This week our virtual tour of Spain’s wine regions takes us further up the Mediterranean coast to the bucolic region of Penedès. Geographically, it is only a 45-minute drive, due west of cosmopolitan Barcelona in Catalonia. Yet historically and culturally, it is centuries away from the modern pace of its neighboring bustling cities.
Think rolling hills, 16th century hilltop towns, stucco and terracotta haciendas, grapevines planted wherever their roots can grab a foothold. It is reminiscent of the Tuscan landscape and vistas, but without the hordes of American and British tourists. Here Spanish winemakers have found paradise. How best to share their paradise than to enjoy the wine most associated with happy occasions and good times: sparkling wine.
The microclimate: warm, mild temperatures. The altitude: “hillsides” that are among the tallest in Europe. The sun: a beautiful interplay of light and landscape. All come together for a perfect environment suitable to growing three indigenous grapes that, when blended by artisanal winemakers, create a unique sparkling wine: Cava.
In the Champagne region of France, it’s Champagne; in the remainder of France it’s Cremant; in Italy it’s Prosecco; in the U.S. it’s simply sparkling wine; and in Spain it’s Cava. (The term Cava is derived from the natural “caves” used as cellar storerooms where aging takes place, but I bet you figured that out on your own.)
The Spanish have adopted the same process as the French for producing their bubbly, which contributes to the sophisticated style of the Spanish version. However, what makes Cava unique among sparkling wines is the grape varieties grown in Penedès. These indigenous grapes, grown here since the 19th century, are the Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo varieties. Try pronouncing these names after a glass or two of Cava. (Okay, let’s try it: mah-kah-BEH-oh, Par-el-YAH-dah and Sha-REHL-loh.)
Here is where the Spanish winemakers shine. It is the masterful crafting and blending of these grapes that emphasize the individual characteristics of each variety and creates an end result that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Macabeo offers fragrant floral aromas. The Parellada offers a creamy mouth-feel and fruity flavors of citrus and apples. The Xarel-lo offers ripeness, full body, acid and alcohol. What comes through the bubbles are intoxicating aromas and flavors with toasty, creamy notes, sure to please discriminating palates.
Several artisans produce Cavas aged in their cellars for extended periods. Look for Riserva and Gran Riserva. They are worth the additional cost.
Cava production is second only to the Champagne region. Annual production is about 18 million cases (216 million bottles). Of this, exports top 10 million cases.
That equates to nearly 4 percent of all wine production in Spain. I’m sure that sometime in your life a number of you have been exposed to Cava without perhaps realizing it. The most consumed sparkling wine in the U.S. in the 1970s was Freixenet, in the distinctive black bottle at a cost of under $10. (Ah yes, I remember it well at weddings and graduations.)
Now it’s time to experiment. Visit your favorite wine shop and inquire about the availability of Cava. Most carefully curated shops will stock one of two brands. If your shop doesn’t offer any, (“I have limited shelf space.” “Prosecco is my top seller in that price category, so I stock up on those wines.” “Most customers haven’t experienced Cava. It’s an unknown to them.”) you can regale them with your new-found knowledge and press them to stock a few. Excellent Cavas sell for less than $20, a similar price point to Prosecco, but in my opinion, a far superior wine.
Reward yourself simply for being able to pronounce the names of the grape varieties. I trust you will appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of such an affordable sparkler.
As with many success stories in life, Cava’s overnight popularity has been 50 years in the making. Here’s to its long life and continued success.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.