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Jefford on Monday: The taste of Cava

Andrew Jefford considers the role of indigenous grape varieties in Cava and other sparkling wines.

The taste of Cava is important.  It matters, indeed, even to those who never drink sparkling wine.  If this sounds bizarre, bear with me.

Champagne – no surprise here — is the dominant force in sparkling wine.  More than that: it’s one of humanity’s happiest achievements, like the invention of the piano or the bicycle.  Take a flock of low chalky hills in the dour, agri-industrial landscape of northern France, plant three members of the Pinot family, harvest them just before winter slams the door on summer, then manipulate the results with cunning craftsmanship.  The result is the most famous wine in the world, and a symbol and metaphor for celebratory ease and sensual finesse.

Within the wine world, Champagne’s dominance of its category means that there is an almost-unquestioned assumption that all sparkling wine should be made in that way, and from those varieties.  It’s wise to assume the former.  The latter, I’d suggest, is often an error.

Chardonnay and the two Pinots make impeccable sparkling wine in the Champagne region, where they can snail towards ripeness over a cool, fretful summer.  In sugar terms, they don’t fully ripen– but the Champagne method, and a little chaptalisation if necessary, compensates for that.  Phenolically, by contrast, the long season gives these varieties a perfumed, vinous, nuanced and teased ripeness which makes Champagne sing.  (Climate change gives the nearby UK a plausible stab at pulling off the same trick.)

Once you start to shift the varieties towards lower latitudes, by contrast, those varieties begin to lose their interest.  No grape variety, remember, is universally great.  They are only great in a certain place on earth, with all that that means in terms of soil, topography and climate.  Champagne’s hegemony has been wonderful for Champagne, but it may have held other sparkling wine producers around the world in check.

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It’s true that in very cool places (Tasmania comes to mind), Chardonnay and the Pinots may indeed be the best choice pending the revelation of better options, for which experiment is needed.  In warmer locations, though, Chardonnay and the Pinots are often a poor choice.  In order to give a sparkling wine something resembling ‘a Champagne balance’, the varieties have to be picked inarticulately early, long before they have achieved any kind of phenolic maturity; and in such locations, when phenolic maturity eventually comes, it will be much less subtly constituted than in Champagne anyway.  An alternative (and often a complement) is for producers to adjust acidity, thereby making an industrial product whose fine-wine interest drops swiftly away.

‘The best Cava is a fine sparkling wine of genuinely indigenous style’

Take a look at the varietal nuancing which unfolds during a sparkling journey south from Champagne towards Cava.  We clip through the Loire valley, where the climate and soils are still close enough to those of Champagne for Chardonnay-Pinot sparklers to work well, even if Chenin Blanc creates more interesting and regionally characterful sparkling wines.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can make Crémant de Bourgogne a plausible Champagne substitute (remember Chablis’s close proximity to the Champagne’s Aube region), though Chardonnay begins to assert its still-wine varietal character once you are south of the Yonne, and especially so if the raw materials come from southern Burgundy or Beaujolais.  (I plan to take a close look at Crémant de Bourgogne in 2017.)

By the time we reach Limoux in the cool upper Aude valley, the rules regarding grape varieties for sparkling wine are in sensible modulation, reflecting latitude.  Yes, you can use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there is little chance down here of phenolic ripeness outrunning sugar ripeness and delivering a full-season Chardonnay or Pinot grape with a potential alcohol of just 9.5% or 10%.  Most Crémant de Limoux is in fact principally a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin, while the more interesting Blanquette de Limoux is based on the perfectly site-adapted local variety Mauzac.  The result is a set of often refined sparkling wines which do not unsuccessfully ape Champagne, but reflect their surroundings.

Press on over the Pyrenees and down the Mediterranean coast to Catalunya, and for the first and only time in the wine world you will come across a major sparkling wine region using the ‘traditional method’ whose very greatest wines do not include Chardonnay or either of the red Pinots, but are crafted from the indigenous varieties Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada.  (Prosecco, too, is based on its own indigenous variety Glera — but most is made by the Charmat method, known in Italy as Metodo Martinotti.)

limestone, cava wine

Limestone pebbles typical of the Cava region. Credit: Gramona

The result, in the case of the best Cava, is a fine sparkling wine of genuinely indigenous style.  One which, in other words, not only has Mediterranean scents and flavours, but whose balance is necessarily and appropriately different to that of Champagne.

The taste of Cava matters, then, not only because the finest examples are beautiful in their own right (see the tasting notes below), but because it could and should serve as a model for sparkling wine produced in lower latitudes and warmer locations.  Take away the bubbles, and it illustrates one of the fundamental truths of terroir: the necessity to be honest about exactly which varieties are well adapted to a site, and the duty to work with those if you want to make wine which can give fullest voice to the potential of a place.

Of course you can make a counter-argument based on the commercial desirability of sparkling wines based on the Champagne formula.  Moreover because technique and craft plays a larger role in the creation of sparkling wine than of still wine, skilled practitioners can do “a decent job” with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir almost anywhere, not least in Catalunya itself.  The result, though, will always be some sort of a compromise — and at the highest levels, that’s not enough.

Describing Cava

Fine Cava is customarily un-dosed (though one of the four Cavas below has 6 g/l) and is intrinsically well-balanced in that state.  The acid profile is gentler than for Champagne, though the indigenous varieties are still picked relatively early; its factors of balance are texture and aroma rather than acidity alone.  The spectrum of aromas and flavours is unique, Mediterranean in inspiration and allusion, and quite different from those of Champagne.

III Lustros, Brut Nature Gran Reserva, Gramona 2009

This blend of Xarel-lo and Macabeo, available in Spain for under 25€, shows that fine Cava need not be expensive.  It’s pale gold in colour with light lemony fruit, sweetened a little with the scents of aniseed and dry brush.  On the palate, it is concentrated, vinous and flowery, yet with ample biscuity fullness too: so roundedly dry as to be almost paradoxical, and given lift by the swarm of fine bubbles.  92

Celler Batlle, Gran Reserva, Gramona 2006

This blend of 75 per cent Xarel-lo with Macabeo contains a dosage of 6 g/l based on a Gramona liqueur solera of great antiquity and complexity.  It’s gold in colour and prodigiously articulate on both nose and palate, with an old-wine luxury and fullness to it: mellow, supple, structured.  All the classic Catalan notes of citrus peel, fennel, fenugreek and dried wild flowers are here in this elaborately crafted, mouthfilling wine.  94

Brut de Brut, Finca Serral del Vell, Brut Nature Gran Reserva, Recaredo 2007

This blend of roughly equal percentages of Xarel-lo and Macabeo is light gold in colour, with fine bubbles.  Complex, articulate and harmoniously arranged aromas which reminded me of seashore sand, of plant roots (iris and gentian), of citrus peels and beeswax.  The palate is full, rich, lingering, murmuring, faintly saline; there’s soft, almost juicy acidity; discreet quince and orange fruit mingles with the wild plant and seed notes.  93

Brut de Brut, Turó d’En Mota, Recaredo 2005

This pure Xarel-lo wine (made from vines planted in 1940) is gold in colour, and smells of the Catalan summer hills: fennel seeds and leaves, dried wild flowers and grasses, with a hint of citrus zest in the background.  It’s deep, concentrated and commanding, its fine textural wealth created in part by the seething mousse, but which also seems to hint at the carbonate drench you find in Vichy Catalan mineral water, too: a remarkable facet of fine sparkling wine here.  Rich, elemental, limpid and gratifying: a wine that you could sip slowly, letting the gas depart from the glass as you did so, and then enjoy it to no lesser an extent in still guise a few hours later.  96

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