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IWINETC 2016: Cava –The ‘Champagne’ of Spain

Posted: Tuesday, 10 May 2016 14:55

 

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IWINETC 2016: Cava –The ‘Champagne’ of Spain

May 10: With champagne as the established benchmark, several wine producing countries have been trying for decades to have their own category of sparkling wine that measures up to it, so it is not surprising that the Spanish sparkling wine made from the Traditional Method using the local grapes under the DO (Denomination Origen Cava), are called Cavas and were the second best selling bubblies behind champagne till a few years ago, writes Subhash Arora who had an opportunity of tasting several such ‘Champagnes’ and visiting wineries during and after the International Wine Tourism Conference held near Barcelona last month and attending the Grand Cava Master class conducted by Sarah Jane Evans MW

Click For Large ViewAt 250 million bottles sales a year, Cava trails the new world leader of sparkling wines, Prosecco, which crossed the 350-380 million bottle mark last year, thanks to the value-for-money sparkling wines produced through Charmat method (second fermentation in the tank) in  Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Despite its recent increase in exports, Champagne is struggling to reach its record annual sales of around 330 million bottles with the total of less than 320 million bottles sold in 2015. But there are now hopes of revival for Cava with the quality of Prosecco showing tendency to decline following enormous growth during the last 5 years and several Cava producers pushing the Regulator for stricter controls for better quality or threatening to leave the Cava Denomination Origen.

To be called Cava (which literally means Cave where the underground cellars are located-big wineries have 3-4 story caves running in kilometers, used to keep the bottles undergoing  secondary fermentation in the bottle), the second fermentation to trap the bubbles is carried out by Classical Method using traditional grapes of the region- Xarel-lo, (pronounced shaa-rello), Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja where it is also used to make white wine) and Parellada. Codorniu takes the credit for having Chardonnay added in the grapes allowed along with Pinot Noir for Rosado (Rose). Monastrell (Mourvedre). Trepat and Garnacha (Grenache) are some of the grapes allowed. Including Malvasia for whites, there are a total of 9 grape varieties that may be used to make Cavas.

Click For Large ViewSecond fermentation in the bottle is completed in around three weeks. The dead yeasts (lees) are allowed to remain in touch with the fermented wine to make it richer and more complex. Many Cava producers tend to keep them for much longer period than the law obligates them. Cava must be on the lees for a minimum of 9 months to be officially classified as DO Cava (denominacion de Origen). Freixenet Cordon Negro (the black bottle Cava) imported in India earlier by Global Tax Free and now by Aspri, falls in this category, although they may age it up to 18 months.

To qualify as Reserva one needs 15 months whereas the Grand Reserva Cava undergoes ageing on the lees for over 30 months though most producers have premium labels where the ageing may be up to 10 years or more making them more complex and naturally more expensive. Over 90% of Cava comes from Sant Sadurni d’Anoia or around, a small town near Barcelona, where we visited Freixenet, Codorniu, Llopart and Gramona. It may be produced in several other parts of Spain including Rioja, Utiel-Requena, Ribera del Guadiana, and Cariñena (near Zaragoza) provided they follow the specifications by the Cava Consejo Regulador.

Cavas are not usually very sweet-in fact the stress is on Brut Nature with as close to 0 gm/li residual sugar (RS) as possible though up to 3 gm/l is allowed in this category. Extra Brut can have up to 6 gms while the more popular Brut has up to 12 gms. Semi-Seco (also known as Extra Dry) has 12-17 gms. of Residual sugar.  

Freixenet

Click For Large ViewFreixenet is the face of Sant Sadurni. One can’t enter the town without passing by the massive complex which we visited on the first day of the Conference Visit to Freixenet was fascinating and festa-like with a walk down the memory lane and the stairs leading you to darker floors- four stories below.  To produce the 85 million bottles a year (a third of total Cava produced), many of which have to be in dormant stage for 8 years in case of Casa Sala Gran Reserva enormous storage space is required to lay down the wines. During our visit we were given the taste of a premium wine at 4 pre-set stations- quite an experience.

Click For Large ViewFreixenet also has a well-oiled machinery to look after the wine tourists; about 90,000 descend every year. Although we did not taste the ubiquitous Cordon Negro, which was heavily promoted by the Delhi Wine Club 12-14 years ago when this was the only value-for-money Cava available, the breadth of its range shows why Freixenet is considered the king of Cava Bodegas. Some cracks in the mega family owned winery have been observed by experts though. According to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the death of one of the current owners, has caused a difference of opinion between the rest of the family members as an attempt is being made by the German Sekt giant Henkell to buy shares and get control of the 50% of shares. As a major buyer of this Cava, Henkell exerts a sizable influence and the industry watchers expect it might have its way. The giant is reported to have sold 140 million bottles in its heyday and some estimate it is still selling around 100 million bottles a month.

Codorniu

Click For Large ViewCodorniu is not only the oldest Cava bodega that first introduced the Classical Method technique to produce sparkling wine in 1872, it claims to be the second largest producer of the Spanish bubbly with over 40-45 million bottles sales to its credit. Codorniu continues to be a progressive producer, lobbying hard with the regulars to include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to be allowed in the production of Cava. It continues to control the production process of all its Cavas from grape to the bottle. It has the most modern installations and the latest equipment installed. The whole winery has been so beautifully designed that it was declared a National Monument of Historical and Artistic Interest by King Juan Carlos I.

Click For Large ViewThe visit was well arranged but not fully satisfying. The emphasis was on packaging and not the product- showcasing the grandeur of the property rather than tasting different wines and highlighting superiority of the product today than the aristocratic foundation. The group was taken to the villa which was perhaps the residence of the owners and the same Cava was served in multiples with snacks till we were ready to go. A good tasting opportunity lost!

Click For Large ViewCodorniu used to be imported into India by Brindco several years ago but perhaps due to the aggressive campaign by the then importer Global Tax Free, it had been discontinued and no one has been able to fill the void since then.

Guided Tasting with Sarah Jane Evans MW

The highlight of the Conference was a tasting of the Grand Cavas with Reserva and Grand Reserva guided by Sarah Jane Evans MW. Sarah has special interest in Spanish wines and more specifically with Cavas and was the perfect person to explain first about Cavas in general and how they become complex with aging on the lees. She had selected 8 premium Cavas for the event:

  1. Vilarnau Rosado Brut Reserva 2013 (Trepat & Pinot Noir) 24 aged, Dosage  8g/l
  2. Bohigas Noa De Bohigas 2013 (PinotNoir & Xarel-lo 50-50) 15 months ageing, Dosage: Zero (Brut Nature)
  3. Vallformosa Cava Collecció Brut Reserva 2012 (Xarel-lo 30%, Macabeo 25%, Parellada 20%, and Chardonnay 20%) 24 months ageing  0-12g/l
  4. Codorniu Jaume De Codorniu Gran Reserva Brut 2011 (Chardonnay 45%, Pinot Noir 45%, Xarel-lo 10%) Ageing 45 months
  5. Llopart Gran Reserva Leopardi 2010 (Macabeo 40%, Xarel-lo 40%, Parellada 10%, Chardonnay 10%) over 24 months ageing, Brut Nature
  6. Castellroig Sabate I Coca Reserva Familiar 2010 (Xarel-lo half fermented in oak and half in stainless steel) Ageing 60 months, Brut Nature Zero
  7. Gramona Gran Reserva III Lustros 2007 (Xarel-lo 75%, Macabeo 25%) Ageing 100 months, Dosage: Brut Nature
  8. Casa Sala Gran Reserva 2008 (Xarel-lo/ Parellada) over 96 months ageing: Brut Nature

My Top Cava was Gramona followed by Casa Sala for the complexity. As one can see from the above top quality Cavas, they are generally Brut Nature-0-3 gms sugar. This may not hold good in India at least for a few years but as an inspirational drink premium Cavas are known to be preferred with zero or no sugar for elegant flavours, a point tilting in favour if those with dry flavours.

Subhash Arora

 

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