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Andrew Jefford November 2010 column

Homage to Catalonia

You know Cava. Everyone does. Light, easy, a familiar friend, the inexpensive alternative: choose your cliché; I used to accept all of them. Of course, British supermarkets ensure that we never see over that particular hill. The clichés are inadequate, though. The hill has another side.

Over the summer I took the train from Montpellier to Barcelona: a slow ramble round the dramatic, rocky hinge of Cerbère and Port Bou, and down into the bowl of warmth and light the Catalans call Penedès. After four days spent visiting companies of whose existence, shamefully enough, I was more or less unaware, I now realise that Cava can be a vin de terroir which maps out an entirely new province of possibilities for sparkling wine. Such is the power of Champagne’s hegemony, though, that the wine world as presently constituted has no idea that these other possibilities exist. This is a shame, since many growing areas of the southern hemisphere might in fact be much better suited to producing a fine Cava-style sparkling wine than a fine Champagne style.

Let me explain. Champagne is a high-latitude wine. Cool though luminous summers tease early-ripening varieties towards a maturity so tenuous that it would be unacceptable in any still-wine area. Engrave those acid base wines with the hidden subtleties which are the legacy of its own terroir, though, and balance them with the caresses of lees autolysis and sweetening dosage, and you can create a beauty so striking that Champagne is thought to be the only sparkling wine worth emulating.

But it isn’t. Listen to the audacious Ton Mata of Recaredo. ‘We are somewhere between Winkler 3 and 4, depending on the year’ (he is referring to Amerine and Winkler’s 1944 climate classification scale; Champagne would be Winkler 1). ‘Winkler says we can only produce sweet wine and fortified wine – I don’t agree. You can still produce fine sparkling wine in a Winkler 4 zone.’ The key to doing this, though, is to use much later-ripening varieties suited to this very different (but still calcareous) terroir, and, above all, to accept that there are other ways of lending structure, balance and sensual intrigue to a sparkling wine than by loading flesh on to a high-acid spine.

Take, for example, Recaredo’s 2000 single-vineyard Turó d’en Mota, made from old-vine Xarel-lo, with almost 10 years on lees under cork, hand-disgorged and entirely unsugared (yes, all these things are eminently possible in fine, mid-latitude sparkling wines). The wine blooms in the glass: a chain of hawthorn and almond blossom, elder and Queen Anne’s lace, cow parsley and fennel.

It’s the smell of surging high summer; we’re a world away from the cream and brioche of Champagne cellar work, or the taut vine fruits and ivy sap of Champagne’s cool grapes and cold chalk. But it’s no less fascinating to sip. There’s a sense of depth, purity, structure and authority; the mousse is seethingly fine (Penedès’ limestone harbours cellars are as deep and cool as any in Epernay). No electric acidity, of course; instead, the acidity is a warmer, softer pulse within a gathered cluster of flavours.

It’s flowery – few wines remind me of the unforgettable scent of fresh-cut hay in a warm June in northern England like these do – yet there’s a resolute depth of flavour, too. Lime zest, almonds, fennel, chicory, and a saline edge which might be crushed stones, but which might also be a softer sea echo. If Champagne was Chablis, this would be white Hermitage. Who’s to say which is finer?

Another hallmark of a true fine-wine area is that the greatest producers there all work in a slightly different way to each other, yet the tradition within which they work is rich enough to support these various forms of excellence.

Recaredo is biodynamic, principally using Xarel-lo in very pure, wholly dry wines: terroir first. Agustí Torelló represents another uncompromisingly authentic style, save that Macabeo now takes the lead. Raventós i Blanc’s finest Cava (Manuel Raventós) is single vineyard, from the El Serral hill: a little more freshly urbane. Mestres would be the opposite: old oak fermentation gives you a taste of history (Cava meets Jerez). And then there is Gramona, guardian of the tradition of the tutelary dosage based on a complex blend of ancient solera wines and brandies. The result, when combined with long ageing and high-quality, hand-harvested raw materials, is more sumptuous and refined than I ever dreamed Cava could be.

These wines cost the same as a good Champagne, which may be why we haven’t seen them in the UK so far: that hegemony again. Before long, though, we will. Try them – and enlarge your wine world.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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