Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
A Journey through Cava country
A number of years ago, Bruno Prats, the owner of the legendary Château Cos d’ Estournel in St. Estèphe, pronounced that there would be no more bad vintages of wine.
Mr. Prats was right on the mark. It is now rare indeed that a vintage, even in marginal regions, does not produce good wines. Great wines might still be elusive, but are not as rare as they used to be. We have seen a number of exceptional years in the 21st Century and good wines are now consistently achievable year-in and year-out by most vineyards in the world. The weather still has a lot to do with how good a vintage will be, as well as the type of soil, but the skill of the vintner and winemaker is now, more than ever, responsible for the quality of the wine.
The autonomous community of Catalonia (Catalunya) is located in Northeast Spain. It encompasses the larger part of the territory of the medieval Principality of Catalonia, with the remainder of the historic Catalan region now part of Southern France. It borders the Spanish region of Aragon in the West, France to the North, and the Mediterranean Sea to the East.
The landscape is mountains and fertile valleys that are covered with pine trees, oak, briar, olive trees, hazelnut and almond trees and, of course, the ubiquitous grape vine rows that grow in soil of mostly decomposed blue and red slate. Aromatic herbs, including thyme, fennel , mint and rosemary perfume the air as you drive through the towns and villages. Most Cava is born in the historic D.O. of Penedès, which lays within Catalonia’s borders near the Mediterranean coast, but Cava has its own D.O.
A glass of cava is becoming one of my favorite summer libations. It is similar to Champagne, though softer and less acidic and even at the highest quality, much less costly. The taste differentiation between Cava and Champagne is the result mostly of climactic differences – Cava is created in a more Southern, warmer climate where the acidity in the grapes is lower at harvest and the sugar levels are higher; Champagne is much higher in acidity, because of its much northern latitude that makes the cooler climate produce more acidic wines. The grape varieties used are also different: cava is usually produced from all indigenous Spanish white grapes Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel.lo (though some producers nowadays mix the indigenous white varieties with some pinot noir or chardonnay) versus Champagne’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, one white and two red grapes. The production method is the same for both – the traditional méthode Champenoise (or méthode traditionnelle).
I have had “cavas” in the past and I was not impressed. In the US, I have had some of the mass produced cavas, imported in millions of black-encased bottles that are less noteworthy than either cheap Champagne or poor-quality Prosecco. Also, during two weeks spent in Madrid visiting with an artist friend many years ago I had, in wine bars around Plaza de Santa Ana that are frequented mostly by students and artists that are normally not affluent consumers, tapas and what was called “cava” which was in reality cheap white wine passed through a beer-tap contraption which injected CO2 to the wine to create a bubbly effect. So, what I thought was my cava experience, was very limited and very disappointing.
On this trip, I found things to be quite different while tasting real cavas.
A cava can be either white or in a few cases rosé (rosado), and comes in a variety of sweetness levels: Brut Nature (bone dry), Brut, Seco, Semi-Seco and Dulce. The better cavas are sensual and very creamy in the mouth. Clear ripe fruit notes dominate the toast and smoky hints at the background; the majority of the cavas I tasted were buttery and velvety and perfectly balanced. They had a long finish and felt usually very fresh despite their age. They were absolutely wonderful!
During my Catalan sojourns, we visited the Agustí Torelló Mata winery, one of Spain’s finest cava producers and a true innovator. Only 20% of the estate’s output is exported, the rest is consumed within Spain. All bottles are vintage dated and carry the disgorgement date on the back label. Their flagship product, Kripta Brut Nature Gran Reserva is completely hand-crafted from start to finish. Made with the oldest organic grapes in the estate (vines 70+ years old), its name comes from the vault (crypt) at the winery where bottles rest for 48 to 60 months, depending on the vintage, after they get disgorged. Kripta is made of 45% Macabeo (from the gobelet trained Vicari vineyard at Sant Pau d’Ordal), 32% Parellada (from the Lola vineyard at Sant Joan de Mediona), and 23% Xarel.lo (from the Mercader trellised vineyard at Sant Sadurní d’Anoia). This sparkler is very dry, crisp, vibrant, full-bodied and full-flavored and it will still evolve for years after bottling. It has clean aromas and delicate floral notes, and the delightfully fruity palate has an obvious presence of fruit and soft toasted nuances in perfect harmony and equilibrium. This very high quality cava was a revelation for me.
In addition to the Kripta, a different cava from the same producer that I enjoyed was the Agustí Torelló Mata Rosat Trepat. This lovely rosé sparkler has a definite personality. It is made from 100% Trepat (an indigenous Catalan red grape) and matured for at least 16 months in bottle. It has an attractive cherry pink color with medium-violet highlights. It is rich and dense on the palate; meaty but light with wild berries standing out, especially strawberries.
Agustí Torelló Mata also makes other Reserve cavas, including a Reserva Barrica, whose 100% Macabeo is fermented for 6 months in French oak barriques before bottling and the second fermentation. They also make some very nice still white wines in the Terrers Collection (Terroir Collection), which include one from 100% Macabeo grapes called Aptià and one from 100% Subirat Parent -- a grape of the Malvasia family nowadays considered indigenous to Catalonia -- both very fruity and aromatic wines made from native grapes.
Another excellent cava producer I visited was the Albert de Vilarnau winery. A member of the González Byass group, it creates cava from blends of international grapes and autochthonous varietals. There is a cava called Albert de Vilarnau Gran Reserva Barrica that is created as a 50% barrel fermented Chardonnay (French Allier oak barrels), 20% stainless fermented Macabeo, 20% stainless fermented Parellada and 10% stainless fermented Chardonnay. The base wines are initially fermented separately, then blended and bottled for the secondary fermentation to achieve consistency. This yellow/light-gold with gold reflections cava is gently aromatic, round and powerful on the palate but well balanced with sweet tannins.
Another of their cavas I enjoyed is the Brut Nature Reserva, an extremely dry blend of 55% Macabeo, 30% Parellada and 15% Chardonnay, all fermented separately in stainless steel tanks, then blended and bottled for the secondary fermentation. It has a pale golden yellow color with green highlights. It has a rather demure nose of green apples and pears with yeasty hints. There is good structure on the mouth with balanced acidity and a medium, fruity finish.
The cava from Vilarnau I liked most, was the Gran Reserva, a blend of four grape varietals: 35% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 25% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir. Specially selected yeasts are used for the secondary fermentation. This sparkler had a fruity nose of peach, pears and candied apricots with hints of toast and vanilla. It is the perfect aperitif for good tapas.
Juvé & Camps, another outstanding winery, showed us their cavas, though they also make still wines and a Marc de Cava, a highly alcoholic digestif. They poured for us their Brut Rose, an 100% Pinot Noir cava; their Reserva de la Familia, a blend of Macabeo, Xarel.lo, Parellada and Chardonnay; the Cinta Púrpura Brut, an off-dry blend of Macabeo, Xarel.lo, and Parellada; the Milesimé, 100% Chardonnay; and the Gran Juvé & Camps, a very dry blend of Macabeo, Xarel.lo, Parellada and Chardonnay. There are only 90 cases from this last one allocated each year to the US market.
The final fine Cava producer I liked is the Rexach Barqués company, founded in 1910, when Pere Baqués Rafecas started construction of the cellar and underground cave where Rexach Baques Cavas are stored and aged. The company is currently managed by Montse Rexach, the 4th generation general manager and winemaker. The vineyards are located in Penedès. The grape blend for all varieties (except the Brut Rosé which is created from 100% Pinot Noir) is the classic 40% Parellada-30% Macabeo-30% Xarel.lo.
The company drew international attention when Catalonia’s favorite son, artist Salvador Dali, chose the Rexach Baqués Cava to celebrate his wedding in 1958.
During our visit we tasted 4 variations on the theme:
Brut Nature Gran Reserva; Brut Imperial Reserve; Gran Carta Brut Reserva; Brut Rosat
All the white cavas have 11.5% Alcohol and are produced in 30,000 to 40,000 bottles per year. The rosé is 12% ABV and produced as 5,000 bottles per year. Aging on the lees is 54 months for the Brut Nature Gran Reserva – with no dosage – 42 months for the award winning Brut Imperial Reserva, which is dry, but without pronounced acidity, and 36 months for the Gran Carta Brut Reserva. The Brut Rosat is aged for a minimum of only 12 months to preserve acidity and the intense fruity aromas of cherry and strawberry.
The white cavas have all a beautiful nose and delicate creaminess and, when it comes to price, are much more affordable compared to equivalent quality French Champagne.
There are many more cava producers in the area, including some mass produced black-clad cavas from one of largest sparkling wine producers in the world, but the above are some of the most important, more accessible and best tasting ones. I want our readers to become aware of these brilliant wines, many of which are not particularly well known outside Spain.
To your health.
For more information see:
© June 2021 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.
In this issue: