Wine, Spilled: Cava
Welcome to Wine, Spilled, a weekly column in which EMD's Justine Sterling shares the myths, legends, tall tales, and short stories of the wine world, and recommends a couple bottles that won't break the bank. Today's wine: Cava
Everyone has a cause: some people fight for animal rights, others are trying to save the icecaps. Me? I try to get people to drink sparkling wine on a daily basis. It may not be as noble as other causes, but believe me, it’s worthwhile. How is sparkling wine different than other carbonated beverages? We drink beer or soda or mineral water daily and we don’t bat an eye; no one asks someone who pops open a bottle of Pellegrino what they're celebrating, and so it should be with sparkling wine. But, you say, I’m not made of money. I can’t afford Champagne every day of the week. Well, my friend, I didn’t say Champagne. I said sparkling wine, and there are many tasty, affordable bottles of it available.
On this quest to make the world a more sparkling place, let’s start in Spain, which means Cava.
In 1872, a Catlonian winemaker named Josep Raventós was traveling throughout Europe peddling his wares. Raventós' family had been producing wine since the 1550s, and up til this fateful trip, had only made still wines. While in France, Raventós found himself in Champagne and was captivated by the local sparkling wine; he returned with visions of bubbles dancing in his head. Not satisfied with importing grapes from France, Raventós decided to create his own sparkling wine with native Spanish white grapes rather than the traditional Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier.
He did use imported equipment to recreate the classic Champagne method. During this process, the grapes and pressed and the juice is fermented. The fermented liquid is poured into bottles with sugar and yeast and fermented for a second time, which produces bubbles. After aging and riddling the dead yeast down to the necks of the bottles, the cava is frozen and the caps are popped off, which also removes the dead yeast-sicle. The wine is then topped off with more wine and corked.
The wine was called Xampán until 1883 when the French complained and it was renamed Espumosos. It wasn’t until 1983 that it was officially named Cava, which in Catalan means cave or cellar. It was immediately popular. A small group of forward-thinking winemakers, including Josep, began meeting every Sunday after mass to talk wine and share their discoveries and methods. All began dabbling in Cava and found it to be such a success that they decided Penedès should be transformed into Spain’s own version of Champagne: a region dedicated to sparkling wines.
Just as Cava was truly starting to take hold in the region, the Phylloxera plague hit in 1887. Phylloxera are nasty little aphid-like bugs that feast on the roots and leaves of grape vines. But not all was lost: a couple of plucky Cava producers survived the plight. While Phylloxera stunted the growth of the region into the Cava giant that the small group of producers had envisioned, eventually Penedès recovered and now makes 95% of all Cava produced in the world.
In terms of taste, Cava is just as varied as Champagne. Cavas come in many styles ranging from dry to sweet, white to rosé, vintage to non-vintage. It can be made from any combination of parellada, xarel-lo, macabeo, subirat (also known as malvasia) and, more recently, chardonnay. The first three grapes are the most commonly used varietals and were the ones used in the first Cavas. In order to be a true Cava, the wine must be made in Spain, must be made with those grapes and must be made méthode champenoise. An easy way to check to see if your Cava is the real thing is to look at the cork: if it’s genuine, there will be a four-pointed star.
So why choose cava? While, generally, it’s not as creamy, toasty or complex as Champagne (although there are exceptional bottles out there for a price), it is crisp, refreshing and clean: perfect for a sweltering summer day. It’s versatile and can be matched with both light foods as well as heavier, fattier foods because the bubbles cut through the fat and cleanse the pallet.
The clean crispness of a Cava also make it an ideal blank slate for cocktails, particularly brunch cocktails. Mix in a little fresh fruit juice like the traditional orange juice or for a spicier drink some ginger liquor.
- Casa del Mar Rose - A dry rosé that starts or ends any meal wonderfully especially if that meal involves a barbecued pork dish. $12
- Saniger - Slightly toasted with a touch of creaminess, this sparkler is ideal with spicy, Asian-inspired dishes. $14
- Cristalino - A blank slate of a sparkling that is clean and refreshing on its own but best at brunch when spiked with some fresh pear juice or whatever you have at hand. $7
- Savia Viva - Soft and easy this bubbly calls out to be raised in a toast or matched with a fresh fruit salad. $9
- Marques de Gelida - Explosively citrusy, this bottle plus a light, crisp salad makes for an ideal afternoon on the deck. $12