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Cava - once cheap, now chic (contd..)

A large percentage of all Cava produced in Cataluña contains the three workhorse white grape varieties — macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo (one critic dubbed them the “Bland Brothers Trio”). Although most wineries also make mono-varietal still wines or blends with these grapes, with few exceptions, the resulting wines are overshadowed by the best whites of Rueda or Galicia. In Cava blends, however, these grapes contribute to some excellent wines. Macabeo (the viura of La Rioja), as it is called in Cataluña, is one of the mostly widely planted white wine grapes in Spain. In many areas, including La Rioja, viura-macabeo grapes can produce white wines that are non-descript, but in Alt (high) Penedès and Conca de Barberá, a contiguous DO, the altitude helps them achieve a fresh, crisp acidity and spicy, floral, fruity aromas. Parellada, which grows well in the middle Penedès, produces green-tinged, low alcohol base wines with good acidity, and brings a creamy mouth-feel and a stylish, sometimes elegant, clean finish to the blend. Still wine producers, such as Miguel Torres, have had considerable success with this grape, mostly by blending it. The prolific xarel-lo grows mostly in Middle and Baix (lower) Penedès. Xarel-lo, perhaps the most promising as a stand-alone variety, produces deeper gold, straw-colored wines and contributes ripeness, fuller body and higher alcohol to Cava blends.

The Catalan subirat (La Rioja's malvasia) is also permitted in Cava, but it is the increasingly ubiquitous chardonnay, which Catalans have been growing for more than 50 years, that is being used with growing frequency in the top blends of many prominent Cava producers. And surprisingly, rosado Cavas are also rapidly becoming attention grabbers. The permitted rosado varieties are garnacha, monastrell, the local trepat and the polemical foreign interloper, pinot noir. One exceptional rosado Cava, Agustí Torelló Mata's, is made with trepat, but the majority of the best, the production of which has been ramped up considerably in the past five years, are made from pinot noir grown in Cataluña.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the lawsuits between Codorníu and Freixenet a few years back is the pinot noir issue. Cataluña's La Vanguardia reported thusly on the court's reasoning behind a controversial ruling: “...if [the use of Pinot Noir in Cava blends] were high, there would be an alteration of the competitive balance, as Codorníu would earn prestige its competitors are unable to attain.” In essence, the inference was that if a producer uses pinot noir to improve the taste of its Cava, then producers that don't have pinot noir are at a disadvantage. A rather absurd point because pinot noir is being considered for approval as a legal variety for use in Cava. Since then, many Cava producers have planted pinot noir and have developed a pinot noir-based brut rosado. Currently, pinot noir is approved by the Cava regulatory council only for rosados, but is not allowed in non-rosado Cavas. The sudden proliferation of these sometimes excellent pinot noir-based brut Cavas seems to point to the legalization of the grape for use in white Cava blends, à la Champagne, where this delicate red grape plays a vital role in many of the top cuvées of such esteemed houses as Bollinger, Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and others.

Josep María Pujol-Busquets says the reason behind the appearance of so many pinot noir rosat Cavas in the past few years is due to the variety flourishing in Cataluña's Mediterranean climate. “Since it is an early-maturing grape, pinot noir gives magnificent results at these latitudes, because of the excellent balance we get between alcohol and acid levels. Pinot Noir is a great grape for méthode champenoise Cava. It has great aromatic potential and produces wines with lively effervescence.”

The majority of Spain's better Cavas are made in a brut style (0 to 15 grams of residual sugar per liter) from the parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo white varieties or a blend of the three with some chardonnay. There are several other styles of Cava, including brut nature or brut natural (0-3 grams with no dosage added), extra seco (12 to 20 grams) and seco (off-dry; 17-35 grams), semi-seco (off-dry to sweet; 33-50 grams), and dulce (sweet; 50 grams), but the cream of Cava production is concentrated in the first-rate brut nature (no dosage, sometimes austerely dry, but very palate refreshing and versatile with food), extra brut (very low dosage), brut and brut reserva designations. Vintage Cava, like vintage Champagne, is made in very good to great years and is usually made in brut and brut nature styles. There are also those very good to excellent dry rosado brut sparkling wines, some of which are vintage dated.

Only wines from the designated regions produced by the método tradicional are entitled to use the name Cava on their labels or stamp their corks with the official four-pointed star symbol. To protect consumers, sparklers that are not produced thusly are prohibited from using the same brand name as legitimate Cava. Sparkling wines made by the cuvée close (charmat, or bulk) method or the transfer process may not even share the same premises where Cava is being produced.

In a comprehensive Cava tasting conducted for this article several styles stand out, particularly the exceptionally well-made luxury cuvées; truly delicious brut vintage Cavas; the excellent, racy, palate-cleansing brut natures that are so good with shellfish and just about any other luscious food; and the surprising brut rosado Cavas, usually dry and fine companions to a wide variety of dishes.

In addition to the more familiar names like Juve y Camps, those who have never tasted the vintage Cavas of Agustí Torelló Mata, Gramona, Llopart (pronounced Jo-Part), Raventós i Blanc, Parxet and Castillo de Perelada are in for a true treat. Likewise, though the wonderful, razor-edged, palate-cleansing qualities of the superb bone-dry brut natures may not be everyone's ideal of bubbly, one quickly acquires a taste for them. And in every wine lover's heart of hearts lies a rosé lover, so an exploration of the fine range of brut rosado Cavas, especially those made from pinot noir and Agustí Torello's Trepat rosado, is richly rewarding.

Many of these wines are still reasonably priced, while others are rapidly rising into Champagne territory. Like the prices, “The differences in quality between Cava and Champagne are less each year, partly due to our climate in Penedès being more benign than in Champagne, and because of greater professionalism and far better production techniques among Cava producers,” according to Mariano Fuster, vice president for international sales at Juvé y Camps.

As my tasting notes reveal, many have also crossed the 90-point mark, demonstrating just how far Cava has come in what seems like the twinkling of an eye.

Tasting BAR

It has been six years since I undertook such an extensive Cava tasting and the strides in quality are quite remarkable. Such producers as Agustí Torelló Mata, Raventós i Blanc, Parxet, Gramona, Juvé y Camps, Mont Marçal, Castell Roig, Castillo de Perelada and Privat are now delivering the types of characteristics one expects from Champagne, except that the prices for some of these Cavas are astoundingly inexpensive, given their quality. Many, too, are now vintage dated, whereas a few years back most were not.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the plethora of delicious, charming rosado Cavas, many of which are pinot noir based. Rather than being sugar-loaded caramelos, they are largely dry and exceptionally food friendly. Although few display the ethereal salmon color often associated with great rosé Champagne — most are much darker in color — quality can be first-rate, and their price tags place them among the sleeper bargains of the wine world.

Of the nearly 50 Cavas tasted, only one scored below 86 points, and just one was corked.

Agustí Torelló Mata

Founded in 1954, this exceptional Cava producer is considered by many Spanish critics to be the best in the field. Only indigenous varieties are employed in these exceptionally well-made wines.

1999 Brut Nature Gran Reserva (45% macabeo, 32% parellada; 23% xarel-lo; aged a minimum of two years; 3,500 magnums) — $125: Green-gold hue; fine, steady, active bead. Clean and pretty yeasty lemon and orange peel scents. Lemony, elegant and delicious. Great mouth-feel with a long, lovely, dry finish. A Spanish stunner. Score: 95

2000 Kripta Gran Reserva (49% macabeo, 26% parellada; 25% xarel-lo) — $70: Green-gold straw hue; fine, steady, diffuse bead. Sweet, pretty fruity, toasty nose. Well-made, first-rate, delicious Cava full of character with a long, lively, complex toasted almond finish. Eclipses many Champagnes. Score: 94

2001 Brut Nature Reserva Barrica (old vines macabeo; four months in oak) — $36: Gold-tinged straw hue. Big nose of oak, yeast, white plum, lychee; very fine, active bead. A full-flavored, gutsy mouthful, but somewhat marred by the oak, which blocks the finish. However, this serious old-vines macabeo “Krug impersonation” is very well made and oak lovers will like it. Score: 88


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