50 Great Cavas. That’s right. We’re Barcelona bound today and tomorrow we’re heading to the Penedes wine region to taste 50 Great Cavas and gorge ourselves on Catalan cuisine for five days. 50 Cavas in five days. Will we survive?
In preparation for our Cava tasting marathon we asked the local experts for some Cava tasting tips and hints as to what else we could expect.
To the Penedes to Taste 50 Great Cavas and Catalan Cuisine
The average wine tasting at a winery generally begins with a sparkling if that winery produces bubbles and then moves through the wines, from the white wines to the reds — from light through medium- to full-bodied — and finishes with dessert wines or perhaps even ports. It’s a natural progression that makes sense. But what happens when every wine is a sparkling?
We’ve done countless tastings over the years, but we’ve never done a full Cava tasting. And we certainly haven’t done five days of tasting Cavas all day every day. So we thought we’d go to the experts — Anthony Swift from Wine Pleasures, the wine tourism company that is responsible for the 50 Great Cavas book and tour, and Oriol Ripoll from Decantalo, an online wine retailer that distributes the 50 Great Cavas.
Q. So what makes Cava special?
A. OR: In Spain, the land of great red wines, Cava is associated with celebration, parties, and good times that are shared with friends and family. We think this is what makes it special. It’s a vital component for parties. We’ve also reached excellent levels with top Cavas in the last few years. What more could you want?
Q. How did the ’50 Great Cavas’ begin?
A. AS: 50 Great Cavas, the book, was born in 2011. Strangely enough, we had several interns coming to join us for work experience and all of them had a background and qualifications in wine and/or wine tourism so I had to think of something for them do. Wine Pleasures HQ is in the Penedès wine region near Barcelona, which is synonymous with Cava.
I started googling all kinds of combinations for cava — 10 best value Cavas, Great Cavas, Best Cavas 2011 — and nothing was coming up. I thought to myself, why not write a publication titled 50 Great Cavas? We did the blind tastings, rated the Cavas, and came up with a score and tasting note for each Cava tried. We then went out into the field and visited each producer and wrote an article on each one. Our interns did the very first edition of 50 Great Cavas.
In 2012 we started to get phone calls from producers asking when the call for 50 Great Cavas for 2012 would be open. We hadn’t intended to do a second edition but as it happened we did have some more interns coming and two of them were savvy in design and one was a good photographer, so we went ahead with the second edition, making improvements, and the result was a more professional looking book.
Then in 2013 we were approached by the guys at Decantalo, an online wine shop, who expressed an interest in selling the 50 Great Cavas, so once again we were encouraged to do yet another edition of the book. In 2014 we had 156 Cavas to taste and the 50 Great Cavas book has gone from strength to strength.
Q. How many Cavas are produced in the Penedes and how do you narrow them down to 50?
A. OR: It is very difficult to know exactly how many Cavas are actually produced. At Decántalo we have 200 Cavas for sale! What we do know from the Cava Regulatory Board (Consejo Regulador del Cava or CRDO) is that the number of wineries registered with the CRDO is 246.
A. AS: 50 Great Cavas 2014 has in fact 56 Cavas at the cut off point with an impressive 92 points — they’re Cavas that have received gold and silver awards. Many Cavas scored 91 or 90 and while these are great Cavas too, they sadly did not make it into the top 50. Some Cavas were really poor, scoring in the low 80s.
Q. What are the characteristics to look for in a great Cava?
A. OR: A good expression of terroir, above all — it should have fled all preconceived ideas of Cava, as it should have decades of personality from the winery and should be rich in variety and soil that conforms with the sparkling expression.
Q. There can be immense differences between different types of wines due to vastly different grape varietals that are worlds apart in terms of their clarity, colour, aroma, and taste — can the range and degree of difference be anywhere near as great between Cavas? Or are the differences very subtle?
A. OR: This fits perfectly with Cava. On the one hand, there are the differences in latitude, geography, weather, and varieties used (Cavas are produced in many parts of Spain), and there are great differences between the wines. You would be very surprised with the difference between two Cavas whose wineries are only kilometres away from each other.
Q. Normally there’ll be just one or two sparkling wines of several or half a dozen wines in a vertical tasting — how many Cavas can we expect to try in a single tasting?
A. AS: We’ll be tasting around four Cavas at each winery and probably some of their still wines too. Cavas are usually tasted in the following order: Brut Nature, Extra Brut and Brut. And then for each of these there’ll be young (less than 15 months ageing on the lees*), Reserve (15-30 months), Gran Reserve (more than 30 months), and then you have your rosados to add, making ten categories.
(* ageing on the ‘lees’ refers to the bottles long period of maturation in which the cellar plays a critical role by keeping the wines at a relatively constant temperature. The ‘lees’ consist of yeasts that have multiplied in the bottle and formed a deposit. Scientifically, the process is known as autolysis where molecules are released that are slowly transformed as they interact with the molecules in the wine.)
Q. Any tips? Should we line our stomachs and what should we eat? When I think of sparkling, strawberries or caviar come to mind — can we expect to see those on the counter in tasting rooms? Do we have to spit? I get distressed just watching the Formula One drivers spray Champagne about — I can’t imagine spitting out a fine Cava.
A. AS: I suggest spitting most Cavas at the tasting and then drinking your favourite one at the end, and then drink at lunch or dinner.
A. OR: Spitting or not is an individual choice. All I can be sure of is that you will not drive afterwards!
Q. Does bubbly go to the head faster than wine or is it the effervescence that lightens the mood and lightens the head?
A. OR: I am more inclined to think it is the second option.
A. AS: On a typically fine sunny day in the Penedès, wine region bubbles are sure to rise and generate enhanced joy!
Q. It’s wine harvest time in the Penedès — will there be a chance to participate?
A. AS: You’ll get to try some grapes off the vine — and trying some is a must — and perhaps stomp some grapes.
Q. Now, we won’t only be sipping, we’ll also be sampling some wonderful Catalan cuisine — what can we expect to try at this time of year? And is there a dish associated with wine harvest?
A. AS: You’ll get to try fideua, xatonada, calçotada (at Canals I Munné), Penedès duck with prunes — Penedès ducks are unique, as they don’t quack, that is, they’re dumb ducks — and wild forest mushrooms will be in season and abound, as it’s raining cats and dogs these days. They’re often served on their own or with beef and make for a delicious meal.
Q. If we fall in love with some of these sparklings, can we get some shipped?
A. OR: We ship to many countries in the world! See decantalo.com/en