Appreciating Cava Wines

Appreciating Cava Wines DSC00083.JPG Appreciating Cava Wines DSC09679.JPG Appreciating Cava Wines DSC09743.JPG

While I have tasted many types of sparkling wines over the years, I have always been fascinated with Cava wines. There is just something about the affordability, quality and versatility of Cava that makes it a memorable wine and an exceptional value.

The best way to really understand a particular wine category or varietal is to jump in and immerse yourself. I did just that on a five-day trip to the Penèdes wine region in Spain, which is the heart of Cava sparkling wine production. I tasted over 50 cava’s in five days. I sense some eye rolling, a gasp or two and some disbelief. It’s true…really. As part of a seven person wine- writer team, I toured some of the best cava producers Spain has to offer. Lucky me.

Cava’s are a seductive player in the fine sparkling wines category. Cava is an officially designated wine that can only be made in Spain. While the denomination (Cava DO) extends across a number of Spanish regions, the Penèdes area – about an an hour from Barcelona -accounts for over 95% of all Cava production. Cava, just like fine Champagne is made using the “Método Tradicional” or Traditional Method (Called “Méthode Champenoise”in France) allowing the second fermentation in the bottle. But what makes Cava unique, is the use of mostly local grape varieties. While some Chardonnay grapes are finding their way into Cava production, the first three grapes listed are the most dominant.

The Cava grape varieties are Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. Each variety adds its own unique character to the wine. Typically Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja) contributes freshness, fruitiness and acidity; Xarel-lo brings body, alcohol and depth of flavor while Parellada adds delicacy, finesse and elegance to the blend. After the second fermentation is complete, each bottle contains dead yeast cells, known as lees. During this time the lees break down, interacting with the wine to create more complex aromas and flavors. The mandatory lees ageing for a young Cava is 9 months, compared to 15 in Champagne. However many of the local Cava’s are left on the lees for 15 or more months.

There are hundreds of sparkling wine producers in Spain, and cava is generally easy to find in the United States. Flavors range from Brut [dry] to Secco [sweet]. Predominate characteristics are constant fine bubbles, straw yellow appearance with golden reflections, aromas of apples, apricot and juicy peaches, a rounded well balanced taste in the mouth, ending with a long pleasant finish. If you can get all that from any one bottle, you’re in for a treat that is distinctly its own. Cava is not Champagne. It is not Prosecco. It is a category unto itself. In my opinion, it is less bubbly then Champagne and generally less sweet than Prosecco. It can be served as an aperitif, is terrific with brunch and plays well with many kinds of foods like shellfish, corndogs, smoked trout, white meats and pasta.

Cava wines do not age all that well and should be consumed within two years of release. Cava's strengths lie in its freshness and dynamic bubbles. The standard number of twists needed to loosen the metal cage holding the cork to the Cava bottle is 6 or 7 depending on the hand strength of the twister. Sparkling wine in Spain that is not Cava is called Vino Espumoso. Outside of Spain, Germany consumes the most cava, followed by the UK.

There are six types of cava’s based on the sugar content:

• Extra Brut – 0-6 grams of sugar per liter, the driest of the cava
• Brut – 0-15 grams of sugar per liter
• Extra Seco – 12-20 grams of sugar per liter
• Seco – 17-35 grams of sugar per liter
• Semi-Seco – 33-50 grams of sugar per liter
• Dulce – More than 50 grams of sugar per liter, the sweetest of the cava

As part of my education, I stayed in local lodging and ate in the countryside. I am going to share my tasting schedule with you. It would be very difficult for you to duplicate it. My suggestion for first timers to the area is to hire a local touring company that already knows all the best places to visit and already has the contacts in place. I highly recommend Wine Pleasures . This tour company organizes unique wine events & tours for wine enthusiasts & professionals around the world.

Tasting over 50 great cava’s in 5 days was a real palate challenge expanding my sparkling-beverage horizons in the most amazing way. You might think I’d get tired of the same libation for five days, but it was all good, all the time. Give it a try. You can thank me later.

Day 1: Sant Sadurní d'Anoia: ~ A huge favorite of anyone who loves Cava’s, the tradition of more than 125 years mixes with the passion to innovate. Open for tasting and private parties. Try the 2003 Gran Reserva. This cava spends five years aging and is made from 70% Xarel-lo and 30% Macabeo.

For lunch or dinner try Fonda Neus. This family run hotel is clean, welcoming and has a large restaurant. The owners will do everything in their power to make your stay a memorable one. It is a short 10 minute walk from Gramona. Ask to taste their family-made Cava. It is superb and one of my favorites.

Day 2: Tasting at Mas Tinell. Located in Vilafranca del Penedès area, this is an ultra-modern wine tasting room, hotel and restaurant. The wines are fabulous. The Cristina Gran Reserva is a stunner.

Visit, tasting and lunch at Mascaró: Located in Vilafranca del Penedès area, this facility includes elaborate underground caves. Their Grand Reservas are aged for a minimum of 30 months. Soft and mellow on the palate, the wines are worth the visit. Try the 2010 Mascaro Cava Reserva.

Visit, tasting and lunch at LLopart: Only the first juice (tear and flower must) are chosen for their Cava program. Quality and attention to detail is apparent in each sip. Try the 2005 Llopart Ex Vite. A dream team on your palate.

Day 3: Tasting at Conca de Barberà Co-op (part of Castell D’Or Group). I love vintner and grower co-ops, and this one seems to be doing everything perfectly. Inspiring to tour and hear the story of how so many growers and wineries work toward success in a stunning cellar setting which is the work of a Gaudi disciple Cèsar Martinell. Loved the gift shop too.

Visit the Castell D’Or group for a tasting. This was worth the trip just to see the robotics being used. Never seen anything like it in the states. Try the 2009 Cossetánia Gran Reserva.

Visit, tasting and dinner at Bohigas: Pretty much the highlight of the trip, our hosts were over-the-top gracious sharing their wines, food and facilities. I cannot say enough about this stop. For more than eight centuries the family has tended its vineyards located near the Anoia river. You must try the 2009 Brut Reserva Bohiga.

Day 4: Visit and tasting at Vallformosa: Located in Vilobí del Penedès, Vallformosa is located on one of the best estates in the valley. Its history goes back more than 100 years. Be sure and try the delicate but brightly structured Brut Rose. They provide guided vineyard tours, restaurant service, events, and guided tasting sessions

Visit and tasting at Mata i Coloma: The smallest winery we visited, this one man operation is a burgeoning rock star. Loved his wines. Such a contrast from the large facilities we had been seeing, this has more of a warehouse vibe . All of his wines were great, but the 2007 Pere Mata Reserva Familia Cava is a standout.

Visit, tasting and dinner at Clos Lentiscus at Can Ramon: Founded in the fourteenth century and surviving the many obstacles that history has thrown at it, in 2001 this winery started a very ambitious and sometimes controversial project focusing on making Cava’s using earth friendly ancient culture systems without the use of pesticides and herbicides. According to the owner “We follow the moon to plant and prune to harvest cycles and give the wine respect when bottled.” You have to love a man with a vision and owner Manel is sticking with his. Open by appointment only, as are most wineries in the region. Manel is welcoming, laid back, speaks good English and lives on the estate so is there more often than not. This visit is not to be done in a hurried fashion, and you have to take a leap of faith to understand what Manel is trying to accomplish. It’s worth your time.

Day 5: Visit, tasting and lunch at Finca Valldosera. Produces wines and Cava’s from vineyards focusing on native varieties located in the Garraf Massif area. With close proximity to the sea, the wines differentiate themselves in style and taste with a hint of sea salt on the finish. Not everyone felt that was a true statement, but I got it, so I am sharing it with you. The 2009 Valldosera Brut Nature is a stunner. The two managers are welcoming and enthusiastic. Ask for a jeep tour of the vineyards which are located around a national park. You’ll get a sense of history, taste and place as you roll through the countryside.

Tasting & food pairing at Rovellats Wines and Caves. Making wines and cavas from grapes harvested in their own vineyards for over three generations. Wines are aged in the cellar right below the Masia del Segle XV (15th Century Farmhouse. A visit to Rovellats, one of the oldest wineries in the Penedès, involves a complete tour in which you enjoy a historic setting surrounded by Art Nouveau gardens and lush vineyards. You will explore the delights of the estate, the 10th-15th century Masia or farmhouse which gives its name to Rovellats, and the Chapel of the Virgin of Montserrat where you will find a reproduction of identical size and shape to the original. This is premium wine, crafted by passionate owners. It completed the trip for me. Not to be missed.