Tag Archives: Sparkling Wine

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine World

Sitting quietly and studiously in the corner is its elder brother Champagne – mature, bookish, often aloof – while the younger sister Prosecco – loud, brash, in-your-face – runs amok, seemingly everywhere at once. In the public’s eyes it is these two categories that command most attention, with the unfortunate result that Cava, the historic Spanish sparkler is often overlooked, or, worse, ignored.

I like to imagine that Cava would often skulk away to hang out with his other offbeat friends – Crémant, Franciacorta, and MCC (not to forget his far-flung cousins in places like Chile and Australia) – to listen to some indie rock and moan about not how they’re never understood.

Which is all a shame really. Cava has far more flavour and fizz than Prosecco, and can be much better value than Champagne, with top examples of the former often surpassing cheaper versions of the latter albeit at a lower price.

 

So why don’t we drink more of it?

The UK press like to talk about how their market across the water was (and still is) awash with cheap, underwhelming bottles of fizz that only barely accorded the term ‘Cava’, which has done much to damage the wine’s image in the minds of the average consumer.

In Ireland, however, I feel the reason is that Frizzante Prosecco has stolen the march: its low fizz means that it’s actually classed as a still wine, and therefore is subject to half the duty of fully-sparkling wines such as Cava and Champagne (and hence why Frizzante Prosecco corks don’t ‘pop’).

So we’ve ended up choosing Prosecco for everyday, cheap bubbles, and Champagne for pricier, special occasions. Cava, therefore, is often seen as the misfit in between: too expensive for weekday sipping (thanks to punitive Irish tax rules) and not quite posh enough for the big events.

The reality – as often in wine – is much further than the truth, however.

 

Cava Cava Chameleon or… what is Cava?

At its most simple it’s Spanish sparkling wine made in the ‘traditional method’, meaning that a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, giving it full-on bubbles and a distinct richness.

Interestingly, wines that can call themselves “Cava” can come from a number of non-contiguous regions in Spain, namely Valencia, Aragón, Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque country. However 95% of it comes from the Catalan region around Barcelona, and the Penedès in particular, which is where you’ll find most of the famous names such as Freixenet.

Also of interest is that total production of Cava per year is roughly a third of that of Champagne, perhaps a surprising statistic given its perception as voluminous, cheap and cheerful.

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine World

The term Cava – which means ‘cellar’ in Catalan – was adopted by the Spanish in 1970 when they agreed to abandon the use of the potentially misleading term Champaña, and the style was brought to Spain by José Raventós of the family firm Codorníu, who made the first bottles of traditional method sparkling wine in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia after a visit to France in 1872.

Though the ‘traditional method’ process of making sparkling wine must be followed, beyond that Cava producers have less rigorous restrictions on what must be done to earn the title. Apart from the requirement that certain grapes be used (see below) and that the wine must spend at least nine months on its lees before disgorgement, rules aren’t so strict thereafter.

That has left the door open for a large degree of industrialisation and mechanisation, which good for keeping costs down, but bad when over-used to create a bland, mass-produced,‘commodity wine’ designed to hit a price point. Which is exactly what happened to the category, and thus its current conundrum.

 

The Three Cava Musketeers

Whereas most other ‘traditional method’ sparkling wines the world over tend to emulate Champagne in having Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir in their blends, Cava is most often a blend of three grapes native to the region: Macabeo, Xarel·lo and Parellada.

The light, aromatic Macabeo (also known as Viura in Rioja) comprises about half of the blend for a typical Cava, while Parellada provides green apple and blossom flavours, with Xarel·logrape rounding off the blend with an earthy bottom note that has been one of Cava’s distinguishing features.

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine World

Interestingly, Cava was given an unusual boost in its early days in Catalonia in that many vineyards that made hearty (if rustic) red wine to slake the thirst of the nearby Barcelonés succumbed to the Phylloxera louse, and when replanted then one or more of these white varieties were chosen instead of the ill-fitting red varieties of old.

That said, obviously a range of red varieties are still allowed – otherwise no Rosado would be made! – and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been officially authorized for Cava since 1986, though for the large part Cava producers stick to the tried and trusted trio.

Again it was via the enterprise and lobbying of the Codorníus that Chardonnay and Pinot were allowed into the Cava fold, and as such the famous Anna De Codorníu is the archetypical 100% Chardonnay Cava (and indeed it was the first), but sadly is unavailable here. Try and grab it in Duty Free next time you’re in Spain.

 

Rebel, Rebel

As mentioned above, Cava has suffered historically from something of an image problem, thanks in no small part to unscrupulous, large-scale producers who produce a low-quality product from poor vineyard sites yet charge multiples of its worth simply because of the Cava name.

But the perceived mass-market image of the appellation has led to a growing disenchantment among better quality producers. They have been hamstrung by the over-generic “Cava” designation, which can serve to mask regional variations, meaning their vastly superior artisan bottlings are lumped in with cheap-and-cheerful plonk.

So by 2014 a number of Penedès-based Cava producers – including Raventòs i Blanc, Albet i Noya, Mas Comptal, Loxarel, Colet, and Mas Bertran- had left the appellation altogether and joined the generic Penedès DO, therefore shedding the Cava name and trusting the market to recognise their offerings as distinctly different and superior.

By doing so they were effectively replicating the “Super Tuscan” movement in Italy in the 1970’s onwards, where high-quality producers in Chianti consciously rebelled against the region’s archaic laws to produce wines that they felt suited the terroir of the region, rather than abiding to outdated ‘cookie-cutter’ regulations.

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine World

The Cava rebels’ protest worked: a new classification for single-vineyard Cava, Cava del Paraje Calificado (meaning “Qualified Single Estate Cava”), was agreed in 2014/15 and introduced proper in 2016. The designation sets out rigorous standards for qualification: all wines shall be aged to at least at Gran Reserva level (36 months), must come from an identified vineyard, be traceable, and adhere to rigorous growing conditions such as lower yields and sourcing from older vines. However given its recent introduction and the lengthy ageing required, it will be some time until the name appears on labels and bottles appear on shelves.

A step in the right direction? Definitely. But while you wait for the fruits of the Cava quality revolution to fully kick in, below is one reliable stalwart and three excellent premium Cavas to whet your appetite…

 

Three to Try

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine WorldThe Old Reliable: Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut

€19.99 – widely available

One of the most popular and widely available Cavas out there, and for good reason.

Freixenet’s ‘black bottle’ Cordon Negro offers all the pleasures of Cava in one package: toasty richness, earthiness, and lots of bubbles (begone, insipid flat Prosecco!).

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine WorldClean & Crisp: Juvé y Camps Reserva de Familia Brut Nature

 

€25.99 – Celtic Whiskey Shop

A ‘brut nature’ style, so expect a bone-dry wine with razor-sharp acidity.

Some savoury characteristics open out into notes of honey, toasted brioche, and dried fruits in a linear and precise take on the Cava style.

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine WorldCookies & Cream: Llopart Reserva Brut

€30 – Redmond’s of Ranelagh and The Corkscrew

Brand new to this country via Winemason wine importers, this is a superbly creamy Cava thanks to 18 months on the lees.

But it’s still clean, precise and poised – a vibrant and elegant Cava. Superb, and a welcome addition to these shores.

Cava: The Forgotten Middle Child of the Sparkling Wine WorldRich & Regal: Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva Brut

€30 – Tesco

Just look at that bottle: elegant curves are accentuated by pewter embellishments in packaging that punches well above its weight.

Lucky, then, that the juice is top-notch too – given its Reserva status it too shows some of the honeyed characteristics, albeit in a richer more opulent style than the Llopart. The ideal gifting bubbly.

 

This article originally appeared on TheTaste.ie

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Happy 1st Birthday to TheTaste.ie

I can’t believe it’s only been a year since TheTaste.ie opened its virtual doors to the Irish public. The Irish public, for its part, has wholeheartedly embraced Ireland’s new online food & drink destination, with a mind-boggling 1.7m unique users visiting the site per month and literally tens of thousands of people following them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For comparison, the IrishTimes.com has 6.1m users per month, but then they have the advantage of 156 years in print and 21 years online (they were the first Irish paper on the web in 1994). So for TheTaste.ie to garner 28% of the IrishTimes.com readership in 4% of the time is impressive by any standard.

Such has been the success of the site that owners Keith and Julie Mahon have since assembled a small but passionate team of full-timers to help handle the exponential expansion of the TheTaste.ie, as well as a solid portfolio of contributors (yours truly included, if you don’t mind me saying so).

The popularity of TheTaste.ie looks far from being a flash in the pan and we can expect to see this indigenous success story continue for many years to come. But what next? TheTaste.ie line of food items? A TheTaste.ie restaurant? Given the energy of these guys I wouldn’t discount anything!

Anyway, below is my most recent article for them where I make a clichéd attempt to match wines with countries participating in the Rugby World Cup. But given that today, Monday 19th October, is the day after we lost out to Argentina in the RWC quarter final, then the below may be too soon after the fact for some…!


This is an article from the October issue of TheTaste.ie

You may not have noticed it, but there’s a Rugby World Cup going on right now. It’s just too irresistible to avoid matching wines to the countries participating in the tournament. Grab some of these wines the next time their respective teams are playing and have your own head-to-head at home.

 

England

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011 – from €49.99  available from Mitchell & Son and McHugh’s Off-Licences

Anybody with any interest in sparkling wine cannot have missed the rising star that is English sparkling wine, which many in the wine trade now beginning to agree are seriously rivalling Champagne in terms of quality. The same need not be said of their rugby team though, who have always been world class (thought the Welsh might beg to differ!)

This Hattingly Valley blend (or “cuvee”) has been one of my favourites so far, a blend of 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir & 9% Pinot Meunier, it’s very fresh but still has a luxurious richness thanks to some barrel fermentation. Saline, toasty, electric and, importantly, delicious.

 

France

Jean Claude Mas, Piquepoul de Pinet ‘Frisant’Jean Claude Mas, Piquepoul de Pinet ‘Frisant’ – from €15.95  available from Deveney’s Dundrum, Clontarf Wines, Jus de Vine Portmarnock, Martin’s Fairview and 64wine Glasthule

Ah, the French. If they’re not stubbornly going against the grain, they’re being louche and languid and shrugging with Gallic nonchalance. Much like their rugby team in fact, who can sometimes either fight to the death or not bother at all, though unfortunately for their rivals they tend to bring their A Game to world tournaments.

Piquepoul (or Picpoul) is perhaps best known for the light and zippy Picpoul de Pinet, I was surprised then to see it as a sparkling version. When tasting this I was told that a certain Monsieur Jean Claude Mas wanted this wine to be a “Prosecco Killer”, and after tasting this the famous Italian bubbly is now extinct in my book. Honeyed, creamy, but still dry, this is deliciously elegant and great value.

 

Italy

Michele Biancardi, Uno più UnoMichele Biancardi, Uno più Uno€14.75 available from JNwine.com

The Italians, though relatively new to top-flight rugby, are known to play with plenty of heart and determination, despite suffering some heavy defeats in the past. Thankfully though they’ve been improving in recent years, much like their wines. Of course, Italy has always had fine wine, but the bulk of it has tended to be simplistic ‘table wine’ until a few decades ago. Now most winemakers in almost every region have turned their attention to quality over quantity.

This is a wine from Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’, which has traditionally provided gutsy, rustic table wines. This wine, however, from Michele Biancardi is a perfect example of increased quality now available from the region. Made with two grape varieties native to the area, the famous Primitivo and less well-known Nero di Troia, this is smooth, rich, fragrant, absolutely delicious and a steal for just under €15.

 

South Africa

Doran Vineyards Chenin BlancDoran Vineyards Chenin Blanc – from €17.99 available from Kinnegar.com and Mitchell & Son

South Africa, Japanese slip-ups aside, are known for being a big, bruising, world class team. Luckily their wines, though also world-class, are rarely as brawny as their rugby players, given the Springbok wine producers’ emphasis on balance and elegance in recent decades.

Chenin Blanc might surprise many as being South Africa’s foremost ‘adopted’ white grape, though they do have a considerable track record with the variety. This is a good example of South African Chenin done well and for not too much money. The palate is weighty but fresh with fragrant honeysuckle, grilled nuts and a twist of lemon.

 

New Zealand

Saint Clair Premium Marlborough Pinot NoirSaint Clair Premium Marlborough Pinot Noir – from €19.99 available from Mitchell & Son and Baggot Street Wines

Ah, the famous, and feared, the All Blacks. Even those who don’t follow rugby are fully aware of New Zealand’s dominance of the game; and the same can now be said of the traditionally French Pinot Noir too, for the grape is now almost completely synonymous with the Kiwi nation.

Here is a Kiwi Pinot that not only tastes good, but helpfully is in a very apt all black outfit too, the Saint Clair Marlborough Premium Pinot Noir. Silky and concentrated with blackcurrant and violets, this is a classy drop and a great representation of New Zealand’s take on one of France’s most precious grapes.