Jemma Beedie explores the world of sparkling wines
Wednesday 08 December 2021
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In the UK we have an obsession with prosecco that borders on the hysterical. Everybody has an aunt whose house boasts fridge magnets and fluffy cushions emblazoned with declarative quotes about its indispensability. “I only drink prosecco on days ending in y.” The vomit-inducing “Prosecco Princess”. And the slogan for those who’ve already given up, “Keep Calm and Drink Prosecco.” Truly, it is the Live, Laugh, Love of drinking.
Sales of prosecco have increased by 57% in the last decade. Bubbly has gone from something only tasted by the oleaginous few to a supermarket staple. So intrinsic is fizzy wine to our national psyche that it was added to the Office of National Statistic’s Basket of Goods in 2011 - the list of consumer goods and services used to calculate the cost of living and rates of inflation. Sparkling wine is not just for celebrations, and is now intrinsic to the hoi polloi.
While sparkling wine as a whole dipped in sales in 2020, it wasn’t the cliff-drop that many experts feared. Though we weren’t enjoying ourselves, prosecco is a common enough drink of choice. It is consumed casually, in the house. It’s cheap and cheerful, and in dark times we found a little levity in a gently fizzing glass.
Cava is another story. Cava has been unfairly dogged for decades by a reputation as champagne’s less-good younger brother, like any Baldwin but Alec. It looks the same, it’s made the same, and yet you wouldn’t go bringing it onto your film set in a hurry. Champagne was the best of the best, able to elevate an occasion with only the briefest of appearances. Cava felt like the cheap substitute nobody wanted.
This was always deeply unfair. Cava is no Stephen. Spain’s sparkling wine goes through the same difficult, specific set of processes as champagne. In the Champagne region this is known as méthode champenoise; outside of it, méthode traditionnelle. This involves a bottle-bound secondary fermentation process, something upside-down and fiddly called riddling, and a minimum rest for ageing purposes. An alcoholic beverage that has gone through all that deserves better than the derision it gets in Great Britain.
Cava was popular in the 70s and 80s, evoking sunshine-soaked Benidorm holidays back home in Bolton. Since then, it seems to have taken on an unsavoury sheen. Perhaps some of this is down to the pricing of a bottle, and what concessions were required in the production to get there.
You can pick up a bottle of cava for as little as £5.59 in my local Lidl, but just because you can, should you? The pricing of prosecco can at least somewhat be explained by the much more cost-effective and less time-consuming charmant method of production. Using a series of steel tanks and filtration systems, prosecco is bottled ready to be drunk, and is sold young. This is much quicker than both cava, which must be aged for at least 9 months, and champagne, which requires at least 15.
Do we want a sparkling wine that has taken a year to produce, and yet is being sold for less than the price of a Burger King Whopper meal? The stats suggest overwhelmingly no, we don’t. Cava makes up around 22% of sales of sparkling wine in the UK, while prosecco accounts for 63%.
It’s worth noting that although British fizz is produced in similar climatic conditions to champagne, with the same variety of grapes, and goes through the same méthode traditionnelle, its reputation lags behind even that of cava. Homegrown bubbly makes up just 2% of sparkling wine sales in the UK.
It is possible to pick up a good bottle of prosecco for £8, and a decent enough one for a little over a fiver. You can be sure that it will taste sweet, fruity, with perhaps a touch of your nan’s floral perfume. You’ll know what you’re getting.
Not for me, though, thanks. Keep your cheap-processed, mass-market fizz. I’d like a cava.
Champagne—good champagne—has a warm, comforting bready quality. Like freshly baked rolls toasting on a wood fire. A slight caramelisation, though not to the point of sweetness. Citrus notes are secondary, a light accent, rather than the most prominent note.
Cava should be somewhere in between the two. Of course, cava is made from different grapes than either prosecco or champagne (though Pinot and Chardonnay grapes are acceptable in cava also, even though they aren’t native to the landscape), so we shouldn’t expect the same flavour profile as either. The toasty, nutty aspect that I enjoy so much in champagne comes from the secondary fermentation stage, when the wine is left to age on the lees.
You’re welcome to that phrase, by the way. Chuck it in at any dinner party, you’ll impress 15 - 50% of the guests, depending on their tolerance for pomposity. Ageing on the lees is the part of méthode champenoise/ traditionnelle that sees the wine mature in the bottle, preferably in a dark, cool place such as a cellar or cave (in Catalan, cova). Yeast added to the bottle ferments for around eight weeks before it is spent. In death, it continues to impart flavour, creating what many sommeliers agree is a brioche-like quality.
The most famous example of the category is Freixenet’s Cordon Negro Brut. This is the sleek black and gold bottle many of us recognise from our supermarket aisles. Freixenet and Codorniu are responsible for around 70% of cava produced, so it’s fair to think of them as primary representatives of Spain’s sparkling wine. One argument for buying a bottle of Cordon Negro is that you know what you’re getting. It’s like ordering the same cheese salad sandwich every day. It’s… okay, you know? It’s fine.
In 2011 these two firms went to war, with Freixenet accused of, and eventually found guilty of ageing their bottles for fewer than the stipulated nine months. They paid a fine and hurled accusations back at Codorniu. I imagine this did not benefit cava’s reputation.
Nowadays we must hope and expect that both producers are laying their bottles to rest for the required length of time, even as their share in the market has continued to grow. Personally, I’d prefer a bottle of single-vineyard cava, made with traditional grape varieties: xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada. These are endemic to Catalonia, the region where up to 95% of cava is made. These grapes are what give cava its fruity, floral, crisp flavour profile.
In tasting for this article, I did discover one or two points to keep in mind. It is better to buy a mid-range bottle of cava than a cheap champagne, and to try not to go too cheap. A bottle of Waitrose’s own cava came in at £7, and was relatively drinkable. While the wine was one-note, that note was, at least, well suited to the cava denomination. Slightly too lemony for me, many cava drinkers might be pleased to fill their glasses again and again. I would consider moving on to this once the good stuff was gone, once tastebuds have been slightly numbed.
The bottle of L’Atzar Cava Reserva Catalunya, £12, was much more interesting. Easy drinking, refreshing even though dry, with notes of green apple and lemon. Biscuity enough to be recognisably cava. I do prefer my sparkling wines to be more toasty, with that hint of brioche that comes from ageing on the lees, but that didn’t stop my husband and I tearing through the bottle before the end of Bake Off was in sight.
The real winner of the bottles I expensed was a 2016 vintage from M&S. Slight hints of almond, crisp peach, lemon dialed way back. It’s worth pointing out that both this and the L’Atzar use only xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada grapes, and both are brut, or dry.
Prosecco can be too sweet. All prosecco has sugar added, while cava and champagne may be dry, with little to no sugar introduced. It would be unusual to find examples of brut nature on the shelves in your local supermarket, but speciality wine shops may be able to point you in the right direction. If, like me, you’re happy to drink anything from quite-dry to slightly-less-dry (brut, extra-seco/ extra-brut, or dry/ seco), pick up a bottle each of cava brut and prosecco brut and see for yourself how the wines manage to differ in sweetness and heart-burn ability.
Another aspect of cava I must mention is the mouthfeel. While the word is slightly offputting, the concept is absolutely vital when it comes to wine, and especially sparkling wine. Because of the secondary fermentation process, the bubbles created are different in size, quantity, and texture.
The charmant method used in the production of prosecco results in bigger, looser bubbles, thanks to the expanded area of the large steel tanks. The more traditional way cava and champagne are sparkled, in slowly rotated bottles, leads to tighter bubbles, and more of them. There’s science to it, but don’t ask me to explain further than that. All I know is, cava equals more fizz for your quid.
A sip of prosecco may feel lightly frothy, bubbles bursting pleasantly against your teeth, for the first glass or two, provided you’re using suitable tulip glasses. Though common, flutes allow the bubbles to escape too quickly, which leads to a disappointing glug of almost-flat sweet white wine by the time you reach the bottom of the drink.
Cava, on the other hand—oh my. Slosh cava into a tulip, flute or vintage coupe and it will happily crackle and pop. Heck, pour mine into a pint glass or novelty mug: the vessel is immaterial. Cava’s bubbles can’t be tamed that easily. It is possible to open a bottle on a Monday, for tasting purposes, say, as an example off the top of my head, and for the wine to still be enjoyably effervescent when you finish it off the following Wednesday. I’ve never found that with prosecco.
A good cava, sipped, will fill the cheeks with a velvet tickle. It will coax open the sinuses, energising the drinker. It will whisper down the throat, spreading warmth outwards from the heart. This is what we want when we drink sparkling wine. This is what a good bubbly should do. And this is why cava is my fizz of choice.
Life is too short to drink rubbish. Are there decent proseccos out there? Sure. But for me, my preference will always lie with cava, which has depth of character and endurance of spirit. I’d rather delight in a glass of cava than chew my way through a soda-pop prosecco, and if you give it a try, you might find you agree with me.
Prosecco might be “how classy ladies get shitfaced” (ugh) but round my house it’s cava o’clock.
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