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Catalonia’s sparkle: the story of cava

Catalonia’s sparkle: the story of cava

by Nancy Anne Harbord 18 March 2016

Nancy Anne Harbord takes a look at the history and production of this sparkling wine, and what makes the best, beautifully crafted bottles so complex and unique.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

The reputation of this popular, affordable sparkling wine is experiencing a renaissance – artisan producers are crafting beautifully aged bottles with delicate, complex flavours and aromas, and most of the best quality wine is finding its way to our shores. At its most distinctive, cava has rich nutty brioche notes, subtle fruity flavours of apple and peach and a minerality that makes it an excellent match for food. The feathery bubbles, which lift the wine’s subtle aromas from the glass, are produced with careful, natural fermentation.

Made in Catalonia in north east Spain, with the vast majority coming from the area of Penedès near Barcelona, it is named after the stone cellars where it is aged. Cava was first produced in 1872 by Josep Raventós, who brought the méthode champenoise back with him from France, where vineyards were stricken by a plague of phylloxera lice. This meant the winemakers of Catalonia were well placed to fill gaps in supply.

Catalonia vineyard
Macabeu, Xarel·lo and Parallada grapes are grown all over Catalonia
Riddling
During fermentation cava is 'riddled', to allow the yeast to settle in the neck of the bottle

Mètode tradicional

 
 
Bottles are stored slanted down, the angle becoming steeper as they are turned regularly (riddled) so the yeasts can settle in the neck of the bottle. The more traditional cava houses still riddle them by hand, but the potential for exploding bottles means that many are riddled by machine.

Nancy Anne Harbord

There are three indigenous grape varieties generally used in cava: Macabeu, with a light lemon flavour and soft floral aroma; Xarel·lo, with fruity notes, stronger, richer aromatics and greater aging potential and Parellada, with zesty flavour and sharp acidity. Macabeu is usually the majority grape in cava blends, but high quality bottles are often predominantly Xarel·lo. Chardonnay and pinot noir, grape varieties of the Champagne region, can also be used, though the use of non-indigenous grape varieties is somewhat controversial and much more limited.

One of the key differences between cava and Prosecco and some other sparkling wines is the method of carbonisation. While Prosecco can be made by adding carbon dioxide under pressure, cava must be naturally fermented, as with Champagne; though in Catalonia it must be labelled mètode tradicional rather than méthode champenoise. This natural method, which produces finer bubbles, involves a two-stage fermentation process. The grapes are pressed into a basic cuvée which is bottled with the addition of sugar and yeast (some high-end producers first ferment the cuvée in barrels). This starts the short first fermentation process.

The wine is then stored for at least nine months to carry the name cava, but up to forty-eight months for a truly exceptional wine. They are stored slanted down, the angle becoming steeper as they are turned regularly (riddled) so the yeasts can settle in the neck of the bottle. The more traditional cava houses still riddle them by hand, but the potential for exploding bottles means that many are riddled by machine.

This sediment in the neck – called the lees – scents and flavours the wine; the longer it rests on the lees, the more complex it has the potential to become. Certain producers cap their bottles with cork during this process, instead of metal caps – a process that adds its own layer of flavour. Carbon dioxide is also dissolved into the wine by the second fermentation, creating its natural fizz. When the neck is ultimately frozen to solidify the lees for removal, it is this fizz that pushes it out, soon after the bottle is inverted and the lees begins to melt.

 

Terroir

 
 

Bottles to look out for

There are many producers making fantastic, long-aged cava – some higher volume producers as well as many smaller grower-producers; some long established in the region, others newer additions. Here’s a snapshot of the ones to seek out.

Bohigas

Mestres

Raventós i Blanc

Huguet

Gramona

Agustí Torelló Mata Kripta

Recaredo

Albert i Noya

Naveran

Although the bulk of cava is produced in great volumes, using grapes sourced from various co-operatives, it tends to be the grower-producers that make the most remarkable examples. Making wine solely from grapes they grow and manage themselves, they often ferment the base wines in barrels and tend to age the bottles for longer.

The cava region encompasses several different landscapes and climates, with vineyards close to the Mediterranean, up to 900 metres above sea level on inland terrain and deep in the Penedès river valley. Formed twelve million years ago by the Anoia River, the valley contains exposed ancient soils formed of limestone ocean fossils that lend distinctive minerality to the wines grown there. Recently the governing body that regulates cava approved a new classification, cava de paratge qualificat – single estate cava – which dictates climate, soil type and a thirty-six-month period on the lees.

Food and cava

Cava is incredibly versatile with food – at El Bulli it was reportedly regarded as the safest drink to see diners through a long succession of Ferran Adrià’s tasting plates. Its bone dry acidity and natural bubbles mean it cuts through the fattiness of fried food or oily fish. This acidity also means it is not completely overwhelmed by other acids such as vinegar and tomatoes, both of which are usually difficult to pair with wine.

Olive oil shares volatile aroma compounds with cava, as do all méthode chamenoise wines. Vinegar typically clashes strongly with the subtle flavours of wine, mouth-puckeringly acidic as it is, but the high acidity of cava makes it a match. Cheese also goes extremely well with cava, as its minerality helps deepen savoury flavours.

So take another look at this familiar drink, past the industrial output and towards those passionate producers who are fully committed to making their bottles the best possible expression of cava it can be.

 
 

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