What's in a name?

Andy Montgomery, 22 February, 2017
Andy Montgomery heads to Catalonia to uncover the increasing popularity of cava, Spain's effervescent tipple...

“What's in a name?” Shakespeare's Juliet bemoaned. When it comes to cava and champagne production it seems, the answer is every bit as entrenched as the Montague-Capulet family feud.

In Catalonia, they've been producing top-quality sparkling wine since the mid-19th century. Having been the main supplier of corks to the champagne producers of France for many years, Catalan farmers were well aware of the methodology employed to produce the famous French fizz, and successfully emulated it to produce sparkling wines from the Viura (or Macabeo), Xarel-lo and Parellada grapes which flourish in the region. Following the classic French methodology of fermenting the wine in the bottle and ageing it in cellars, viticulture became the most important farming activity in the region, centred round the area of Penedès.

Then, in 1863 along came phylloxera, that most pernicious of bugs, which made its way to the root stock of French vineyards, bringing a halt to champagne production. Unable to satisfy their penchant for bubbles with a bottle of champagne, consumers turned to Spain and demand increased to such an extent that the period became known as the gold rush. By the time phylloxera reached Spain, it was already being combatted by grafting vines onto resistant root stock, and growers were quickly able to re-plant vineyards, experimenting with new grape varieties to further refine quality.

In the 1950s, a company began selling sparkling wine in the UK under the brand name 'Spanish Champagne'. Outraged, French champagne producers brought a civil case against the company concerned and in a landmark victory, the court ruled that only wine produced in the Champagne region of France could carry the label champagne. It wasn't until January 1966 that similar legislation in Spain ruled that only wine fermented the classic way (in the bottle) and aged in caves could carry the name cava (cave) to distinguish it from other sparkling wines.

If you're a champagne fan who's never tried cava, maybe it's time to put the wine snobbery aside and give your credit card a break. After all, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Cava Tradition & Modernism at Codorníu

Arriving at Codorníu in Sant Sadurní you might assume the grand building is the home of the family whose name is synonymous with cava. In fact, it is home to their winery, complete with a vast, subterranean network of tunnels where the wine is fermented and aged.

In 1895, Manuel Raventós commissioned Josep Puig i Cadafalch to design an expansion to the winery to cope with the growth of the company that in 1872 spawned an entire new industry by blending local grapes from the Penedès region, fermenting them in the bottle and then ageing them in cellars using exactly the same method the French used for making champagne.

Josep Puig i Cadafalch was a key figure in shaping Catalan's Nationalist identity which was burgeoning in the booming Barcelona economy of the 19th century. Along with Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner, he was one of the main proponents of Catalan Art Nouveau, an architectural style that combined classic, Catalan design with elements of Gothic and modernist European. Declared a Historic Artistic Monument in 1976, the winery is one of Josep's most beautiful designs and is one very good reason to visit. The other is in the cellars beneath it.

An insider's take on Cava

As an interesting addendum to Andy's article, Mariana Mier y Terán, Inntravel’s woman on the ground in Catalonia and founder of Winenium Premium wine-tasting experiences, shares her insider tips:

“For me, one of the great things about cava is the fact that you can pair it with every course. Enjoy a sweeter Brut as an aperitif and then go with a Brut Nature which is bolder, has more character and is perfect to pair a whole meal from starter to dessert.

For a long time my first choice cava was Leopardi, an inexpensive Gran Reserva Brut Nature from Llopart cellar. However, I've recently discovered Parés Baltà, a family-run wine cellar located in the heart of the Penedès region. Both grandsons work in the vineyards, whilst their wives are the oenologists, transferring their passion and knowledge into fantastic still and sparkling wines. Their Brut Nature cava aged 24 months has a burst of intense but smooth flavours and has been my favourite for a while now.”
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