Can Rossell is unlikely to top any list of the world’s most spectacular wineries. Judged purely on aesthetic grounds it wouldn’t even rank among the most interesting buildings in its home region. There’s none of the modernist flamboyance that makes the cellars of nearby Sant Sadurní d’Anoia – the self-styled capital of Cava in Penedès – a must-visit attraction for fans of architecture as well as wine. Just a modest, if immaculately maintained, traditional Catalan country house that, from the outside at least, could easily be mistaken for a solidly unpretentious family home.
And yet, while it may lack the breathtaking flourishes of Codorníu’s headquarters, designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, a contemporary of Antoni Gaudí, in the early 20th century, Can Rossell is an important historical site in the heart of Catalan Cava country.
Built using stone taken from an abandoned mountain hostel by Agustí Torelló Mata, the founder of the eponymous Cava producer, as a kind of retirement project while he was still working for Freixenet in the late 1970s, Can Rossell is the smallest winery in Spain. It’s also the home (strictly for ageing these days) of Kripta, Torelló Mata’s attempt to make, in his words, ‘the greatest sparkling wine in the world’.
Reflecting what Torelló Mata’s son Alex Torrelló calls his family’s ‘Macabeo-ista’ tendencies, that variety leads the way in a traditional blend with Parellada and Xarel.lo. With long ageing under cork (eight years for the current, 2010 vintage), organic grapes and no dosage, the wine, in its unique amphora-shaped bottle, set a new tone for Cava when it was first produced 30 years ago. Today it remains a delicious – spectacular, even – reminder of what Cava at its best can be.
But it’s far from alone. While Cava has earned a justified reputation for making some of the world’s best-value bottle-fermented sparkling wines, the DO’s best producers are also increasingly turning their attention to making fine cuvées that can compete with the best sparkling wines in the world – and with a unique character that is deeply wedded to their local terroir.
It was with this sense of place in mind that the Consejo Regulador del Cava introduced a new category into Cava production in 2016. Cava de Paraje Calificado (or Cava de Paratge in Catalan) was the DO’s answer to a Burgundian grand cru: a wine made exclusively using grapes from a ‘singular parcel’ according to strict production requirements, such as a maximum yield of 48 hl/ha, a minimum of 36 months’ ageing (versus nine months for a standard Cava, 15 months for a reserva and 30 months for a gran reserva), and in a brut (with a maximum of 12g/litre of residual sugar) style.
But the Consejo is planning to cement that sense of place in Cava of all levels. According to the Consejo Regulador president, Javier Pagés, and general secretary, Alexandre Comellas, those plans include a ‘zoning’ project, still in its early stages, that looks likely to introduce geographical areas under the Cava designation.
At the moment, while the vast majority (97%) of Cava is produced in Catalonia, it can also be made in some villages in Aragón, Extremadura, Rioja, Alava, Navarra and Valencia. The new plans are designed to bring a welcome sense of territorial clarity to the category.
For Maite Esteve, of Vins El Cep, Cava production has always been an expression of her local roots. An association of four families with deep winemaking roots and neighbouring vineyards in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Gelida and Sant Llorenç d’Hortons in Penedès, Vins El Cep has been a pioneer of organic winemaking in the region, initially ‘to protect our health’, later as ‘an attitude. We’re returning to the roots of the past. You can’t make good Cava without healthy vines,’ Esteve says.
It’s a philosophy that comes together in Vins El Cep’s contribution to the Cava de Paraje category: Claror is a blend of the traditional Cava trio – Xarel.lo, Macabeo, Parellada – that is remarkable for the age of its vines (a blend of plots from 1947, 1960 and 1969) and for the fact it is the first Cava produced from biodynamically farmed vines. It’s a wine of terroir, viticultural rigour and high quality.
Another producer exploring the possibilities of fine Cava in a single site in Penedès is Pere Ventura. Known for its distinctive chequered logo and the kind of distinctive, elegant packaging that would put a Champagne grande marque to shame, Pere Ventura’s Gran Vintage Paraje Calificado Can Bas draws fruit from five plots of very old vines (up to 95 years old) on a 60ha estate where vines have been grown since the 10th century.
As befits a wine that is all about expressing its site, quality control begins in the vineyard with a green harvest, low yields of around 1.4kg per plant and a rigorous sorting after a hand-harvest. A 50:50 blend of Macabeo and Xarel.lo, Can Bas gets a minimum of 43 months’ ageing, and is characterised, in the 2014 vintage, by beguiling clarity and elegance with honeyed-almond richness.
No less impressive is the work of another organic believer, Josep María Pujol-Busquets, of Alta Alella. After a long career in sparkling wine, which included a stint at Italian-owned giants Martini, the scholarly but energetic Pujol-Busquets and his family are entirely immersed in their projects (daughter Mireia is making superb natural wines and Cavas under the Celler de Les Aus label). The aim is to reflect, in what Pujol-Busquets calls ‘an entirely transparent way’, the vines’ magical setting in the Serralada de Marina Natural Park in the Alella DO, bound by the sea on one side and – as you realise with a double take as you climb to the vineyard’s highest point and take in the spectacular urban view – the city of Barcelona to the south.
‘We have a clear idea that if you work in the right way, with the right varieties, natural yeast, you don’t need to add anything, Pujol-Busquets says of his rigorous approach to natural winemaking, which includes a new winery built entirely from recycled materials such as repurposed shipping crates and railway sleepers, and where Pansa Blanca (the local strain of Xarel.lo) is at the core of wines of scintillating purity with a distinctive saline note.
Back in the Penedès, Xarel.lo is very much at the heart of Juvé y Camps’ approach to fine Cava-making, too, not least in the company’s La Capella, which is made from 7ha of low-yielding, 50-year-old Xarel.lo bush vines planted on clay limestone soils at the highest point of the company’s 237ha estate in Espiells. Walking the vineyard in high summer, with the jagged peaks of Montserrat in the distance, immersed in the scent of aromatic herbs and the frantic chirping of cicadas, you start to think that, whatever else the Cava industry gets up to in the next few years, it must keep building on its connection to its collection of very special, Mediterranean places.
Top Cavas: David Williams recommends bottles to try
Agustí Torelló Mata, Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2010 94
Very refined and graceful with delightful fresh and flowing acidity, soft tingling mousse and creamy development that fills the palate with flavours of turrón/nougat, nuts and ripe apples. Very alluring, with a long, mineral finish. Drink 2019-2030 Alcohol 11.5%
Alta Alella Mirgin, Opus Paraje Calificado Brut Nature 2015 94
From coastal Alella right by Barcelona, this is immaculate Cava with superb focus and tension, a brisk Mediterranean saltiness and subtle garrigue-herb hints. Very long with an appetising twist of bitterness. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 12%
Celler de Les Aus, Capsigrany Brut 2016 93
From Alta Alella’s vineyards, but this is the natural Cava micro-project of Mireia Pujol-Busquets, daughter of Josep María. Captivating, pristine intensity and wildness: amaro bitterness and salty savoury notes. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 12%
Agrícola Can Sala, Vins Familia Ferrer, Paraje Calificado Brut Nature 2007 93
Coffee-grain scents of age in this fine long-aged Cava, really evocative, with baked apple and dried fruit notes, too. On the palate it’s full of life with apples, cream and citrus: long, complex and fine. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 12.5%
Pere Ventura, Tresor Cuvée Gran Reserva Brut 2015 92
Cava isn’t all about value, but sometimes Cava is really great value: this Chardonnay-Xarel.lo blend has just a hint of oaky-toasty complexity to go with its preserved lemon, stone fruit and a sprinkling of spice. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 11.5%
Mestres, Clos Nostre Senyor Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2008 92
Full-on and rich style with an attractive toasty spiciness, revealing toffee and coffee to go with the tangy-sour apple. Creamy and cosseting on the palate, the finish has a refreshing pithy-bitter edge. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 12.1%
Juvé & Camps, Gran Juvé, Gran Reserva Brut 2015 91
Delightful nose, an infusion of herb and spice reminiscent of the Catalan digestif ratafia. Floral notes, too, and bright, ripe red apple. Glossy-textured, enjoyably authentic Catalan sparkling wine with real character. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 12.5%
Sumarroca, Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2014 90
Another great-value Cava, this is super-bright, refreshing and tangy with Cox’s apple, fresh lemon and floral notes, some thyme herbiness, and a subtle toastiness. Balanced and seamless, aperitif style. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 12%
Juvé & Camps, Reserva de la Familia Brut Nature 2015 89
Juvé & Camps’ main cuvée is consistently one of the best-value sparkling wines from anywhere, the Xarel.lo-led house style bringing succulent stone fruit and that evocative Mediterranean herbal tang. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 12%
Agustí Torelló Mata, Trepat Rosat Reserva Brut 2016 88
A happy-go-lucky rosé from the local Trepat variety. Tannins are balanced with 8g/L dosage: full of fresh red and dark cherry fruit, just a touch of texture and grip. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 12%