Undergo a cava conversion in rural Catalunya

Are you a snob about Spanish bubbly? Penedès will change your mind

I ALWAYS thought of cava as Champagne’s poorer cousin – something one takes to parties when the French stuff seems a little dear. You turn up, sheepishly handing the sparkling Spaniard to your host, with the caveat that you would have bought France’s finest, if only the shop stocked it. The host smilingly receives the bottle, exclaiming that they much prefer cava to its expensive alternative, before handing you a glass of French fizz.

Imagine my surprise, then, when those in the know told me that, this summer, cava is set to become the capital’s trendiest grape-based beverage; that cava has as fine a pedigree as its Gallic shelf-mate; that it only lacks the accompanying cost. This shift in perception is accompanied by the May opening of Copa De Cava; London’s first bar dedicated this much-misunderstood wine.

“In Britain, we have a love affair with sparkling wine, but we’ve never been exposed to quality cava,” says Copa De Cava’s Richard Bigg. “It’s crazy to imagine that all of the best sparkling wine in the world should come from one region in Northern France. The truth is that, for the same price as a decent bottle of champagne, you can get a truly exceptional cava. Now we’re going to give people the chance to try these wines and find out what they have to offer.”

But could cava really be a viable alternative to champagne? In my local supermarket, the only Spanish sparkler I could find was Cordoniu’s £6 Non-Vintage Brut – affordable and bubbly, yes, but losing out to the cheapest champagne in both cachet and quality.

So, in order to properly test the theory, there was nothing for it but to plunge nose-first into the very epicentre of cava country. While cava is produced in many different regions of Spain, the highest quality wine (and 95 per cent of all the cava produced) comes from the Penedès area of Catalunya.

Cava is made in the same traditional method as champagne – the Méthode Champenoise. First, grapes are pressed and left to ferment in the normal method, producing still wine. This wine is then bottled, and a yeast and sugar mixture known as “lees” is added. With the bottles capped, the carbon dioxide produced by this secondary fermentation is trapped, and a sparkling wine is born.

This secondary fermentation takes around three months, but leaving the wine “on the lees” for longer allows more complex aromas to develop. After a period of ageing, the lees are removed through “riddling” – the bottle is placed on racks, and gradually rotated and inclined over the course of several weeks. As it is tipped to vertical, the lees settle in the neck of the bottle, which is then opened. The carbon dioxide then forces out the lees in a process known as “disgorging”. The lost wine is topped up with a “dosage” of wine and sugar, which gives it its sweetness. The bottle is then corked and labelled.

Up to ten grape varieties can be used in the cava marque, but as Eva Torné, chief enologist at Vilarnau, explains, most wine-makers use just three, “In cava country, we say that Parellada is like a young ballerina – elegant and flowery with little acidity; Xarello is like a strong man – lots of acidity, stronger flavours of maturing fruits and lots of structure; and the Macabeo, which is like a good woman with its acidity and aromas of green apples and pears. Like in life, you need a balance of these at the heart of a good wine!”

Just outside the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia lie the vineyards of the Gramona house, which has been producing cava in the traditional method for over 120 years. Using principles of agrology to ensure the genuine traits of grape and terroir show through, they make the most of cutting edge research to understand what happens during the process of cava production.

We are being hosted by Xavier, whose great-great grandfather made his name selling wine to the French during the Phylloxera devastation of the 19th century. Now in his early 50s, the charming, sharply dressed Xavier embodies the house philosophy that top wines reach their peak with maturity.

“The common denominator of all the best sparkling wines in the world is their long ageing,” says Xavier. “With cava, we’ve always been able to produce wines that oxidised very slowly, so they could hold their freshness whilst still developing complex aromas. And now we know why.”

He opens a bottle of their Celler Battle 2001, and his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he pours me a glass. I sniff and sip. At which point the wine-appreciating part of my brain explodes. Cava is renowned for freshness and acidity that “takes away your thirsty”, as Xavier puts it. This vintage had softened fresh notes of apples and pears, but it also had deep, complex flavours, through apricot right down to brioche, vanilla, biscuit and even… coffee? I look in bemusement from the bottle to my glass. Yes, this is a cava that I’m drinking.

“It’s the Xarello, you see,” says Xavier, delighted with my response. “Through microbiology, we found that Xarello contains more of the anti-oxidant resveratrol than any other white grape. But it is also the only grape to contain pterostilbene – the most powerful antioxidant. That means the wine has great structure: some freshness is maintained while the wine ages on the lees, giving the flavours that you taste.”

It was at this moment that my feelings about cava changed forever. During my time in Penedès, I’d tasted some young, fresh cavas that were as enjoyable and tasty as sparkling wines twice their price; but now I had discovered aged wines as complex and interesting as any champagne. By trying different combinations of dosage, ageing and grape blends side-by-side, I gained a thorough education as to how those elements affect a sparkling wine.

To gain an insight into cava’s place in bar culture, I headed next to Spain’s trendiest city. Barcelona is an hour North of Penedès, and the city’s bars have cava lists as long as my arm, served up with plates of delicious serrano ham, bowls of olives, and stacks of manchego cheese. I realised that the major difference between the bars of Barcelona and London is the democratisation of fizz: in Barcelona it’s not just flash businessmen and girls in teetering heels throwing back the bubbles – everyone’s at it, from students to models.

The reason is obvious: in spite of Spain’s economic problems, cava affords the people of Barcelona a champagne lifestyle on an austerity budget.

Now, what of this prediction that cava will run freely in the streets of London? Based on the value and quality of the wine I experienced in Penedès, I would have to say the future is bright: the key is in understanding that cava is not lower quality, just lower cost. Perhaps this much-maligned Spaniard is the drink for this age of austerity.

There is still some way to go, though: sure, not all cava is bad, but much of the stuff available in the UK is. So, barring a trip to Catalunya, your best bet is to head down to Copa De Cava and absorb their excellent knowledge on how to find a great wine.

If you happen to be in Barcelona with time to spare, you should not miss out on a trip to the Bodegas of Penedès. The people are lovely: from Xavier’s passion and knowledge, to the enthusiasm, humour and analogies of Eva at Vilarnau, my trip to the vineyards of Catalunya was warmer and more engaging than the formality and affectation of Gallic equivalents.

Hopefully the availability of good cava will spread alongside a rising awareness of the wine. So, choose your cava wisely, and the next time you turn up at that party, you can be the one with the smug smile.

You’ll have a sparkling wine to blow their minds – and enough cash in your pocket to go back for more.­­

The UK’s first authentic cava bar – launches in St Paul’s on Monday 20 May. The bar will be open Monday to Friday from midday - 11pm.
33 Blackfriars Lane, London EC4V 6EP

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