Cava or Champagne?

In the November edition of Decanter there is an article signed by Andrew Jefford that has stirred a degree of debate in the Cava world. Jefford, a reputed wine journalist (in fact the 2010 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the year), writes under the somewhat jaded title of “Homage to Catalonia” a well reasoned praise of Cava, or, rather, the potential of Cava when quality and not price is the driving factor both in the winemaker and consumer mind.

His main point is that the critical difference between Champagne and Cava is not grape varieties, or the production method (which is the same for both, unlike Prosecco and most of Sekt, that use the Charmat large tank method), but lies in the opposed climates.

The cool climate in Champagne produces barely ripe grapes that will give a highly acid base wine that sugar, long ageing in contact with lees and skilful expedition liquor design complement to render one of the world’s outstanding wines.

In contrast, warmer climate allows grapes to ripen to a less aggressive acidity and higher sugar content that enable producers to avoid any sugar addition, other than for secondary fermentation, in most of the top quality Cavas and still offer a nose, different from Champagne, but equally attractive.

He humbly pleads guilty of not knowing a handful of smaller producers that he visited last summer, which showed him the real potential of Cava. He proposes Cava as an equal competitor to Champagne and reasons that sparkling wines of other warmer regions may wisely model themselves on Cava rather than Champagne.

He blames British supermarkets for obscuring these wineries from the general view; I would also finger bigger Cava companies that dominate exports based on a low price strategy.

I have browsed through the webs of two of Britain’s more conspicuous supermarket chains to assess differences between Champagne and Cava, with telling results.

At Tesco, Cava offerings (excluding the Tesco brand) ranged from £3.05 to £6.50; 12 bottles from 4 big companies. Champagne: from £9.97 to £125.00; 37 bottles from 19 companies. Additionally, in the Fine Wines section 7 more champagne bottles, from £36.00 to £145.00, were available. Clearly, two different niches with no overlap.

At Sainsbury’s, Cava from £8.99 to £11.99: only 3 bottles and all from 2 big wineries. Champagne? From £14.99 to £43.99. Again no overlap.

This is, for me, the great success of Champagne (and to a similar degree, of other French wines): there is Champagne, the only and one,... and there is a riff-raff of substandard imitators that can only compete for the low price range substitution. For great occasions, Champagne; for everyday use, the rest. This is the reading, even in Catalonia: I have heard from people, posh or otherwise, that “Cava is nice, but Champagne is the real thing!” or “Cava is too acid and gives me heartburn; Champagne does not”. Further questions often show that their experience is restricted to cheap Cava and have never heard of the high quality products.

Does all this mean that Cava is better than Champagne and should sit on the throne? Certainly not. I only ask to wine lovers to try and know Cava better, striving to unearth bottles from the smaller wineries (see a previous post or the Internet addresses below) and approach them from an unprejudiced standpoint, not comparing them to Champagne.

Imagine tasting fine Burgundy for the first time after a lifetime of avid Bordeaux consumption. Is one better than the other? No, they are different, both excellent and only personal preference should matter. It is nice to know that somebody like Jefford, prestigious and obviously not prejudiced against Champagne (see his 2010 prize) shares this view.


Wine in restaurants 1.2: Lasarte, Can Boix and Cal Gabriel

In the last two weeks I have enjoyed two top-level restaurants (due to special celebrations; unfortunately this is not the average for the rest of the year) and a basic, popular one, and all three deserve some comments about their wine management.

Lasarte is a Barcelona-based restaurant with 2 Michelin stars, located in the Condes de Barcelona Hotel, and managed by the Basque chef Martín Berasategui, owner of the 3-star restaurant of the same name in Donostia.
Martín Berasategui

Its wine list includes most of the world’s remarkable wine regions. Local focus is adequate, as is the balance between famous workhorses and original, less well-known proposals. Prices are reasonable for this level, at perhaps 50% over retail price. They offer matching wines for their special menu, suggesting also selected beers in some cases. In the only mistake I could detect, this is not shown in the menu, but mentioned by the service. In our case we were not told, and took instead a bottle of Sot Lefriec 2004, a red Penedès by Alemany i Corrio winery. Dense, closed at first but opening later to show red and black fruit, toast and vanilla, and a long finish.

The sommelier is very knowledgeable and sensitive, and when I pointed out that we would have liked to get the wines that were being served to nearby tables, he offered us two samples: one glass of excellent Belgian beer and one glass of an Alella Marfil Generós Sec, which matched perfectly their two dishes.

Our wine was decanted and served at appropriate temperature in excellent glasses. To round things off, we were presented at the end with a printed menu including the wines and beer we had drunk.

Summarizing, wine management quite close to what should be expected in a restaurant at this level.

In a very different environment, at the feet of the Pyrenees and close to the road from Lleida to La Seu d’Urgell, the Hotel Can Boix boasts, among other attractions, a restaurant of creative cuisine that attracts gourmets from all over Catalonia. However, wine management is in some aspects a step below.

Can Boix Hotel
The wine list, indeed a book, includes a wide range of wine regions, with interesting information about each of them. But in many cases only a small number of wines of that zone are available. Wine vintages are not shown, except for a small list of bottles that appear at the end of the book and which I nearly overlooked. No wine matching was possible.

The sommelier was on long sick leave and his deputy was extremely pleasant and active, but had some ideas about wine service that could improve by training. He showed us the cellar, kept at a surprising 20ºC, and we discussed at length about wine.

Our bottle (at wine shop price) was decanted and served in glasses perhaps too wide and short. Anyway, the Penedès red Caus Lubis 1998, that I had tasted some years ago, was impressive in its maturity, with tannins present but perfectly rounded and complex aromas of mineral, red fruit and old leather.

Probably the absence of the sommelier was being felt a trifle too much; but the deputy, with some development, may well have the potential to upgrade wine management to match the cuisine performance.

Playing in another league altogether, Cal Gabriel is the restaurant of a bed-and-breakfast holiday cottage in the village of Tuixent, in the middle of the Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park. No starred chef here, but honest, nourishing, local product based cooking.

Cal Gabriel
What about wine? They propose some 20 references, from different zones, and with a surprising and welcome absence of run-of-the-mill best sellers, at moderate prices.

When we selected a bottle of Costers del Segre Bregolat red, (well structured, somewhat short in the nose) they changed the stemware ready for the house wine by glasses that were not Riedel, but nice and suitable. They apologized that the wine might be too warm (only marginally so, imo) and suggested to cool it down a little. And at the end of lunch offered us a bag to take home the remaining wine.

For a restaurant with a 14 € menu and in a remote village in the Pyrenees I felt that few more things could be asked...that’s the way to go!


Celler de Capçanes, to modernity through tradition

As I have explained in a previous post, a vast majority of the cooperative wineries in Catalonia are dominated by conservative thinking that hinders the much awaited modernization they need, both in commercial and technical terms.

The most important model for these outdated wineries to copy is the Celler de Capçanes, located in the village of Capçanes, DO Montsant. This cooperative followed the trodden path at the beginning: founded comparatively late in 1933, they produced and sold bulk wine till 1980, when they stopped wine production altogether to just sell their grape to other producers.

But in 1991 the oenologist Angel Teixidó started production of wine again and even barrel aging. A few years later, contacts with Barcelona’s Jewish community culminated in a bold move: the decision to produce kosher wine, that is, wine elaborated following the strict rules laid out in ancient Jewish law.

The beauty of the idea was its power as motor of change. Though ancient, the kosher rules drove the winery to purchase state-of-the-art equipment to be able to fulfil the cleanliness and materials requirements. And then the production of other fine wines came along naturally. The grape varieties in production are Garnatxa blanca and negra, Macabeu, Carinyena, Merlot, Syrah, Ull de Llebre, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the Garnatxa vines are ca. 100 years old.

After the years, the kosher wine, Peraj Ha’abib of Flor de Primavera, enjoys a high reputation in its market sector. But there are many other wines from Capçanes to consider:
  • the Mas Donís range (blanc, rosat, negre), easy to drink, fresh 
  • Mas Collet blanc and negre, with some oak aging 
  • Vall del Calás, Costers del Gravet and Mas Tortó, coupages of several varieties with 12 months of oak 
  • the Carretell sweet/fortified wines from Garnatxa negra: a ranci, oxidized by a long stretch in old oak; a mistela, in fact must with alcohol added, and a vi de licor, with alcohol  
  • Pansal del Calás, the wine from overripe Garnatxa negra and Carinyena grapes  
  • the Garnatxa negra wines: Lasendal, with slight oak aging, Cabrida, from old vines and 12 month oak aging, and Cabrida Calissa, from special limestone soil vineyards. To visit the Cabrida vineyard in a sunny morning and later have a bottle with a nice lunch in El Cairat restaurant in nearby Falset is a rewarding experience.

It is really a luxury to visit Celler de Capçanes, especially going to see the vineyards. They are scattered around the countryside, not grouped together, doubtless due to the diverse owners. In this way, some are just surrounded by forest that lends flavour to the resulting wines.



Managing complexity: Penedès

Just 30 km west-south of Barcelona, Penedès is a world in itself. Within its borders we can find four different landscapes: the Garraf limestone massif that borders the sea closer to Barcelona; the coast south of Garraf; the foothills of Montserrat and the plain that stretches between Garraf and Montserrat mountains. Altitudes range from 0 to 800 m. Soils are generally poor, with clay and limestone as main ingredients. Montserrat shelters the vineyards from cold North winds, and the Garbí wind blows from the see to cool the hot summer afternoons.
In many Catalan DOs there are wineries that produce still wines under their DO and also Cava as a side business. But in Penedès is where most of the Cava producers are found and many of them produce still wines as a side business. So most of the wineries in Penedès produce both still wines and Cava, in varying proportions.

Winemaking in Penedès can be dated back to 500 BC when the indigenous Iberians grew vines. From Roman times to the 18th century Penedès was a land of red wine mainly, until a trend started to grow white grapes in order to produce brandy. With these white grapes in 1870 the production of Cava started in the region, and Penedès most sought-after still wines were the whites till around 1970.

At that point in time, after the work of pioneers like Miguel Torres and Jean Leon (fascinating person; an entry about his life and winery to follow soon) foreign varietals (Merlot, Cabernets, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc...) were introduced, modern equipment and techniques became widespread and the quality of the red wines leapt forward. Quantity as well: Penedès is the DO with highest production.

As a result of the vast range of climatic conditions explained above, the high technological level, and an unusual willingness of the DO Council to admit foreign varietals (while in other DOs only 10 to 20 varietals are allowed, in Penedès the count soars to 121), Penedès wines are extraordinarily diverse. In the same winery you can taste white, rosé, red, sweet, and sparkling, with several variants of each type. On one hand, that is good as it increases the offerings to customers, but on the other hand Penedès wines do not have a defined personality. Some efforts are being done, for instance, to promote Xarel.lo as the “traditional” Penedès white grape, and also in research to save and clone the last remnants of varieties long forgotten, with Sumoll as a rising star among the reds. However, there is still a long way to go.

The dominant force in Penedès, and indeed in Catalan still wines, is Torres. They have a massive production, but their quality is adequate at least, and very high in some special wines. More on Torres in the future.

The other big company is Jaume Serra, part of a large Spanish group, competing only on price with a low quality range.

My personal choice of Penedès wineries:
So close to Barcelona, Penedès is a constant temptation for the wine lover to go and discover some new, surprising wine.