade. In 1856, after earning a small fortune in his business, M. Pommery sold off the wool trade business and prepared for a leisurely retirement. But retirement was not to be as Louise discovered she was pregnant with their second child at the age of 38 and 17 years after the birth of her son. So, with little baby-girl Pommery on the way, Monsieur Pommery decided to go in to the champagne business. He partnered with Narcisse Greno, who had acquired the champagne house Dubois-Gosset in 1836, had large vineyard holdings around Reims, and had been making average still red wine. The new business was called Champagne Pommery et Greno, the same name for this champagne house today.

Only two years later, Louise Pommery was widowed when her husband died in 1858. Louise, like Nicole-Barbe widowed and with a young child, decided to take on the business herself. On his death, Louise declared: “I have resolved to carry on the business and take the place of my husband.” She convinced Greno to let her buy him out and took the reins at age 39. At the same time, she shifted focus from red wine to exclusively produce sparkling champagne.

At this time, the second Napoleon Empire under Napoleon III was in power, and the country was on the verge of the Franco Prussian War. The House of Champagne Pommery was in Reims, right in the battle lines of the war. Friends and family urged her to move to Chigny-les-Roses, her country mansion featuring her favorite flower, roses. Rather than move to a safer place, she stayed with her business, her employees, and her vineyards. She personally responded to every single piece of mail she received, earning her respect and admiration.

Moreover, she expanded her chalk caves (crayères) below ground and beautified her huge Champagne house above with magnificent rose gardens. Her objective was to make Champagne Pommery a brand of luxury synonymous with beauty and art and roses. In fact, she was one of the first people to market her brand as luxury item.

Champagne house of Pommery & Greno

The chalk caves were expanded by excavating an additional 12 miles of limestone, giving her a wine cellar for storing the wine for the longer time required to make the drier style she intended to make. Once the war broke out in 1870, these caves provided safe haven for people and wines alike. When 300,000 Prussian troops marched through Champagne, they wouldn’t find Madame Pommery’s wine because she had ordered her wines to be hidden behind false walls. With the Prussian victory in May 1871, the region was occupied by foreign military personnel. During the Prussian occupation in Reims, the military governor of the Prussian army, Prince von Hohenlohe, requisitioned Mme. Pommery’s home for his use. So Mme. Pommery was forced to share her home with the enemy. Also during this period, as Prussian soldiers were rounding up prisoners of war, Mme. Pommery is credited with saving the life of a local doctor by talking Hohenlohe out of executing him.

It wasn’t until after the war that Madame Pommery was able to accomplish one of her main contributions to the champagne industry.

The all-important Russian market preferred sweet wines, so most champagne made during this period was geared toward their tastes. From her time in England, Louise Pommery knew that the British consumers preferred dry (not sweet) champagne. So she established an agency in London headed by her representative Adolphe Hubinet and Champagne Pommery came to dominate the British market. 

Prior to the war, she began to experiment with making dry champagne. She dictated when to pick the grapes to control ripeness level, at a later harvest date so the fruit had more ripeness and available sugar for primary fermentation. After many trials and patiently waiting until after the war, Louise’s 1874 vintage Brut champagne hit the market with enormous success. With this wine, Madame Pommery became the first to produce dry Brut champagne and successfully market it at a commercial level. This was an important turning point for Champagne Pommery but also for the industry as a whole.

Every year on her birthday, Madame Pommery declared a holiday for her employees. Champagne and roses, her favorite flower, were the order of the day. Just 2 days before her death, knowing she was dying, Madame Pommery was concerned that she would not live past her birthday and her staff would miss their party. When she died on March 18, 1890 on her 71st birthday, she was given a huge funeral and a procession of 20,000 people followed her rose-strewn casket through Reims. She always put the well-being of her staff first, and was known for her warmth, generosity, and vast philanthropy to many charities, including the orphanage she established in Reims, as well as her love of art and roses, and for making the world’s most popular style of champagne first.

Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery contributed much to the beverage we know as champagne today. Bringing their tireless dedication, brilliant minds for business, and persuasive personalities, these women were able to not only make names for themselves as historical figures, but also further the quality and international appeal of one of the most celebrated beverages in the world: champagne. They also paved the way and provided inspiration for the many women who are champagne winemakers today.

#wine #champagne #pommery

Widows of Champagne, Part 1

If you know me, you know I love bubbles! Champagne especially. What’s not to love about a festive glass of bubbly? Mais oui! In honor of #ChampagneDay, I offer part 1 of my article about Madames Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin and Louise Pommery, two important women in the history of Champagne who also both happened to be widows.

Pour a glass of champagne and enjoy!


Throughout the history of wine production in the Champagne region of France, it is both notable and curious that several widows became important figures for their individual contributions to the Champagne industry. In this industry dominated by males and their sons, with men like Dom Pérignon getting all the credit for making champagne what it is today, how could it be that these women became famous figures still celebrated in the modern era?

This article explores the important contributions to Champagne made by two historical and fascinating women who led their respective Champagne houses in Reims as widows during two different periods in history: Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin and Madame Louise Pommery. 

First up…Veuve Cliquot!

Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin, La Grande Dame de Champagne

Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin – aka Veuve Clicquot

The most famous of the Champagne widows, Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin was born at Hôtel Ponsardin in Reims on December 16, 1777, to a wealthy and prominent family. Her father, Nicolas Ponsardin, was mayor of Reims at the time. Nicole-Barbe attended prestigious schools and received a proper education for a woman, destined to be a wife and mother like all women of the period. At age 20, Nicole-Barbe married François-Marie Clicquot in a Champagne cellar. During this time, François and his father Philippe ran the family business, Clicquot et Fils, a banking and wool trading firm with a little champagne production on the side. François also owned some Champagne vineyards, including some in Bouzy. Only seven years later, Nicole-Barbe was widowed with a 3-year-old daughter. When François died, Philippe was so distraught by his son’s death that he declared the end to the family business. In spite of being involved in the business very little up to this point, the new widow wanted to keep the business going and offered to take it over. So, Philippe handed over the business to Nicole-Barbe along with a $500,000 investment to help her succeed. She was only 27 years old.

In 1810, one of the first things she did was change the business name to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Veuve means widow in French and was commonly used as a greeting of respect. Madame Clicquot also sold off the wool and trading part of the business and switched the company focus exclusively to champagne production. She ran the business for the next 60 years of her life.

Champagne house of Veuve Clicquot

During her tenure, Madame Clicquot steered the business through difficult historical events, built the Champagne house to be one of the most successful and internationally recognized in the industry, and contributed important improvements to the winemaking process still in use today.

Veuve Clicquot managed her business during a period following the French Revolution and through both empires of Napoleon I and Napoleon III. The Napoleonic Wars in 1804-1814 established blockades preventing trade. However, the brilliant businesswoman found a way around this and together with her sales representative, Louis Bohne, who had established a personal relationship with the czar and his family, Veuve Clicquot was able to be the first champagne to market in Russia when the blockades were finally lifted. It became an instant favorite of the czar and, by extension, the Russian people. In fact, Veuve Clicquot champagne was the champagne in Russia until the fall of the czars 100 years later. The Russian market accounted for 70% of her business. From Russia, Veuve Clicquot’s exports grew to every court in Europe. Thus, she was the first to establish a champagne brand on an international level.

Madame Clicquot’s brilliance as a businesswoman extended to her ability to establish strong brand identity. She selected a bright yellow-orange color for her non-vintage label, thereby distinguishing it visually for consumers. The same color label is used on Veuve Clicquot bottles today. The color is attributed to the bright yellow of egg yolks from Bresse chickens.

Famous yellow-orange label of Veuve Clicquot

Madame Clicquot’s contributions to the traditional champagne winemaking process are legendary. She is credited with inventing rémuage (riddling), the process of removing sediment that forms during secondary fermentation in the bottle. In 1816, together with her cellar master Antoine Müller, Madame Clicquot experimented with her dining table to create the first riddling rack, called a pupitre, by creating holes that could hold the necks of champagne bottles sur pointe (upside down) and at an angle. 

Modern-day interpretation of Veuve Clicquot’s dining table as riddling rack

They discovered if they moved the bottles from a horizontal position a little at a time to sur pointe, jiggling the bottles a little with each movement, that the yeast sediment would work its way in the neck of the bottle making it easier to remove. They also discovered that if they froze the neck of the bottle, the ice plug containing the yeast sediment could be easily removed (disgorged) without loosing much wine or effervescence. This second step is called dégorgement (disgorging). Both of these methods of riddling and disgorging are still in use today in the traditional champagne method. 

Madame Clicquot’s contemporaries were baffled as to how she was able to make her champagne so clear and yet still retain the bubbles. She and Antoine were able to keep this method of clarification a secret for several years, so the Veuve Clicquot wines were leaders in quality at the time. This also solidified her brand in the market. 

Madame Clicquot remained the head of the Champagne house bearing her name for the rest of her life, 60 years, until she died on July 29, 1866. Veuve Clicquot is still considered one of the top quality brands, or a “grand marque,” of Champagne. Their prestige cuvée, La Grande Dame, is named for this remarkable woman.

Next up…Louise Pommery!

#wine #champagne #champagneday #veuveclicquot

Wine Tasting in Solvang and Santa Ynez Valley

Recently I traveled to the Santa Ynez Valley near Solvang, California, to do some wine tasting. It had been a few years since I visited this region. Some of my old favorites are still there and still worth a visit; other new spots have sprung up and are bringing new energy to the region.

If you are heading to this beautiful part of California, here are my recommendations for wine tasting and some other fun tips. Cheers!

Santa Ynez Valley AVA:

* Foxen Vineyards – This winery has two locations; the one at 7200 Foxen Canyon Road is the one I like best. I know the tasting room manager there, Simone Masters. She is super knowledgeable and will take good care of you; tell her I sent you. Amazing award-winning wines here! Two tasting flights available: one is a variety of wines including a delightful Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, a Rhône blend, and a Syrah. The other flight is all Pinot Noir featuring wines from specific terroirs in the region. If you only do one flight, do this one! Foxen Vineyard is known for their outstanding Pinots. Nice spot for picnicking out back and a pleasant view of the area. Fun fact: my husband played drums in a band back in the 1980s that was managed by Foxen co-owner Dick Doré.

* Rusack – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, several Pinot Noir bottlings, and Syrah; small nice peaceful spot with a shaded deck under oaks. Back in the late 1980s, this was the location of the Ballard Canyon Vineyard, fun spot owned and operated by a dentist who knew how to host a fun party complete with grape stomping.

* Brander in Los Olivos – Beautiful Chateau tasting room and really good wines. I’ll never forget the woman who worked the tasting room in the last 1980s, Lovette Twobirds (yes, that was her name!), who taught me how to “trill,” that is, moving the wine around your mouth to aerate it and open up esters in order to better evaluate aroma and flavor in a wine.

* Zaca Mesa Winery – The tasting room on Foxen Canyon Road was in the Sideways movie. Always consistently good wines.

* Fess Parker Winery – Foxen Canyon Road, a big beautiful winery, larger scale than the others, but nice wines and an unexpected Napa-type experience in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

Los Olivos – There are many tasting rooms in the little town of Los Olivos sprinkled around within walking distance of one another. These are great, but I personally prefer the experience of being out at the winery and vineyards.

Santa Rita Hills (officially known as Sta. Rita Hills AVA):

This is an amazing high-quality micro region to the west of Buellton and Solvang, specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, cool climate varieties. The transverse (aka “Sideways”) range that runs west-east here allows cool air to funnel into the region from the Pacific Ocean. So many different soils and soil structures, some based on ancient sea beds, define the unique terroirs found in this compelling wine AVA.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA is spelled this way to differentiate it from Santa Rita winery in Chile, a mega producer in Chile, South America. Richard Sanford is one of the founding fathers Sta. Rita Hills AVA. I had the honor and privilege of meeting him at his boutique Alma Rosa Winery  tasting room (see below). What a thrill!

Here you will find awesome welcoming little wineries off the beaten path, less crowded, less expensive, with huge quality from this prime terrior known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Take the beautiful drive along West 246 between Buellton and Lompoc, and discover this region that has been virtually frozen in time while it looks to the future.

Here are my Sta. Rita Hills favorites:

* Melville Winery – Some of the best Pinot and Chardonnay in the region. Jars of soil samples accompany the tasting. Geek out on terroir!

* Brewer-Clifton – Another best in the region. Focus on Pinots, including vineyard- and clone-specific bottlings. You won’t be disappointed! Check out the YouTube video of the winemaker Greg Brewer talking about winemaking. If Teresa Gillmore is working the tasting room, tell her I sent you. She is educated, entertaining, friendly, professional, and all-round passionate.

* Alma Rosa Winery – Tasting Room is in an industrial park near Buellton, but is a very cool experience. The Winery was founded by Richard Sanford, who is a celebrity in this region because he was instrumental at getting Sta. Rita Hills established as an AVA. Mr. Sanford happened to be there when we were tasting there, and I was honored to meet him. Pinots, pinots, pinots!

* Wine Ghetto in Lompoc – A consortium of a bunch of small tasting rooms in a little urban area near Lompoc, similar to the Westside Swift Street courtyard here in Santa Cruz.

And don’t forget…
The Hitching Post – Iconic restaurant with excellent food, ambiance, bar, and wines. Not to be missed. Oh, and it was featured in the movie Sideways as well. Hitching Post has a new tasting room in Buellton. Check it out. Amazing Pinot Noir wines!

Ostrichland – On Highway E. 246 down the road from Hitching Post. Great place for an entertaining, if a bit weird, post-wine tasting experience.

Here’s a couple more tips:
– Good place to stock up on picnic supplies and such is Nielsen’s Market in Nielsen’s Shopping Center just east of the main part of Solvang on Alamo Pintado Road. They have a pretty good wine selection too.
– If you are driving back north after your trip, stop at the Von’s grocery store at 1758 Grand Avenue in Grover Beach/Pismo Beach. It’s not far from Highway 101. They have an excellent selection of local wines (Santa Ynez and San Luis Obispo regions) with really good prices. You’ll be amazed! Got a $35 bottle of Hitching Post Pinot Noir there for $20. Worth a detour.

Cheers and have a great trip!


Original Grandpère Vineyard Celebration Weekend – Amador County, Sierra Foothills, CA

Amador County, Sierra Foothills, CA – I just spent a fascinating and fun January weekend in the California Shenandoah Valley AVA of Amador County celebrating the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in America, the Original Grandpère Vineyard. In 2016, the California State Fair bestowed its prestigious “Vineyard of the Year” award to this small yet historically important vineyard.


This was the first annual celebration weekend honoring Original Grandpère (also known as OGP or Vineyard 1869). Here’s a link about the event.



Featured were special wine tastings and wine and food pairings at three wineries in Amador County that source fruit from this very special vineyard. All weekend long, the celebrated and delicious Taste Restaurant in Plymouth offered a special prix-fixe pairing dinner featuring OGP wines from these three Amador wineries. Yum!



About the Original Grandpère Vineyard Planted in 1869 and still producing premium wine grapes, this 10-acre vineyard located off of Steiner Road in the California Shenandoah Valley AVA of Amador County produces very low yields—between 1 and 1.5 tons per acre (total of 16 tons from 10 acres). It is sourced by only four wineries, three of which are in Amador County: Vino Noceto, Scott Harvey, and Andis, all located within the Shenandoah Valley. (The fourth winery, Macchia Wines, is in Lodi.) Eighty percent of the vines in this vineyard are original vines planted 147 years ago.


The roots dig 40 feet down through sandy, iron-rich clay loam soil. Burrowing down that far for water creates a smaller berry with intense flavor and aroma and yields complex minerality from the layers of various soil types.


OGP was originally planted and managed by a woman named Mahal Teter Upton to financially support her family until the 1930s. Today it is owned and meticulously managed and cared for by the hands of another woman, Terri Harvey, a local farmer’s daughter who has been tending the vineyard by hand since 1982. She does all of the vineyard management and maintenance, pruning each vine herself. The vines are free-standing (not trellised), head-trained, spur-pruned, and dry-farmed (not irrigated), as is typical of ancient vine Zinfandel. Although the rows of vines are 8 feet apart, originally planted for horses pulling plows, today the harvest is always done by hand to prevent injuring the vines and to produce superior results in the glass. You can see two OGP vines on display in the Scott Harvey tasting room in the Shenandoah Valley.

OGP wines are not wimpy; but nor are they the big alcoholic fruit-bombs you might expect from Amador County Zin. OGP wines are intense and rich with good acidity, softer tannins, and high minerality; but they also have an elegance and finesse to them. They tend to be clear, almost translucent in color. Because of their good acidity and strong fruit characteristics, OGP wines can be long-lived.

(Note: For a fascinating read on the detailed history of the OGP vineyard, check out this article “The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes, and Wines,” by Randy Caparoso.)

The OGP Celebration Wine Tastings

The first stop on our wine tasting tour was at the ultra-modern tasting room and winery of Andis Wines.

AndisTasting.JPGHere we tasted 2012 and 2013 OGP Zinfandel. Each was paired with a crostini and different toppings to complement each vintage’s unique characteristics. The 2012 vintage (13.5%) tasted more like a Syrah to me than to a Zinfandel; earthy and funky with firm tannins and not much fruit on the palate, the ripe goat chese paired well with it—funk on funk! The 2013 (15%) was my favorite of these two. A plummy color, the oak aging was apparent on the nose; palate yielded good cherries/cranberries fruit flavors along with some spice and alcohol heat, and paired well with the dried cherry tapenade.


Next stop was Vino Noceto Winery, which is literally across Shenandoah Road from Andis. Lauren, the events manager at Vino Noceto, was in charge of the event and the pairing here. Vino Noceto had the best food pairings of the 3 wineries we visited. My husband and I both preferred their OGP wines from all 3 wineries as well. Here we tasted a vertical of 4 OGP wines: 2013, 2012, 2008, and 2007 (in that order). The 2013 OGP Zin was poured from a magnum bottle (1.5 liters). Wines from a magnum have less glass-to-wine ratio, providing a slower aging process, and are therefore considered the most desirable size for bottle-aging. Besides that, they are fun and festive! The 2012 OGP Zin was poured from a regular 750 ml bottle. Both wines were outstanding examples of a classic Amador Zin from OGP! The color of both was deep ruby, bright and clear. Dusty brambles, minerality, cocoa, good fruit, big black fruit on the nose and palate. Some alcohol heat on the finish, but not overpowering. Very well balanced, these 14.1% alcohol wines had medium-high acidity and paired beautifully with the accompanying bites—2013 with Genoa salami with sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary fromage on crostini, 2012 with black forest ham and cranberry cheese spirals topped with thyme Zinfandel glazed sweet onions—yum! The 2013 had more tannin expression, being a year younger. The 2012 had softer tannins, good fruit on the nose and palate, and was our favorite wine of the day. Both of these were lovely wines! We were told that Vino Noceto is the only winery of the 3 that does not add Syrah to the blend; their OGP Zins are 100% OGP Zin. (Note: AVA laws require 95% of fruit to be from a named single vineyard in California, which means 5% may be other fruit.) Next in the Vino Noceto vertical was the 2008 OGP Zin. This well-aged 15%-alcohol Zinfandel had notes of raisin, earth, fig, and olive on the nose. On the palate, big strong acids, nuanced fruit, and strong alcohol on the finish. This was paired with a date spread with chevre and sprinkled with cocoa nibs. The chevre calmed down the acidity of the wine. Lastly Lauren poured for us a 2007 OGP Zin, not on the usual line-up. What a treat! We liked this better than 2007, even though there was less fruit on the palate. The wine was perfectly aged and well-balanced with still firm acids, and the ubiquitous dusty bramble minerality. Before we left, we took advantage of the $99 OGP Vertical special.

ogp-vine-at-scott-hLast stop on the OGP tasting tour: Scott Harvey Wines, which is located next door to Vino Noceto on Shenandoah Road. It is Scott’s ex-wife Terri that owns and manages the OGP vineyard, which Scott Harvey calls Vineyard 1869. When they were married, the couple purchased OGP together in 1988 (although they had been working the vineyard since 1982). We tasted through a vertical of four wines: 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, in that order. All were 14.5% alcohol, and have a touch of Syrah added. Although the wines were great, the food pairings were not as successful as the first 2 wineries; we felt the strong cheeses and spices in the bites here overpowered these Zinfandels. The 2011 “1869” was a cooler climate and yielded higher acidity. On the nose, not as fruity as Vino Noceto wines, but the dusty minerals were apparent. Color was clear and bright, elegant. On the palate: sour cherry, sour cherry candy, spice, and dry minerals. This was paired with a Point Reyes bleu cheese-Zin onion dip with potato chips. The bleu cheese dominated the palate of the wine, unfortunately. The 2012 “1869” was clear and bright with a magenta rim. The nose had the typical classic OGP notes of dusty brambles and big black fruits. A very well-balanced wine, the palate offered big fruit, softer dust/minerals than 2011, along with delicate spice notes. The 2012 was our favorite here, as it was at Vino Noceto. This was paired with a small pastry filled with spicy sopressata (like salami) and gouda, and again overwhelmed the wine. Next was the 2013 “1869,” which came from the first drought year for the vineyard. The wine was jammier with strong mineral notes. Less yields are typical in a drought, and that means less acids, and more concentrated fruit. More alcohol on the finish than the previous two. This was paired with a chicken/chimichurri empanada, which again was too spicy and overpowered the wine (however, the chimichurri sauce was really delicious!). Last we tasted the 2014 “1869,” which had less fruit but good dust/mineral expression on the nose, while on the palate it had good fruit, blackberries, jam, and not as much minerality. This wine is still fairly young for an OGP Zin, but with not as much fruit and acidity, it should be consumed within the next year or 2. In all, the Scott Harvey wines were very similar and consistent across vintages.

I look forward to attending this fun and educational event again next year! I hope you can make the journey as well to experience this unique place and its special wines. Santé!

Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Bubbles

Limoux & St-Hilaire, France — During our stay in a small village within the Languedoc region in the South of France, we were treated to great food, wine, and hospitality, incredible values, and few if any tourists. But mostly we were treated to very rich and ancient history that washed over us every step of the way.

My husband and I stayed in the small village of Palaja, about 6 km south of Carcassonne, in a château owned by a lovely family. We were ideally situated to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the medieval city of Carcassonne, an incredibly picturesque restored old walled city and castle on a hill overlooking the Aude valley.


One of the waterways flowing below is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site–the Canal du Midi. This is an important water way built in 1681 through the South of France that connects Sète on the Mediterranean coast to the Garonne River in Toulouse which flows through the Bordeaux region to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s 150 miles long and was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. Our location in Palaja was also ideal for visiting small wine villages around the area, including St-Hilaire near Limoux, a pilgrimage point for any sparkling wine lover because this is the birthplace of sparkling wine.

Most people believe that Dom Pérignon discovered the method of making sparkling wine while working in the cellars in Champagne in the late 1680s. This is incorrect. Dom Pérignon did make other important contributions to the process of making sparkling wine that would be called “méthode champenoise” (Champagne method) or later “méthode traditionelle” (MT), including how to derive white juice from red grapes and the idea of blending grapes into Champagne (“cuvée”). But he did not make the first sparkling wine.

The first sparkling wine was made by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey at St-Hilaire in 1531, a full 150 years before Dom Pérignon’s work. The monks made their wine in a small stone cellar in the Abbey of St-Hilaire. The wine they made was called Blanquette de Limoux. Blanquette is a synonym for the Mauzac grape used to make Blanquette de Limoux. Blanquette means “small white” and probably refers to the white downy coating on the Mauzac leaf. The grape and resulting wine has distinctive apple-peel/bruised apple aroma and flavor characteristics. The monks used cork-stopped flasks to store their wine. With Limoux’s proximity to the cork oaks of the Pyrenees, they would have had good access to this important component of sparkling wine production.

The method of making Blanquette de Limoux (now referred to as the “méthode ancestrale”) involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle similar to méthode traditionelle. But the wine doesn’t go through the riddling and disgorging for clarifying as méthode traditionelle wines do. In méthode ancestrale the wine is bottled before the primary fermentation is complete. That means that not all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, leaving the wine slightly sweet (6-8% residual sugar), with a lower percentage of alcohol (max 7%), and less fizz. It’s left in the bottle for secondary fermentation to occur later in the spring, and the sediment from this remains in the bottle, giving it a slightly cloudy appearance.

Blanquette de Limoux exists today as either Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale AOC, which requires 100% Mauzac made in the méthode ancestrale, or Blanquette de Limoux AOC, which requires 90% minimum Mauzac and 10% Chenin Blanc and/or Chardonnay made in the méthode traditionelle. A third sparkling wine is also made here, Crémant de Limoux AOC, made in the méthode traditionelle with mostly Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, the remainder is Mauzac and/or Pinot Noir, and with minimum 15 months sur lie (yeast sediment) aging. As a nod to its importance, Blanquette de Limoux was the first AOC in the Languedoc region, established in 1938. (See my page “What is an AOC?” for a discussion of French wine laws and the quality pyramid.)

In addition to the historical Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines, the Limoux wine-growing region produces still red (Merlot-based) and white (Chardonnay-based) wines. These grape varieties used in the Limoux still wines are not typical for Languedoc region. The Languedoc region as a whole generally grows lots of Grenache Noir and Blanc, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Clairette, Bourblenc, and Picpoul, among other obscure varieties, into blended wines. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is also grown here in 4 prominent subregions for dessert wine called Vin Doux Naturel.

The Limoux AOCs have a unique climate, on the western edge of the Languedoc in the foothills of the Pyrenees with winds blowing from the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, and have limestone-based soils. As a result, this sub-region of Languedoc can produce wines from “international” grapes that are easily recognized and appreciated by the international market (such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, etc.). In fact, the Limoux AOC produces some of the best quality Chardonnay in the south of France, and it is the only Chardonnay produced in France to require oak aging.


We took a bucolic drive off the beaten path on the D56 along winding roads in the lush foothills just east of Limoux to the very small town of St-Hilaire, making our pilgrimage to the famous Abbey. The Abbey itself is open for visitors, but we were the only tourists that day. The birthplace of bubbles, and we were the only 2 people visiting! By contrast, years ago I visited Moët et Chandon in Épernay in the Champagne region, where Dom Pérignon supposedly discovered sparkling wine, and that was inundated with tourists, with expensive tours and tastings, reservations required days in advance, and a major marketing engine at work feeding the myth. The Abbey at St-Hilaire was the complete opposite. Granted, this is an abbey versus a wine corporation, but that corporation has essentially usurped the title from the Abbey.


After touring through the Abbey’s beautifully restored chapel, rooms, and the lovely cloisters, we walked through a doorway out the back of the abbey. Alongside a driveway, next to a room that was used for a jail hundreds of years ago, are the wine cellars where the magic happened back in 1531.


Except for a couple of old wine barrels used to hold up signs explaining the significance of this place, the cellar is empty yet clean, and probably looks just like it did nearly 500 years ago. It was surprising that this historically important spot in the wine world would be so unadorned, unblemished, and considerably unassuming. The cave consists of a series of small alcoves or rooms located below street level in a cold, damp sandstone space. We were able to just walk right in and wander around the historic space. Literally the only ones there! It was an honor and privilege to walk in this sacred space.

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Back outside the Abbey and across the bridge was the cave cooperative (AKA “co-op”) of Anne de Joyeuse. Time for a tasting! This tasting room, adjacent to the winemaking facility, was modern, filled with all kinds of different wine from the Limoux AOCs, and again we were the only 2 people there, aside from the warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable young woman pouring. (See my page “What is a cave co-op?”)

We tasted the Antech Méthode Ancestrale (MA) first. This wine is 100% Mauzac. Delicate aromas and flavors of apple peel and brioche, and just a touch sweet. So refreshing on such a hot day! It reminded me of a delicate apple cider. Next we tasted the 2013 Brut Réserve – sublime! Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc in the blend made in the méthode traditionelle (MT). Whereas the MA wasn’t very bubbly, the MT was quite bubbly; both had a fine, delicate bead. We also tasted the Grande Cuvée Crémant de Limoux, a classic fizz! We finished our tasting with a still Limoux white and red. The 2014 La Butinière Chardonnay was absolutely delicious! As a Chardonnay lover, I loved this wine. Not over-manipulated, not oaky/buttery. Delicate pineapple aromas with just a hint of oak and nice acidity, this was a mouthfilling nicely balanced Chardonnay. The 2011 La Butinière red wine, predominately Merlot, was smooth and silky. Slightly earthy with bright red plums on the nose and palate, this wine completely surprised us in its complexity. Both of the still wines were Limoux AOC, (100% of the grapes used to make the wine are from Limoux), where oceanic influences and clay and limestone soils make both Chardonnay and Merlot grapes very happy. We bought one of each of these still wines, and one of the Antech Méthode Ancestrale.


From there we drove to the city of Limoux. The drive through the Pyrenees foothills and quiet rambling vineyards in the countryside was so peaceful and scenic. At Limoux, we stopped for wine tasting at Sieur d’Arques, a large producer. We had their Toques et Clochers Haut-Vallée Chardonnay for dinner the night before with escargot—what a pairing! This tasting room was significantly larger than Anne de Joyeuse, with many offerings from sparkling (done in all 3 methods), still white and red, rosé, and dessert.

We tasted their Première Bulle (first bubble) 2014 Brut and 2013 Premium Brut. Both of these sparklers were awesome! Chardonnay-forward with a nice acidity and brioche on the nose and in the mouth. Delightful! Next we tasted 4 Toques et Clocher Chardonnays, one from each of the four terroirs of Limoux defined by differing microclimates. Our favorites were the Terroir Océanique, which had a touch of salinity to the taste, and the Haut-Vallée, just an awesome Chardonnay! Delicately pale straw in color, this wine was well-balanced with white flowers, tropical notes, minerality, and good acidity on the palate. All of these wines were Limoux AOC wines. We also tasted a Pays d’Oc Rosé of Syrah, which Ray really liked, and a Pays d’Oc Merlot, which again had a surprising earthiness to it. The Pays d’Oc wines were IGP, Indication Géographique Protégée, not AOC wines. We left with some Première Bulle Brut and 2 bottles of Chardonnay. Yum!

Our visit to Limoux and the Languedoc region of France was memorable and too short. We would have liked to have visited many of the small wine producers in the area and explored more castles and villages. Someday we will return. Au revoir!

Barcelona and Bubbles

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Barcelona, Catalunya – It’s hot and muggy and it’s time for a bite after some sightseeing in this beautiful bustling city along the Costa Brava in Spain. Ray and I spent the afternoon today visiting the must-see Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Focusing on works from his formative teens and early 20s, this museum is housed in a series of 5 buildings spanning 5 centuries all connected together to accommodate the modern art master’s abundance of awe-inspiring works. Get the BCN Articket and skip the line that snakes down the cobblestone for blocks. The collection starts with pieces Picasso painted when he was 12-13 years old; you can already see the humanism in the expressions and connection with emotion. So many studies of the Les Meninas masterpiece he painted as an homage to Velazquez. I loved the photos taken by Jacqueline Picasso and David Duncan showing Picasso at work. And the beautiful, playful ceramics he created and painted while in Provence. I can see where Mattie Leeds may have drawn inspiration from Picasso. We chose to finish with the “156” galleries, a collection of 156 etchings donated by Picasso just before his death, featuring thousands of writhing bodies as only Picasso can depict them, with Degas lurking in the shadows.

Ah, good. There is a tapas wine bar not far away! This evening we chose La Vinya del Senyor, a small inviting bar on the Placa del Santa Maria del Mar, facing the imposing Santa Maria del Mar church built in the 14th century. It was a perfect time for pink bubbles. (And when is it not?) I chose a Cava Rose Brut Nature to pair with our tapas of jamon iberica (dried Iberian ham), pan tomate (bread with fresh tomato, olive  oil, and Maldron salt), and Spanish olives. The crisp lively wine paired beautifully with the fatty, saltiness of the jamon and olives. The wine had delicate fresh raspberry and strawberry notes along with subtle brioche aromas. Ray’s old-vine Granacha (Grenache) from Catalunya was delightful, strawberry pepper characteristics exploding the flavors of the pan tomate.

So what is Cava Rose Brut Nature exactly? Cava is a sparkling wine made in the methode champenoise style, which means the same as French Champagne. Secondary fermentation happens in the same bottle you purchase and pour from, and it’s this fermentation, when yeast convert grape sugars to alcohol leaving behind “lees” (yeast sediment) in the bottle, that makes the bubbles. For a rose, during the first fermentation the grape juice is in contact with skins of red grapes for a brief time (a matter of hours in some cases) allowing the juice to take on a blush color. The color of wine comes from the skins, not the pulp of the grapes. In some cases, the rose color comes from blending red and white base wines together. That is the case with this wine I had. It was a blend of Pinot Noir (one of the 3 grapes allowed in French Champagne), and Xarello, a neutral Spanish white grape.

Brut Nature is very dry. In the methode champenoise, after the yeast plug is popped and before corking, a small amount of sugar and wine mixture is added to the bottle to top it off. This mixture, called dosage, determines the sweetness level of the finished wine. Brut Nature, or zero dosage, means that there was no sugar added during this step.

So here’s to Santa Maria, Picasso, tapas, and our first day in Barcelona. Salut!