When the word was out that the 2016 International Wine and Travel Conference (IWINETC) was to be in Cataluña, Spain, I booked a ticket to Barcelona pronto and polished up my rusty Spanish. Cataluña (or Catalonia) is unique to Spain. It possesses a distinct language, peppered with a vocabulary related to French, from the region’s strong links to the south of France during the medieval ages. Its cuisine, too, is distinctive. Cataluña places its own stamp on dishes made from peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic and local Arbequena olive oil. Market stalls brim with seafood that fairly glistens with freshness. The region’s vineyards are famous for the sparkling wine known as cava made (mostly) from indigenous Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada grapes. Quite possibly you’ve plucked a bottle or two of Freixenet, Jaume, or Codorniu for a Saturday soiree or Sunday brunch mimosa, but you may be as unaware as I was until my visit that cava can have real sophisticated charms.
Barely does the plane touch down in Barcelona and our weary yet merry band are clamoring up a steep slope to Cava Llopart. Its highest vineyards not only cultivate Parellada and Macabeu grapes but also Chardonnay and Pinot noir. Cava Llopart has been producing cava since 1887. Although featured in 50 Great Cavas of Spain, I knew nothing of Llopart, probably because its fine reputation travels mostly through word of mouth.
Hosted by amiable Cristina Sorel (and grateful for her sensible shoe advice), we drink in the splendid view of the Montserrat Mountains before pulling our gaze in on the village of San Sidurni d’Anoia below. There reside the popular Freixenet and Codorniu houses. (Where we’ll zip around their underground labyrinth via miniature “trains” two days hence.) Cristina points out the estate’s lower rocky Area Costers and further down, the clay-like moisture retaining soil of the Fossil Area where the third cava grape Xarel-lo joins the team, along with Monastrell, and Ull de llebre (better known as Tempranillo). Cristina kneels on the scrabble soil and fingers through the vines, explaining how the grapes struggle deep into the dry soil to access moisture and nutrients. (As does the vines that underpin the world’s greatest wines.) What’s more the vineyards are organically farmed.
A tasting of Llopart cavas is proof of vine-to-wine. All are downright stylish. Leopardi Brut Gran Reserva, napped with 10% Chardonnay, comes off fresh, with lots of mineral notes, green apple, citrus, spice and fine persistent bubble. I found the wine damn fine on its own, but how I imagined a big bowl of steamed rosy prawns with a little drawn butter alongside. That would be heaven!
Ex-Vite Gran Reserve Brut, made from Macabeo and Xarel-lo (no Parellada), has spent more than 60 months in bottle. Grilled bread and dried fruit notes linger on the palate as one might expect from an aged bubbly, yet it remains interesting and lively—just like fine conversation. Cristina reflects a little. “The wine should be sipped ‘sobremesa’ ”, she says, which loosely translated means “just hanging out at the table”. Oh yes!
A tribute to Llopart’s 125th anniversary is a special release of Llopart Original 1887. Vinified as it was as “back in the day,” from old-vine Montonega (genetically linked to but different from Parellada), Macabeo and Xarel-lo, the wine rests more than 60 months in bottle prior to release. The result is a dry, full-bodied, nutty wine with notes of fresh baked pastry, citrus peel, and ripe fruit. Who needs pie for dessert?
Depending on where you source, the wines range from $20-$50 (for the 1887) a bottle—and an inordinate pleasure at a fraction of the price of champagne.
And this was only the pop of the cork…there was plenty more fun to come.
Cava Grand Tasting
Sarah Jane Evans is a Spanish wine aficionado; a Master of Wine (MW) in the UK who carries her British wit and wine wisdom to our room full of bubble nuts. After blitzing through the history and basics of cava (most importantly that cava undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle—just like Champagne), she tastes us through eight premium cavas. All have bottle age, fresh acidity and fruit and flavor profiles.
When it comes to commercial boys like Freixenet or Codorniu, Evans suggests looking upmarket. Good call. It turns out all those popular brands we pluck off the shelves produce some pretty snazzy cavas. Jaume de Codornîu Gran Reserva 2011 adds a measure of Xarell-o to the classic Champagne duo of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for a mouth filling bubbly. The bottle, says Evans is “difficult to fit in the fridge,” but stands up as a still wine if its energy (bubbles) dissipates—if it lasts that long.
Meanwhile, Freixenet Casa Sala Gran Reserva 2006 is bone dry with a nice hit of anise.
Villarnau Rosado Brut Reserva 2013, (owned by the famous Gonzales Byass sherry company whose Tio Pepe sherry may sound familiar), is made up from all red grapes, one of which is Pinot Noir. This time a dash of fresh strawberry rounds out the preserved lemon and ginger notes. Other cavas included less familiar Bohigas Noa De Bohigas Brut, Vallformosa Collecio Brut Reserva 2013 and Castellroig Sabate I Coca Reserva Familiar 2010. These wines may be lesser known to cava buyers but they are no means less tasty. In fact the Castellroig Sabate I Coca is one of my favorites in the line-up.
Gramona, considered the crème-de-la crème of cavas by more than a few pundits, hangs its hat on the Xarel-lo grape, also farmed organically. Gramona 111 Lustros Reserva 2007 is an absolute vintage beauty that bursts with apple and pear notes, with an underlying hit of ginger and lemon.
These wines are Cava outside the box–not cheap and cheery but sophisticated, with elegant fizz that speaks from whence it comes. These wines are a bit of a challenge to source, but I assure you, they are well worth it. I for one, intend to do some searching. — By Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor
50 Great Cavas
Whether planning a trip to Catalunya or thereabouts, or if you’re just looking to bone up or learn more about cava 50 Great Cavas, should do the trick with 154 pages of illustrations and text, written in English. The book covers the history of Cava, how it is made, the different Cava styles, regions and producers. Family lore (a nice touch), winery philosophies, grape varieties used and winery locations are also included as well as wine tourism options.
This annual publication is updated each year and is available to purchase on-line fort €12,95 (about $15 US + shipping). — JP