• 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.)

  • 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.

  • 32 hours in Copenhagen

    You can do a lot with one night abroad.

    When your holiday allowance is precious and funds limited, mini weekends are the perfect way to get a taster of a new place. Booked in advance, a return flight from Gatwick to Copenhagen costs £47, and a private room in a hostel just £25, leaving plenty of pennies for the odd luxury. I reckon the best travel philosophy is to only go abroad as long as you can afford to really enjoy yourself.

    So, here’s how I made the most of 32 hours in Copenhagen. No, I didn’t make it to Noma, but there’s always next time…

    Saturday morning: the postcard shots

    Backed by colourful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century townhouses, the little harbour of Nyhavn might be touristy in high summer, but on a lip-numbingly cold morning out of season it was beautifully serene. According to Visit Copenhagen, Hans Christian Andersen lived at numbers 18, 20 and 67 during his life. I love a bit of trivia.

    The harbour sits on the eastern shore of Indre By, the central district, beyond which is Christianshavn. I didn’t really get a feel for this area, but enjoyed pootling along its quiet backstreets and yacht-lined canals. Cafe Luna, a teeny diner full-to-bursting with twenty-somethings shovelling down shakes, burgers and enormous breakfasts, is a good shout for lunch.

    Nyhavn 2

    Copenhagen 2

    Saturday afternoon: in search of a different side to the city

    I’d heard a lot about the hippie “Freetown” of Christiania, founded in an old military barracks in Christianshavn in 1971, but left rather unimpressed. Perhaps once a utopian dream, today it feels run-down and seedy. The overgrown and graffiti-covered buildings are semi-derelict in places, and there’s a sense of uneasiness rather than community. You’ll find plenty of open drug dealing, gaggles of tentative-teens looking to get stoned and a market selling tatty bracelets and drug paraphernalia. (No photos, as unsurprisingly they’re banned.) Did I miss something?

    Somewhat disappointed, we headed back to Indre By for a whirl around the free Leigh Ledare exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. This contemporary gallery sits in a Baroque palace arranged around a shady courtyard. The exhibition space is on a very manageable scale, and there’s a good coffee shop in the atrium. Ledare’s explicit but strangely fascinating photography makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing though, especially once you realise the main subject is his mother. I’ll leave you to Google some of his work.

    Photos are forbidden in Christiana; this is as close as I could get

    Saturday evening: the meat-packing district

    Much-hyped Kødbyen, Copenhagen’s “meat city” if you translate directly, is a collection of low-rise industrial buildings now home to a plethora of cool restaurants and bars. The 1930s plastic-clad warehouses in the main section, the “white meat city”, are rather different to the red-brick conversions we’re used to in London. As you can see from the second pic below, it’s a little eerie at night.

    After several recommendations, we chose Mother for Prosecco cocktails and excellent sourdough pizza loaded with mozarella di buffala. Their rough wooden tables were filled with friendly, international hipsters sporting the requisite uniform of denim with beards or great lipstick. The night finished up at at Karriere, a laidback, neon-lit bar with too-cool-for-school menus. I’ll never cease to be impressed that while Scandinavians put away just as much booze as us Brits, you never see people behaving like idiots and falling over on the street.

    Mother Pizza, Copenhagen

    Copenhagen 5

    Sunday morning: a slow start

    Lazily wandering east, we heard the beat of drums and stumbled across blue trouser-clad guards marching out of Rosenborg Castle, home to the royal family until the 1700s, towards the full changing of the guard ceremony at Amalienborg. It’s not really worth seeking out, but a fun diversion nonetheless.

    Our main destination for the morning was Torvehallerne. Opened in 2011, this swish market consists of two permanent glass halls with outdoor stands in-between. You’ll find everything from fresh produce to bars where you can stop for a glass of wine. I’d really recommend adding this to your itinerary; you could easily while away an afternoon here.

    Copenhagen 6 Copenhagen 7

    Market, Copehhagen

    Sunday afternoon: Nørrebro

    A short stroll over the river from Torvehallerne takes you to chilled out Nørrebro. It’s marketed as an up-and-coming part of town, but thanks to the abundance of families and coffee shops it feels quite well-established, if not entirely polished. Choosing to seek out smaller sights on this trip, we took a wander around the Politi Museet in the city’s old police station. The cells are interesting, but the exhibits themselves range from the niche to the slightly grotesque. Be careful which cupboards you open.

    Cafe Plenum, a stripped-back cafe with famous quotes daubed on the walls, thankfully provided restorative brew. I loved Copenhagen’s cafe culture, but the tradition of leaving babies asleep in the street in their pram made me nervous! (The BBC wrote an article about this recently, which you can read here.)

    Copenhagen, river view

    Copenhagen 8

    Sunday evening: restaurant hopping

    A long walk (and a bit of getting lost) brought us back to Kødbyen for a glass of wine and tapenade at another stalwart of the area, Bio Mio. Inhabiting an old Bosch warehouse, this rambling organic restaurant gets rave reviews, but it wasn’t really for me. I liked the canteen style service and Vapiano-esque card system, just found the super-healthy menu a bit much.

    Intrigued by the very mixed reviews the Wimbledon export has been getting, we also squeezed in a visit to Sticks ‘n’ Sushi for a taste of the original. Thanks to the low communal tables, it feels rather like an up-market, Japanese version of Busaba Eathai. Everything we ate was perfectly nice, and I can see a niche for the concept in London, but I’m not sure I’ll be hot-footing it to SW19 anytime soon.

    Sticks'n'sushi

    We spent the night at Generator Copenhagen, which is by far one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. It’s vast, but the social area, complete with a cheap-ish bar, TV screens and pool tables, would be a great place to meet people. Our private twin was immaculate and had a modern en-suite wet-room.

    So, do you think one night is too short to see a new city? Or have you been on a great mini-break recently?

    Many thanks to Diana, Lucy and Ed for the tips. Also thanks to Graeme for being an excellent travel companion – you can read his musings on all things science here.

  • Four tips for New Orleans

    New Orleans is a city I’d longed to go to for years.

    I had so many images of what I would find: the madness of Bourbon Street; jazz musicians on every corner; po-boys, gumbo and beignets galore; and, of course, scars from the devastation of Katrina.

    I’ve spent a good bit of time in the US, home to most of my immediate family, and while New Orleans certainly lived up to my expectations, it took me by surprise how different the city is to other parts of the country. It lends itself to every travel cliche in the book (vibrant! a city of contrasts! historic! unique! lively! charming! diverse!). In five days, I barely touched the surface, but I’m certain that the Big Easy firmly warrants it’s place on so many travel wishlists.

    Below are four tips from my four days in the city.

    1. Wander the backstreets of the French Quarter.

    The French Quarter is the oldest part of New Orleans, although most of the buildings you see today are Spanish in origin, re-built after fires in the late 1700s. Lying between North Rampart Street and the Mississippi, its dusky-hued homes are adorned with a seductive combination of flower-filled, wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters.

    Walking as the crow flies, “the Quarter” would probably take just half-an-hour to meander across, but spare at least a day to drift around. Start in the more tumble-down eastern end, before wandering towards the part-gloriously restored and part-Disneyfied area towards the CBD. Drinking on the streets is legal here, but you’d do much better to stop off for a cocktail in a quiet, cool bar; my favourite was the unassuming Harry’s Corner, mostly frequented by locals and reviewed by Esquire here.

    New Orleans 3

    2. Spend an evening on Frenchmen Street.

    Esplanade Avenue provides a natural end to the French Quarter, beyond which lie the quiet, residential streets of Faubourg Marigny. Once a plantation, the land was first sold off at the start of the 1800s. Pastel-coloured Creole cottages from this time still remain, and you’ll barely find a building over two stories high: something local residents are campaigning to preserve.

    Frenchmen Street runs north–south just beyond Esplanade and is rather more lively than the rest of the district. The main “strip”, a somewhat tourist-orientated but quirky mix of bars, restaurants, shops and tattoo parlours, takes up the southern quarter mile. Head to the intimate Spotted Cat for drinks and live music then squeeze up the stairs above the titchy Apple Barrel bar to Adolfo’s (no website) for dinner. With its slanting floors, charmingly bolshy waiters and excellent Creole-Italian cooking, Adolfo’s was one of my favourite places.

    New Orleans 2

    3. Eat like a tourist.

    New Orleans’ food is famous for good reason and there’s a slew of historic restaurants in which to try the specialities. Ease in with a po-boy and some live music at the cheesy Gazebo Cafe before the quintessential New Orleans trip to Cafe du Monde‘s sticky tables for beignets. Be prepared to get powdered (icing) sugar absolutely everywhere.

    Come evening, keep it traditional: drop by the 200-year-old Napoleon House for a glass of wine in their sleepy courtyard or sip a cocktail at the dark, friendly bar in Tujague’s. Alternatively, try to get a table outside at Sylvain for modern cooking with a European-cum-Southern twist.

    New Orleans

    4. Avoid Bourbon Street!

    OK, don’t avoid it completely. Go once. Walk the length of it taking in the gaudy lights, raucous bars and scantily-clad, frequently overweight tourists. Picture Magaluf or San Antonio and you’re going in the right direction.

    Oh, and whatever you do, don’t drink the deathly-sweet green grenade drinks, advertised on banners towed by light planes overhead.

    Bourbon Street, New Orleans

    Thanks again to Ed, Emma and especially Sam for all of the advice. On reflection, I wish I’d spent more time outside the French Quarter – all the more reason to return.