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What’s changing in Cava

In association with Cava DO.

With its distinct sense of terroir, Cava made from Catalonia’s indigenous grape varieties is something we should all be drinking now, says Andrew Jefford...

In association with Cava DO.

What’s changing in Cava

When I think of Cava, I think of two paradoxes. The first is that this is the principal wine expression of the Catalan hills, yet drinkers very seldom think about Catalonia and its grape varieties, or its terroir, as they drink Cava. The paradox is intensified with every step the drinker takes up the Cava wine hierarchy.

Few wines express their identity and origins so forcefully as fine Cava, especially when vinified chiefly from Macabeo and Xarel.lo: the scent is intimately that of these wild, sunlit, pine-strewn, sea-fronted terraces, punctuated incessantly by forest and Mediterranean scrub, with all of its legendary aromatic force. The wines’ flavours, too – that salty-stony breadth, that structured southern fruit, the haunting of its foam by the memory of wild flowers and fennel seeds, the way that the bubbles lift and relieve an almost chewy white wine, while the grain of its yeast trace seems to suggest a white earth and the clay it might form when the winter rains come, and its always gentle acidity has a tangy, exotic quality – this, for me, is the taste of Catalonia itself, a perfect expression of its physical identity as a land, the most evocative of sketches.

One sip, and I can always see the jagged outline of Montserrat in the distance. Agreed, I’ve been lucky enough to visit several times and most Cava drinkers will not have had the same chance – but that sensorial difference is always there, and if you are ready to spend £20 or £30 on a Cava, you will find it there most intensely. Yet this vital facet of its character is rarely recognised or celebrated.

The second paradox is even more striking. The sparkling wine world is, at present, a rather dull and homogenous place. Why? Because so much of it lies in Champagne’s shadow. Champagne’s striking quality, and the imaginative hold it has succeeded in exerting on the market, is almost a dictature – so that whenever winemakers outside Europe (and often inside, too) want to make a sparkling wine, they reach for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they set off with Champagne’s fine-honed balance and nuance buried like a gimlet in their brains, no matter how inappropriate this might be in terms of respect for the climate and soils in which such sparkling wines are going to be created. Since technology is an intimate part of all sparkling wine creation, they can often create passably good Champagne-like sparkling wines – though they are sparkling wines that are doomed to be second best, since they are trying to be what they can never be.

A changing world

Cava made with Catalonia’s indigenous varieties is the great exception to this rule. It proves, at the highest levels with triumphant success, that there is another way to make sparkling wine, a southern way, a warm-climate way, a terroir-respecting alternative – and that sparkling wines made in this idiom and in this style can work resoundingly well as gastronomic objects.

Great Cava rearranges all the sparkling wine rules. It is a force for liberation in the sparkling wine world, and in truth a much more useful source of inspiration than Champagne for many of those struggling to make great sparkling wine in climates that are vastly warmer than those of Reims and Epernay. Though, of course, sparkling winemakers would need to fall in love with Cava first in order to want to do what their landscapes and their seasons are, in fact, whispering to them to do.

Things are now changing; the sparkling wine world is finally shaking off Champagne’s dictature and beginning to expand. Alternatives are now permissible; drinkers are prepared to allow that there might be ways in which sparkling wines can seduce, entice, satisfy, inspire and transport that do not involve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the kind of acid balance that comes when a full season in the vineyard delivers only 9.5% potential alcohol by summer’s close. Cava’s moment has come.

And Cava, too, is changing. There is a recognition in Catalonia that the big business model of huge volume and low margins is not the only way to build a future. The kind of Cava I have described above has long been familiar to the Catalans themselves – but to almost no one else. Partly that was because the world wasn’t ready for it, but it also comes from the fact that the Cava rules have been drafted with such latitude (in terms of fruit origin and approved grape varieties) that ‘the Catalan character’ is often opaque or residual in less expensive examples.

Cava de Paraje Calificado is a change of direction – a category that allows those who wish to maximise rather than minimise the Catalan character in their wines the chance to do so. I know from having visited many smaller Cava producers that fine sparkling wines of this sort are already produced in profusion in the region, and often with the highest terroir ideals. Merchants around the world need to make at least small ranges of such wines available to their customers in what (I hope) are expanding offers of indigenous sparkling wines.

And then it will be down to you – the drinker. Open your mind; open your palate. Much wine beauty is an acquired taste – but, once acquired, complexity and intrigue ensures that it is never lost. This is what you will find when you discover, and come to appreciate, the fine foaming white wine of the Catalan hills.

Andrew Jefford is a writer, broadcaster and Decanter contributing editor.

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