Don’t Think Champagne – Think Cava

I’ve written before about Champagne and how annoyingly dominating it is in the sparkling wine market. My main point is that, when good, it’s so much better than any other sparkling wine that its reputation is high and, on a special occasion, anything else seems mean. This reputation allows an appalling amount of poor champagne to slip in on the coat tails of the good stuff, to be sold at high prices.

The good news is that there is now sparkling wine every bit as good as good Champagne. It’s Cava. Not all Cava, or even most Cava, but good Cava really is good. There’s an interesting personal story that I heard at a Cava tasting in London from Xavier Gramona (pictured). When he took over the family firm, Gramona, he was advised to make fizz cheaply and sell it young, because he would never break the stranglehold that Champagne has on the high end of the market. Being a contrarian by nature, this advice made him want to make great Cava. So he looked at Champagne to see what they had that he couldn’t reproduce in Spain. As far as he could see there wasn’t anything unique about the geography or the grapes; and there was nothing special about the methods of wine-making that he couldn’t reproduce. The climate is hotter in Catalonia, it’s true, but it’s cooled by the Mediterranean, while Reims is much further inland. That evens the climatic factors out a bit.

Now comes the crucial bit. To understand this you have to know that Champagne is fermented in the usual way, bottled, then the bottles are opened again and a fresh supply of yeast and sugar is added before the definitive cork is put in place. This is the ‘méthode champenoise’, also called the ‘classic’ method or the ‘traditional’ method. This secondary fermentation is what puts the bubbles into Champagne, but it also gives it that toasty, yeasty flavour that makes it so complex and so interesting. The longer it’s left the more interesting the flavours become. But it takes money to lay down thousands of bottles without selling them – the sort of money the Champagne houses have but most other winemakers don’t. However, Xavier Gramona was determined to use the traditional method and to allow his wines to mature.

By this stage of his story, at the London tasting, we had got some way through the Gramona Cavas, each one older than the last, and each one more complex and intense with the toasty, yeasty flavour of great champagne.

The problem for the UK buyer is that Gramona’s Imperial Gran Reserva costs over £20 a bottle and the shipping costs add the same again if you just buy one bottle. Try it when you are next in Spain. Meanwhile, both of the wine merchants at the Seven Dials have an interesting Cava. Hartleys’ Freixenet Cordon Negro sells at £10, or £8 if it’s on offer. It’s apparently the most imported sparkling wine in the world. At the other end of the scale, Seven Cellars’ Domino de Tharsys Brut comes from a small winemaker inland from Valencia. It sells at £12.95. Don’t be tempted by the fact that you can buy Prosecco much cheaper. It’s fermented in stainless steel vats, without that second fermentation in the bottle, so there’s no chance of developing those more complex flavours – the yeasts have been filtered out before it goes in the bottle. Some Prosecco is interesting but it still doesn’t have great depth.

Andrew Polmear

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