Have you been living in a cave?
The world has turned upside down when the finest bullfighter in the world is French and the highest selling sparkling wine in the world (over 200 million bottles) is Spanish. Sparkling wine made its first debut in Spain about 150 years ago when Don Jose Raventós became fascinated by the Champagne region’s bubbly wines while on a selling tour in France. Head of the bodega Cordoniu in Penedés, Don Jose promptly acquired the basic equipment used by the Champenoise and proceeded to craft a Spanish sparkling wine using Champagne’s traditional methods. Authentic champagne is produced only in the Champagne region of chilly northern France and is made from varying proportions of three grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Don Raventós didn’t have these varieties handy for his new venture, so he fashioned a blend from three indigenous varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and the virtually unpronounceable, Xarel-lo. Other wineries in the region soon followed suit.
Like Hong Kong families who meet regularly at weekend yam cha, Raventos and other local winemaking families began to meet for lunch after Sunday mass. Munching on tapas – their version of ha-gau and chau-siu-bau — they came up with a bold plan to make the Penedés region the “Champagne region” of Spain. Early production was cheekily labeled Champán, Champana, Xampany or simply Spanish Champagne, however, by the 1970’s the EU suggested the successful Penedes producers might consider developing their own regional name rather than riding on Champagne’s reputation. The Penedes growers took the hint. Over Sunday yam cha, they agreed on the more easily pronounced “Cava”, which means wine cave or cellar in the local Catalán dialect.
Cava can be produced in six wine regions of Spain, but 95% is made in its historic home turf, the Penedés region. The small, quiet town of San Sadurní de Noya, which is about 27 miles from Barcelona is the centre of Cava’s success. Each October, the little village bursts open like a bottle of Cava in culmination of a weeklong celebration called “Cava week.” The fiesta begins in Barcelona with the crowning of the Cava Queen who then parades regally through town with her hand maidens in a royal carriage. After crowning, she is given a bubbly glass of – what else – Cava by the San Sadurní Fellowship. Cava is so integrated into Spanish traditions that babies are often given passifiers dipped into Cava during baptism.
As with champagne, Cava can be blended from a range of years or labeled as a single, outstanding vintage. The wines range from dry to sweet, but the most popular styles are the dry ‘brut’ category. Cava are usually “blanc de blancs” meaning produced wholly from white grapes, though a dollop of red wine can be used to produce rose styles. The French variety, Chardonnay, is increasingly used to enhance Cava’s elegance and weight. Somewhat like the cola industry, Cava is dominated by two brands: Freixenet and Cordoniu. Both are fierce rivals with law suits and compliance accusations as part of a one-upmanship game that makes the Iberian bullfight seem graceful by comparison.