• Cava: it’s all in the name

    In the low, arid hills to the west of Barcelona, a storm is brewing amid the bodegas and palm trees of the Penedès. These days, Cava is contentious.

    Cava is Spain’s most famous sparkling wine. Like Champagne, it’s made by the méthode traditionnelle, a labour-intensive process of vinification and aging. Catalunya’s Penedès region is home to ninety five percent of production; the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada traditionally dominate the blend.

    Today’s disquiet is really all the fault of the French. The Penedès’ slopes were planted with traditional red varietals until phyloxera decimated the vineyards of Champagne in the 1800s, sending panicked winemakers in search of new sites where they could make sparkling wine. The red vines were ripped up and white ones went in. White grapes now make up 95% of the planting and Cava is the region’s best-known export.

    Cava is currently recognized with a DO, or Denominación de Origen, a mark of quality and origin applied to most respected wine regions, such as Margaux or Chianti, which carries a strict set of rules. Unusually, however, the Cava DO is not geographically limited to one part of Spain; the majority might come from the Penedès, but Cava can be made as far away as Valencia or Rioja. The regulations governing the production of Cava are also reasonably lax, especially when compared to Champagne. Cavas can be aged on their lees for just nine months (Champagne requires twelve), and a high volume of juice can be extracted from the grapes, leading to less intense flavours.

    The resulting variation in style and quality is vast. Even in the Penedès, Cavas range from the ubiquitous black bottles of Friexent to premium wines from boutique enterprises. The higher-end producers are struggling. How can they distinguish their quality product, and justify the higher price, when it’s sold under the same name as €2 plonk?

    This lack of regulation has finally pushed some producers too far. Fed up with being tarnished by a poor reputation, they are leaving the Cava DO and no longer able to use the word “Cava” to describe their sparkling wines. I visited the pioneering winery Albet i Noya who are now joining this growing trend. It’s been a hard decision, but ultimately they feel it will benefit their brand, making it clear that their refined sparklers – some aged for up to thirty months – have little in common with the lower end of the market.

    Do you agree? Do you think producers are making the right decision by leaving? What assumptions do you make about the quality of Cava on sale in the UK?

     (Interestingly, Albet i Noya are also undertaking a project to DNA test old vines they’ve discovered. So far, they’re commercially producing two brand new varietals: the red Belat is wonderful if you can get your hands on a bottle.)

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  • On Champagne in Reims

    “We want to gain official recognition of the historic significance of Champagne production in Reims and Epernay”, our guide at Tattinger tells me. “So some of the houses came together to start a candidature for UNESCO status for the vineyards, the Champagne maisons and the caves”.

    So, what makes Champagne so special?

    Champagne 7

    PRODUCTION


    Almost every bottle of Champagne you find on supermarket shelves will have been at least three years in the making.

    Viticulture
    As for all French wines, strict rules govern Champagne production. The vineyards around Reims and Epernay divide into three principal zones, within which each village is categorised into a cru according to its quality. Each of these zones is best suited to growing one of the grapes that may be used in Champagne production: Chardonnay (Côte des Blancs), Pinot Noir (Montagne de Reims) and Pinot Meunier (Vallée de la Marne). Put rather simply, Chardonnay adds lightness to the blend, Pinot Meunier gives the fruitiness and Pinot Noir adds structure.

    And yes, the latter two are red grapes. Think about eating a grape: the juice is always clear. The colour of a red wine comes from contact with the grape skins, which is avoided here by very gentle pressing and running off the juice straight away.

    First fermentation
    Once picked and pressed the grape juice, or “must”, from each village is kept separate and the first fermentation (turning the juice into wine) will occur in modern stainless steel vats to preserve the natural fruit flavours. Yeast is added to start the process, converting the natural sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape.

    Most houses also opt for a process called malolactic fermentation, where the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid softens the acidity and rounds the wine.

    Blending
    At the end of the first fermentation, the cellar master will have numerous vats of different still white wines, each showing different characteristics according to their site and grape variety. Now comes the fun part: tasting each one and deciding on how to blend them. For most Champagnes, the aim of blending is to maintain the house style year-on-year. Using still base wines from previous years is also permitted, which is why you won’t find a year on most Champagne bottles as you would other wines.

    The very best wines from the grand cru villages may be used for the houses’ prestige blends, while in the odd excellent year a vintage Champagne may also be created using grapes only from that year’s harvest.

    Second fermentation
    The wine is now bottled, and a liquer de tirage is added to each one. This contains yeast and sugar to restart the fermentation process. Although unlike in the first fermentation, the bottles are sealed with a metal cap (just like a beer bottle cap) so the carbon dioxide cannot escape and has to dissolve into the wine creating the bubbles.

    Ageing
    Once the yeast has converted all of the sugar in the wine, it dies and sinks to the bottom of the bottle as a deposit known as lees. It is the lees that give Champagne its finesse and complex, sometimes biscuity flavours. Prosecco, for example, undergoes its second fermentation in a tank without any lees contact.

    A basic Champagne is required by law to rest on lees for 15 months, but most houses will leave it for 3 years. Champagnes, therefore, should not be aged at home; this has already been done by the house and further ageing may lead to oxidation and diminished quality.

    Remuage or “riddling”
    Once the Champagne has aged, the dead yeast must be removed by a process known as remuage. Traditionally, bottles are stored in wooden racks and this is done by a remueur, who twists each bottle a quarter turn and raises it upwards a little more each day. A skilled remueur can turn up to 38,000 bottles a day. Eventually, the bottle will be nearly perpendicular with the cap at the bottom and a plug of yeast above it. This takes a remueur – a few of which are still employed by Champagne houses to turn a small portion of their bottles – up to eight weeks but machines can now complete the task in under two.

    Disgorgement
    The neck of the Champagne bottle is plunged into a freezing chemical solution before the cap is removed, allowing the pressure to expel the plug of yeast. A little Champagne is lost, but this is compensated by the liquer d’expédition, a solution of sugar and wine. This dosage determines the sweetness of the final wine, most often “Brut” (7–10g of sugar), but sometimes a little sweeter. Over time tastes have changed greatly; two-hundred years ago Champagnes may have had up to 300g of sugar added, but today there’s a growing trend for bone dry or zero dosage wines.

    THE CELLARS


    I made it to two houses during my time in Reims: Tattinger and G.H. Mumm. There’s nothing like drinking a glass of wine on the same spot where it’s been produced for centuries.

    I can only apologise for the shocking photos. Most are from my iPhone, and the rest taken on the move, without flash, in low lighting.

    Tattinger
    • Production was begun on this site by monks of the now destroyed Abbaye Saint Nicaise. Part of the abbey’s crypts and vaults make up the caves used today. The rest lie in Roman chalk pits; just two houses in Reims have caves within these. At their deepest, the cellars are 20m underground where the temperature remains a steady 8oC.
    • Tattinger hire 800 workers to pick 4,000kg of grapes at harvest time.
    • Their standard Brut Reserve is unusually a Chardonnay dominated Champagne, with 40% white grapes used. It accounts for 80% of their production.

    Champagne 14

    One of the original abbey doors

    Champagne 10

    The stairs which originally led up to the abbey

    Champagne 12

    Bottles ageing on lees

    Champagne 9

    The way out today: steady footing needed

    Champagne 8

    The finished product

    The only disappointment? The tasting. After an insightful and atmospheric tour, we were handed a glass of bubbly with no explanation or tasting advice, then rushed out (via the “boutique” desk) as quickly as they could manage.

    The cellars, however, are just fantastic. Imagine strolling through past thousands upon thousands of bottles down dimly-lit, cool and echoey caverns, while above you can see the small surface entry points used by Roman miners. Elsewhere, you can spot the old steps that once led to the abbey, while salvaged doors have been incorporated into the modern layout.

    G.H. Mumm
    • Mumm have 218 hectares of vineyards, 98% of which is grand and premier cru, but this only makes up a third of their needs; the rest of the grapes are bought in from private growers.
    • The Mumm signature is “intensity and freshness” and their standard cuvee, the Cordon Rouge, is Pinot Noir dominated (40%).
    • Mumm is the brand you’ll see on the Formula 1 podium.

    Champagne 4

    Just a glimpse of the 24km of tunnels

    Champagne 3

    The small “museum”

    Champagne 1

    Le Cordon Rouge

    There’s no getting away from the fact that Mumm’s cellars can’t compete for atmosphere, but their tour is much more informative and gives greater insight into the winemaking process. They’ve preserved parts of their history throughout: the tour begins with the a walk past the huge barrels and concrete vats once used for the first fermentation and ends in a small “museum” of more prosaic items like early machines used in disgorgement.

    When it comes to the tasting at Mumm, you also have a greater choice, ranging in price from a glass of Cordon Rouge to a well-orchestrated tasting flight through some of their finest Champagnes.

    THE CHAMPAGNE


    So, while I still love British fizz, and feel very strongly about supporting our brilliant vineyards, I suppose I now understand a little better why the Champagne producers feel their product has a superior history, if not quality.

    By law, Champagne already may only be made in this region. A wine made from the same grapes and by the same process elsewhere may only be described as being made by the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle.

    When it comes to Champagne, imitation is perhaps not the sincerest form of flattery.


    * Disclosure: as the primary purpose of my visit was to update the coverage of the Champagne houses for the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, both very kindly offered me a press ticket.