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10 cavas that deliver more than their prices ask [Chicago Tribune :: BC-WBS-CAVAS:TB]

I get the sense that most people like cava, the sparkling wine from Spain, because it is accessible, fun, easy to drink and affordable. There are other reasons to like it, but as far as I am concerned, those are enough.

Cava is made in the traditional method of Champagne, via secondary fermentation in the bottle (metodo tradicional in Spanish), and while most cava will never offer the bracing acidity and layers of complexity that good Champagne does, cava has exquisite charms all its own.

Cava is great as an aperitif, and while it is best with seafood and lighter fare, it is also versatile with other more substantial foods, as many sparkling wines are. Expect varying notes of fresh lemon, lime and other citrus, a nuttiness or earthiness, a hint of stone fruits here and there, green apple, pear, anise, mushroom, honey, maybe some tropical fruit suggestions, little whiffs of strawberry or cherry and perhaps some yeasty-biscuity notes or balancing bitterness.

Cava is not so much a place as it is a winemaking style practiced in seven places scattered throughout Spain - like a collection of islands on land, each one a recognized cava production zone. There are other types of sparkling wine in Spain - made using different methods - but only winemakers using the traditional method in permitted cava locations, and of course following the other cava laws, can carry the official cava designation on their labels.

The overwhelming majority of cava - about 95 percent of it - is made not far from the unofficial capital of cava, the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia near Barcelona. This cava hub lies within the Penedes region in the larger, autonomous community of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. Other cava-recognized areas are within Aragon, Basque Country, Extremadura, Navarra, Rioja and Valencia.

While the cava winemaking process mirrors that of Champagne, Spain has its own grape varieties. The French varieties chardonnay and pinot noir are allowed in cava (just like in Champagne), but cava relies most heavily on three native grapes: macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo. (Yep, that's how it's spelled.) The other two permitted but less-used grape varieties are subirat and trepat.

Sparkling wine made in the traditional method has existed in Spain since the late 19th century. As the story goes, Jose Raventos, who ran Codorniu winery at the time, visited France and came back with the idea of making Champagne-style sparkling wine in Spain. That happened for the first time in 1872. Spaniards started calling this wine style "champan," and that didn't sit well with the folks in France, so eventually the Spanish name for this style of bubbly was changed to cava - for "cellar" - the place where the wine is aged before it is released. It was a simple fix, it is easy to say and today the word cava is synonymous with fizzy wine from Spain that is fun, approachable and affordable - even if some of it is more serious and rare.

The Cava D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) was established in 1986; in 2016, in an attempt to distinguish higher-quality, single-vineyard cava from the more mass-produced bottles, a new designation was established within the D.O: Cava de Paraje Calificado. To date, 12 vineyards qualify for this designation. (Seek out those bottles if your cava journey is well underway, or try the bottles below for a good introduction to the wine style.)

The best thing about cava is you don't need a reason to open a bottle. It certainly adds to celebrations, but because it can often be found at much lower price points than some other traditional method sparkling wines, one never has to think twice about opening a bottle at any time. It's uniquely Spanish, reliable and often delivers more than its price asks. Three more reasons to love cava.

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Below are notes from a recent tasting of cavas. They are listed in ascending order, according to price.

Ramon Raventos Brut Cava. Made of 70 percent xarel-lo, this wine was crisp, fresh and creamy, with notes of lime, apple, stone fruit and a long, nutty finish. $14

Anna de Codorniu Blanc de Blancs Brut Reserva Cava. This one is made of 70 percent chardonnay and offered notes of lemony citrus, lime, melon, anise and a pleasant softness. $15

Barcino Belle Epoch Brut Cava. With stone fruits, a touch of sweetness, bready notes, citrus and a lingering peach finish, this wine is made of macabeo, xarel-lo and parellada. $15

2013 El Xamfra Clos La Soleya Brut Cava. Starting with dried herbs, earthiness and vegetal notes, this wine moved into stone fruits and a bready finish with 11.5 percent alcohol. $15

Mercat Brut Cava. Stone and tropical fruits mingled in a creaminess that was also very clean and cleansing, and led to a fresh and lingering nutty finish. $15

Vilarnau Brut Reserva Cava. Made of 50 percent macabeo, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo, this crisp and clean wine offered lemon, green apple, lime and a creamy mousse. $15

2013 Juve & Camps Essential Xarel-lo Reserva Brut Cava. Subtle notes of cherry and strawberry intermingled with dried herbs, anise and a balancing bitterness and nuttiness in this 100 percent xarel-lo wine. $16

Totus Tuus Reserva Brut Cava. Citrus, stone fruits, herbs and a hint of butterscotch and nuts characterized this mouth-filling wine made mostly of chardonnay with xarel-lo, macabeo, parellada and pinot noir. $17

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad Cava. Toasty, smoky and full of apple, floral and honey notes with lemon and nuts on the finish, this wine was very fresh and clean. $20

2013 Naveran Dama Brut Cava. Tropical fruits and crisp apple took center stage in this layered and lip-smacking wine made of 85 percent chardonnay and 15 percent parellada. $26

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