Photo by Tashoma Lemard
Nothing captures the spirit of Christmas in Catalunya like cava. It’s like good cheer in a glass; sparkling and bubbling and oozing festiveness, very often for under €10, and an essential purchase if you’re planning to spend the festive season here.
It was invented in the 1860s by Josep Raventós, who was touring France promoting the still wines he was making at the time when he stumbled across the small, shaly Champagne region in the north-east of the country. He was impressed by the sparkling wines he found there and set about learning the méthode champenoise, which had been invented by the monk Dom Perignon, to try out back in Catalunya. Raventós released his first bottle in 1872 and it was an instant success, fast becaming a favourite of the Spanish aristocracy and royal family; today, his winery—now part of Codorníu—is still going strong in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia in the Penedès region.
Unable since the Eighties to officially call the sparkling wine ‘champagne’ due to European Unions laws on protected geographical status, the Catalan version takes its name from the cellars (literally caves in Catalan) that Raventós dug in order to preserve his wines. Indeed, the Modernista cellars at Codorníu are some of the most impressive in the world. Designed and built by the great Josep Puig i Cadafalch, they were officially recognised as a Monument of Historic and Artistic Interest in 1976.
Unlike champagne, which is attached to a region, cava refers to any sparkling wine made using the ‘traditional method’ in Spain. Contrary to popular belief, this production isn’t limited to the Penedès though that is certainly the area that makes the majority of it. Traditionally the grapes used were endemic to Spain—Macabeo, Paralleda and Xarel·lo—which resulted in a fairly light wine. There’s still plenty of traditional cava-making about, but more recently the taste for champagne worldwide has caused producers to inject a little Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into the mix, often with excellent results. Think of it as the new wave if you like, and often they are the bottles that are putting cava on the map.
In terms of production, the method is exactly like that of champagne. The wine is made, bottled and stopped with a metal cap. Just before the bottle is corked, a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to kick-start a secondary fermentation, which creates the bubbles. The wine is then left to rest, basically soaking up lots of flavour and character from the lees—the icky stuff left at the bottom of the bottle after the fermentation—and the maker ‘riddles’ it from time to time (that’s turning upside down to you and me) until the lees move up into the neck. At this point the cava is frozen, then the cap whipped off. The frozen lees pop out and a cork is slotted into their place, leaving a clean, frothy, celebratory wine that is often much more easy-going than champagne. It is light on the head, keeps you upbeat rather than groggy and best of all you can pair it with anything (or nothing, if you prefer). Ask any of the great Catalan chefs, such as Ferran Adrià or Joan Roca, what’s the best wine to serve with their lengthy tasting menus and they’ll all tell you to go for a bottle of cava.
And yet despite all these obvious qualities, there remains an extraordinary amount of snobbery around cava in wine-drinking circles. True there’s plenty of rubbish out there, but it’s come a long way in the last few years and there is lots of very good drinking to be had, especially if you start looking in the €10-plus mark and at the new wave of production.
This year, for example, Bodegas Naveran in the Penedès have launched a Magnum of their premium cava Perles Blanques, made of Pinot Blanc de Noir and Chardonnay. It’s the classic champagne combo, but priced just €36 (remember you’re getting two bottles in a magnum, and magnums by their nature generally pour better wines). What makes it a bit different from the rest of the crop is that the grapes are cooled at a very low temperature before the maceration and pressing process begins. The fermentation is also done at a very low temperature, which keeps the sugars in the fruit concentrated, the aromas bright and the structure tight in the finished wine, which develops over the next 24 months. The result is a quite beautiful cava with streaks of greenish gold, and a fine, elegant bubble. US wine critic Robert Parker gave it 91 points out of 100 last year.
Bottles of fizz that come from outside of the best-known cava-making region are also on the rise and they’re gaining an audience. They also tend to be cheaper. Torre Oria Brut—www.torreoria.com—from Valencia has wine writers and critics salivating all over it. Described as an “insane deal” by Richard Goldsmith on Fox News, I have to agree. It’s honeyed and crisp with fine, soft bubbles, is always picking up awards and costs less than €10. Perhaps even more surprising is the reaction to González Byass Vilarnau Brut NV, from the sherry-makers in Jerez, which is also making strides for its fresh, frothy and “happy”—according to Eric Asimov in the New York Times—fizz.
This is not to denigrate traditional cavas. Indeed, when it comes to light and crisp, go for the classic grape mix every time. But when you’re shopping for this season’s festive cheer, scan the aisles of your local bodega closely: these days your choices are bigger and brighter than ever.
THREE OF THE BEST CROWD-PLEASING CLASSICS
Albet i Noya Cava Brut 21
This cava was originally made as a commemorative fizz for the new millennium, but it proved so popular they kept making it. The combination of Chardonnay with Paralleda gives it a fresher, silkier finish than other cavas and it’s a classy choice for the price of around €11 a bottle. It’s also 100 percent organic.
Llopart Brut Nature Integral
This is an elegant cava that packs enough muscle to pair with food. The combination of Chardonnay, Paralleda and Xarel·lo, however, does give it a floral freshness that lends itself particularly well to brunch or an aperitif before lunch or dinner. It is priced around €10.
Codorníu Pinot Noir
A sturdy, salmon-pink cava from one of the biggest cava bodegas in the land, but it’s nicely made and has a satisfying air of history about it given its connection with the invention of cava in the first place. Crisp and refreshing in the mouth, with a creamy mouth-feel and a fine bubble, it’s pretty, festive and versatile, seeing you right through to dessert. It retails at around €12.