The British have a view of fizz as a celebratory drink or an aperitif. Go to where Cava is produced, though, and you’ll find the locals drink it all through the meal. Not the same Cava, of course, but different bottles for different courses. Cava comes in many forms and, if you want to give them a try, head to the Penedes region of Spain where most Cava is produced – just 30 miles from Barcelona.
Originally, the sparkling wine produced here was simply called Champagne but when Spain joined the EU, they had to change the name as it was already a French appellation controllee. So they started off calling it something roughly translated as ‘sparkling wine fermented in the bottle and aged in the cave’. This was a bit of a mouthful so it got shortened to the last word – cave or, in Spanish, cava.
One thing you do need to know about Cava is that it is produced in exactly the same way as Champagne – unlike Prosecco which is produced in large steel tanks. Somehow, this doesn’t sound quite so romantic as dusty bottles being turned as they age in ancient chambers to draw the sediment to the neck.
At the Codorniu vineyard, the oldest, biggest and indeed grandest in the region, you can take a tour around the cellars and sample the final results at the end. This is, in fact, Spain’s oldest family business (around 450 years) and the buildings and gardens are glorious. The cellars are so vast you take a train ride through the columns of stacked dusty bottles, all carefully labelled, past the disgorgement machines (where the yeast sediment is removed from the bottle before it receives its final cork) and you end up in the bar where you not only taste but get a lesson on how to serve Cava.
- No explosive popping – opening the bottle should be done with a delicate turn of the wrist so the pop is as soft as possible.
- Serve in a tulip-shaped glass to enable the wine to release its flavours and bubbles at their best.
- Never freeze Cava.
- Don’t serve it too cold – 5-8C is perfect.
Codorniu is just outside the small town of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia and, if Cava has a capital, this is it. They even have organic vineyards. Recaredo is not just an organic vineyard, though, it’s a biodynamic one and its vines sit below the imposing presence of Montserrat, the mountain protecting them from the North winds. These grapes are produced without any chemical fertilisers or insecticide. Instead they encourage bats (to eat the insects), apply medicinal herbs and make their own compost. The place is full – even in October – of butterflies and the people who work here are passionate about their product. Elena Olesa who shows me round uses the word frequently and introduces me to one of their star ‘disgorgers’ – this is one of the few wineries where every bottle is disgorged by hand rather than machine. They make only Gran Reserva and that means the wine must rest in the bottle for a minimum of 30 months. Some ferment much longer than that. Down in the cellar we open a bottle of the Reserva Particular de Recaredo. “After 10 years in the bottle,” says Elena, “we are tasting it just as it wakes up. It is very special.” Indeed it is.
Sant Sadurni has quite a few fiestas during the year but in October the wine has a festival all of its own, Cavatast, with vineyards and all kinds of food makers opening their doors and, in the evening, setting out their stalls in the main street so you can try as many Cavas and tapas as you like. As food festivals go, it’s pretty relaxed and there’s music, lots of families and easy conversation.
Some of the tapas is unexpected. Chocolate, for instance. Xocolata Simon Coll has a chocolate factory in town where you can take a tour and enjoy a tasting of chocolate at its different stages of production as well as the final results. There are of course some with a cava centre.
Cheese and wine are a less surprising pairing but Cava and cheese? It’s remarkably good as I discovered with Victor Conejo whose cheese workshop, Xerigots, is in nearby Vilafranca del Penedes. Xerigots is a Catalan word meaning ‘whey’ but it’s also a bit of a play on words as ‘gots’ is glass and in his shop, cheese and wine go very much together – I highly recommend his combined tastings.
The Penedes region is full of unexpected foodie delights and there are many, many vineyards to visit. The towns are small, pretty and full of character and Vilafranca is particularly interesting with its combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture. Its Vinseum – a museum of Cava – faces the town’s magnificent Santa Maria church and is housed in the Palau Reial (royal palace) that dates from the 13th century. Here they have traced the making of Cava back at least 2700 years. The proof is 400 carbon dated grape seeds found in a nearby vineyard.
This is a very traditional region, both in its produce and its way of life (it’s one of the biggest centres, for instance, of Castellers – those human towers that reach barely credible heights). Cava, though, defines it more than anything. As my museum guide tells me, “Wine here is not an alcoholic drink. It is culture.”