I should love Cava.
It is a sparkling wine after all, usually my favourite holiday tipple. Particularly when enjoyed as an aperitif before dinner whilst my husband sips his G&T.
But I found myself ordering it rather reluctantly on our first evening in the Canary Islands.
My problem with Cava up until now has been pretty fundamental. A real show stopper in fact. I haven’t liked the taste of it.
But why? It is made in the same way as my absolutely favourite aperitif, Crémant. It should have had the flavours I love. But somehow my overriding impression from my previous tastes was of bitterness. Not what I wanted in an aperitif.
The traditional method
Cava and Crémant are both made by the same traditional method used for making Champagne. In these days of super fast everything the traditional method, as the name might imply, takes time and effort. Over many months, sometimes years.
You could almost say the wine is made twice. The first fermentation produces a still white wine, the second one is what makes the bubbles. This doesn’t happen in the usual large vats but in the wine bottle itself.
The yeast used to catalyse or trigger the fermenting of the sugar, turning it into alcohol, produces yeasty deposits called “lees”. This happens with all wine fermentation but these are often removed pretty quickly. In the case of Cava and Crémant these are left in the bottle for at least 9 months and only removed right at the end.
The sparkling wine you end up with, if it is made well, should be refreshing with fruit flavours (determined by the grape variety) balanced with bready, toasty flavours from the time the wine spends in contact with the lees.
Could my problem with Cava be the grapes? Or was it just a question of quality?
Crémant is made with lots of different grape varieties, each wine growing area using its local grapes. What were the varieties used for Cava?
Spanish grape varieties were my Achilles heel (I had a few) when I was studying for my wine exams. There were so many to learn and none of them were the same as you found in any other country.
As I learnt more I realised that some of the Spanish varieties were the same or similar but the Spanish names were so different it just added to the complexity and my confusion. The result was that I had no idea what grapes were in Cava. Some research was required.
Decanter Magazine informed me that a large number of grapes can be used, the main ones being Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada.
Macabeo is the most common. Being quite neutral it allows the bready, toasty flavour of the lees ageing to shine. It sounded a bit like how a Chardonnay allows oak to shine in a white Burgundy.
None of this helped explain why I didn’t like the taste of Cava. Then I read about the Xarel.lo grape.
One description gave me a light bulb moment. “Flavours “intense and reminiscent of dried camomile and fennel, adding a pleasant bitter tone to the finish”. Pleasant! Bitterness is rarely pleasant to my taste buds, particularly in a sparkling wine.
Not the whole story
But did this one grape explain my problem with Cava? As our holiday progressed I started to think that wasn’t the whole story. A strange thing had been happening, I was starting to look forward to my glass of Cava at 6 o’clock.
A suspicion began to surface in my mind. Had the Spanish been keeping all the best Cava for themselves? That could explain it. My 6 o’clock tipple was higher quality with better flavour than I had ever tasted before. No wonder I was enjoying it.
There is another explanation of course. It could just be that old trick holiday’s pull on you. Where something you think is fantastic in the relaxing warmth of a sunny holiday doesn’t taste quite as good when you get back home. Greek Retsina was an early lesson for me on that one.
More testing required
My holiday had convinced me of one thing, Cava is worthy of further investigation. Now I won’t shy away from it when I see it on a drinks menu. Hopefully the things I have been reading lately about better quality Cava hitting the bars of Britain will prove right.
But that is for another blog post.