When thinking about sparkling wine, the first kind that comes to nearly every drinker’s mind is Champagne. This northern French wine region is more than deserving of the crown for the very finest sparkling wine avaialble, and the consortium that looks after Champagne’s image has done a great deal to keep it there, and a job well done too. HOWEVER, Champagne is never “cheap” and good Chmapagne, in most people’s estimation, would be considered to be quite expensive. And though there is “value” Champagne to be had, for me most of it isn’t worth having.
Of late, Prosecco has made a pretty big dent in the bubbly market, but the commonalities between Prosecco and Champagne and almost every other kind of sparkling wine for that matter ends at white and carbonated. Prosecco is a delightful refreshing, unpretentious and inexpensive wine made from a grape of the same name, and a good portion of the reason that it is so affordable lies with the grape itself – Prosecco naturally produces high yields and it is quite highly resistent to a whole host of vine ailments, and because the quicker and simpler charmat method utilized by Prosecco producers to carbonate the wine is also a big money-saver, sinking Prosecco roots into its native soil in Veneto and making wine from that fruit is more or less an economic “sure thing”.
Most other sparkling wines – Champagne, Cremants from other parts of France, Champagne-style wines from California, Cava and others are made in the so-called “Methode Champagnoise” which involves fermenting in bottle, storing bottles cork down in racks and usually hand rotating them to encourage the formation of a plug of sediment and dead yeast. Once this plug is formed, the bottles are frozen, the neck is cracked off, at which point the wine is thawed and then “disgorged” into a new bottle, a sugar water added to induce a slight second fermentation, and then the bottles are resealed. It should come as no surprise that this process is a pricey one.
But despite the fact that Champagne and Cava are made in the same way, the hotter and more generous Cava terroir regularly yields much larger harvests than the chilly and often cloudy land from which Champagne springs. Further, the canniness and business acumen for which the Catalans are so well known has come in handy in making Cava in that they have developed several ingenious ways to automate the complicated Champagne Method that have become fully incorporated into the production regulations for Cava and which are not permitted by the consortium that regulates the production of Champagne.
Now to be clear, Champage and Cava are not “interchangeable” per se. Champagne is made from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (all somewhat to very fussy varieties to grow) while Cava is typically made from a triumverate of more cooperative and naturally acidic grapes: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada (This one is composed of 45%, 25%, and 30% respectively). So where Champagne tends to be rich, unctuous, and very complex, Cava tends to a noble and freshly austere minerality that can in the right setting be very, very charming indeed. To be fair, Cava rarely surpasses the greatest Champagnes made, but it can equal lots of them, and almost always at at least half the price.
I served this exceptionally high-value Cava with a traditional Catalan first course of boiled potatoes with aioli (eaten room temperature) followed by the original version of Paella made with beef, chorizo, chicken, pimenton, saffron, peppers and roasted garlic (note the complete absence of seafood!) a dish that originates down the coast from the Cava production zone with the Catalans’ neighbors in the Valencian lands.
Dibon Cava Brut Reserve NV
Pale, bright platinum color. Quite complex nose of pear, yellow cherry, gooseberry, pine needles, fresh herbs, creme brulee’, almond, biscuit, and minerals. The body of the wine is medium in weight with a “sweet” and deep roundness and medium-fine bubbles shot through with a spunky acidity that springs flavors of tangerine, mango, green apple, straw and chalk. Long and elegant tartly dry finish. An excellent value.