A version of this first appeared in Food Development magazine, June 2007.
From quaffable to classy, Cava is driving growth in the bubbly category. This Spanish sparkler is made in exactly the same way as Champagne: the second fermentation is made in the bottle purchased. But while the cost of the best quality cavas rivals that of vintage Champagne, there are more workaday wines available.
There are three key variables that affect the flavour profile of Cava. Firstly, the indigenous grape varieties – macabeo, xarel.lo and parellada – give cava its own style. Chardonnay is also allowed, so there is often a ‘house style’, for example, Freixenet uses the traditional varieties; Codorniu uses a lot of chardonnay.
Secondly the time on lees dramatically influences the flavour profile. Cava comes in young, fruity styles and ones that are rich and yeasty, with brioche and biscuit notes. They demand very different consumption occasions.
The dosage is the third key flavour component. The dosage categories are the same for sparkling wines (see below), and it is the brut nature category, where no dosage at all has been added after the second fermentation, which offers the best opportunity for pairing Cava with foods.
Where zero dosage in Champagne can create an angular and edgy wine, the lower acidity of Cava gives a much softer palate, allowing fruit to express itself. Sommelier César Cánovas, who has worked at his family restaurant in Barcelona for twenty years, said we think of “the acidity, the bubbles, the low intensity, the aromas, and the sugar. Here in Catalunya we drink brut nature. Brut nature preserves the pure aromas of the cava, and its ageing. It makes cava more interesting, with more personality. And it’s easier to match with food. With dosage aromas are lessened, and it hides the acidity.”
Cava’s homeland, Catalunya, has a long history of pairing with food. Cánovas said: “we try to separate the elements and then integrate them again with food. Cava has a low intensity so it matches with foods with low intensity, such as fish dishes, and sushi. The bubbles help to contrast fatty textures, such as the pigs trotters we love in catalonia. Bubbles with foie gras is interesting. The nutty aromas match with Mediterranean food of onions, garlic and tomatoes which we use a lot as our main ingredients. Cava is good with the traditional food of fishermen – bouillabaisse and shellfish.”
In the UK, Cava with food is only just beginning to grip the imagination. Cava house Codorniu recently organised a special event at Brighton’s Pintxo People. The restaurant’s chef, Miguel Jessen, created menus to accompany some of Codorniu’s brands. He said: “The Anna de Codorniu has 70% chardonnay which means it is becoming buttery. I made a foie gras dish, with mango French toast, mango salad and coffee caramel. I was looking for something buttery, like brioche, with the freshness of mango, for acidity. The whole thing needed contrast, so I made a coffee biscuit, which is not sweet at all, and very thin so the bitterness is very light. I added a liquid caramel for a hint of sweetness.
“With the pinot noir I made an oyster dish. This cava is quite fresh, so the best thing is fish. It reminded me of apples and fresh fruit, with some acidity. I made oysters with apple foam, green pepper, a red seaweed syrup, and a rosé cava jelly. It worked very nicely. The green Bramley apple foam contrasted the strong sea flavour of oysters. The red seaweed syrup contrasted the acid of the apple and the crispness of the cava.”
At Spanish restaurant Cigala, in London, Mike Wetherilt, its general manager, said: “we sell a lot of Cava as an aperitif. It also offers a really nice counterpoint to our starters, and some can carry through the seafood paella, one of our more popular dishes. The Raventos i Blanc Gran Reserva Personal is a toasty, top of the range Cava, and this offers the same food matching [opportunities] as a heavier white wine. Their Gran reserva is a rich cava, and they do use a bit of chardonnay. This gives it bit extra depth which I think matches with food very well.
Freixenet‘s ‘Monastrell Xarel.lo’ blanc de noir Cava brut is being targeted for dining. A spokesperson said the black grape “monastrell gives the Cava a weightier style than the traditional white blend of xarel.lo, macabeo and parellada. Two to three years bottle age gives it more complexity to stand up to the strong flavours of tapas dishes such as chorizo, gambas pil pil, jamon, queso manchego and pimientos.”
It’s not just white Cava. The fastest growing sectors of wine consumption are sparkling wines and pink wines, so the sales opportunities for pink sparklers are self-evident. Wetherilt said demand for Rosado cavas had gone through the ceiling over the last couple of years.
In Cava’s fun, fruity and frivolous mode, with a shorter time on lees, it can also make great cocktails. Tobias Blazquez Garcia, the bar manager at Pintxo People, has created a number of cava cocktails. He said: “It’s similar to food matching. You’re thinking of acidity, body, texture, and sweetness of the Cava, and how to complement that with what you add. Some Cava is crisper, some is more buttery, some is more fresh. Honey and grapes, for example, go well with something crisper; sweeter Cava would be too much.”
Sparkling wine dryness terms
|Term on the label||Residual Sugar Content|
|Brut Nature/zero dosage||Less than 3g/l (no dosage added after second fermentation)|
|Extra Brut||0 – 6g/l.|
|Brut||Less than 15g/l.|
|Extra Dry||12 – 20g/l.|
|Dry||17 – 35g/l.|
|Medium Dry||33 – 50g/l.|
|Sweet||More than 50g/l.|
The Codorniu gin flower fizz
10ml elderflower cordial
15ml dry gin
100ml Codorniu pinot noir or Codorniu de Teresa (both Rosado Cavas, for an attractive pink colour)
Muddle strawberries and cordial, add ice and dry gin. Shake. Add half the Cava. Strain into glass flute and top with remaining Cava. Garnish with middle section of strawberry, speared on a stick. Serve.