Wine & Travel

Snooth User: WinePleasures

NY Wine Tourist Discovers What Makes Wine Sparkle in the Penedès

Posted by WinePleasures, Jun 27, 2010.

When one thinks of sparkling wine, the first that probably comes to mind is Champagne. However, there are many different kinds of sparkling wine from countries and regions other than France. In the Penedès wine region of Northern Spain, this type of fizzy wine is called “Cava.”

Today, we visited Mas Bertran, a family-operated winery in Sant Martí Sarroca, to learn more about how Cava is produced. Eva, the daughter, explained the process of making Cava from start to finish. After the grapes are harvested, they are put into a tank to mix. Next, the wine is bottled, capped, and placed in a large fixture in the winery’s dark, cave-like cellar. During the secondary fermentation, yeast and sugar are introduced. The second fermentation is what gives the wine its “sparkle,” creating Cava’s characteristic bubbles. The yeast also helps give structure to the wine. 

Upstairs, we were joined by José, Pilar, and Sergi, — Eva’s father, mother, and brother. Eva demonstrated how to disgorge the sediment from the bottle, which is a lengthy process when done by hand but ensures that all of the sediment has been extracted. The bottle is placed neck first into a large box that is propped up on one leg. Each day, the box is turned a little until the sediment is completely in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then placed upside down into a second machine, so that the neck fits into the hole and touches the antifreeze at the bottom. This causes the sediment to collect into a solid cube that floats to the neck of when the bottle is turned right side up.

Once this cube has formed, the cap of the bottle is popped off which shoots both the cap and the cube of sediment out of the bottle and into a large glass case. There is a massive amount of pressure within the bottle, so it is important to shoot the wine into the case and away from one’s face. The bottle is then placed in another machine that corks the bottle. It is now ready to be cleaned, labeled, and drank. Eva taught me that you must drink the Cava within 18 months of when it is disgorged or else the bubbles will escape and the cork will begin to go bad.

Tasting

When tasting a Cava, you must first smell the wine. This scent should match that which you find in your mouth both during and at the end of your sip. Sergi explains that this constitutes a “vertical cava.”

We tasted both of the wines sold at Mas Bertran – the Balma and the Argila. I am not a wine expert, but I favored the Argila. Sergi explained that it has more body and more flavor since it is aged longer. You don’t taste the bubbles as much and it is smoother in the mouth. It can be used as an aperitif, or paired with the first or main course of any meal.

The Balma and Argila are produced using the same method. The difference between them lies in the type of grape that they consist of. The Argila is made from only one grape – the xarello. The Balma, on the other hand, is a combination between three grapes – 45% xarello, 30% marcabeu, and 25% parellada. Both Cavas are “Brut Nature,” meaning that the sugar is only added at the beginning, as food for the yeast. No sugar is added after the sediment has been taken out, so the Cava is very dry and not too sweet.

Eva pointed out the tiny bubbles coming up from the bottom of the glass and said that it is the mark of a good Cava. It is doubtful that I’ll be able to find a better bottle of sparkling wine in the US, so for now I will enjoy the delicious Cava of Catalonia.

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Replies

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Reply by gregt, Jun 27, 2010.

Nice job Winepleasures. Sounds like you had fun. 

One minor point tho.  You said :  Eva taught me that you must drink the Cava within 18 months of when it is disgorged or else the bubbles will escape and the cork will begin to go bad.

That's not true.  In fact, there are minimum aging requirements if you want to call your Cava a reserva or gran reserva and you can further age Cava nicely.  Back in the 1800s when the first Cava's were made, they were made by people who had first studied the technique in Champagne and brought it back to Spain. Last night we had 1998 Champagne, and it was pretty good.  No reason a good Cava can't age as well. 

Cheers!

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Reply by WinePleasures, Jun 28, 2010.

Thanks for the feedback GregT. Allow me to clarify:

The minimum aging for a Cava to become a reserva or gran reserva occurs during the second fermentation in the cellar. For a reserva, the minimum aging requirement is at least 15 months in the cellar and for a gran reserva, the requirement is a minimum of 30 months in the cellar.

After this aging process, the sediment is removed from the bottle. Once it has been disgorged, the Cava should be drank within a maximum of 18 months because the Cava will begin to decline. The cork will shrink and the bubbles will escape, oxidizing the Cava.

Champagne declines in the same way, so the 1998 bottle you drank was probably somewhat oxidized. It may have tasted alright because Champagne typically has a significant amount of sweet wine added to it, unlike the Cavas of the Penedès region.

Hope this helps and again, thanks for the comment!

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Reply by Andrew46, Jun 28, 2010.

Not to be disagreeable, but you both have good points. 

It is not true that sparkling wines degrade quickly.  A properly made sparkling wine stored correctly will rest for several years with minimal oxidation, even once it is disgouged and off the lees.  The corks on sparkling wines are remakably good at keeping the CO2 in, which explains why a bottle will still have ample bubbles after resting 5 years or more.  The very CO2 that makes the bubbles acts as a preservative, protecting the wine from O2, thus preventing oxidation. 

While it may be true that an expert taster can decern the difference (decline) from aging over 18 months, paricularly in a wine which relies on fragile aromatics to give it charicter, sparkling wines degrade much more slowly than other white wines.  This is due to the fact that they have CO2 under pressure in the headspace.  As long as it still has ample bubbles, the CO2 is still preserving the wine. 

It is also true that a wine which relies on lees for charicter rather than fruit will likely degrade less over time. 

Personally, I like the idea of drinking a fruit forward sparking wine when it is recently disgouged, but doubt that 18 months is a magic number for the begin of decline.  Particularly if the wine has low pH and enough CO2.  This info is from practical experience in our winery Briceland Vineyards, here in Humboldt County, where we have won numerous awards for our methode champenoise sparkling wines.

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Reply by dmcker, Jun 28, 2010.

Winepleasures, I see you've yet to learn the joys of good aged champagne. If I have time in the next week or two, I'll post the results of some tastings I did a few years back of many, many excellent aged bubblies....

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Reply by dmcker, Jun 28, 2010.

That's not to say that most cavas shouldn't be drunk young, of course... ;-)

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Reply by WinePleasures, Jun 28, 2010.

@dmcker Cava, once disgorged should be drunk pretty soon after otherwise and specifically in the case of cava you are going to loose the fresh acidic mouthfeel not to mention the citric aromas. Many artesan cava producers put the degorge date on the cava bottle so the consumer knows. Any sparking wine made using the traditional method will go into decline and over time will start to oxidise and lose bubble.

We are not saying it is bad to drink what you term as aged champagne. Many people  like the taste of oxidised sparkling wine and therefore there is a market.

Look forward to viewing your tasting notes!

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Reply by Andrew46, Jun 28, 2010.

"Any sparking wine made using the traditional method will go into decline and over time will start to oxidise and lose bubble."

Yes, eventually.  But this is a slow process.

The loose bubbles part of this statement is actually kind of wrong.  Sorry.  We have bottle of sparkling wine that have rested 10 years or more that still have, at least to the naked eye, the exact same amount of bubbles as when they were first disgouged.

The oxidation part is mostly wrong too.  As I stated in my earlier post, as long as the wine is blanketed with CO2, as sparkling wine are, they are largely preserved from oxidation. 

Yes, recently discouged sparklings wines are different from ones that have rested for many years.  However, the process is very slow, as long as the wine is stored properly.  Also, it is not due to oxidation caused by loss of bubbles.  That is simple not supported by fact.  Sorry.  Unless you have actual data to support your claim, like what pressure is present at 18 months vs right after disgouge, I suggest the observation about sparkling wines changing as they rest needs a different explaination.  Perhaps breakdown of fragile aromas?  Something else?



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Reply by WinePleasures, Jun 28, 2010.

Hmmm. We have a another cava visit on Wednesady so we are going to get some winemaker views on this for you. So we'll get back to you with fresh input soon.

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Reply by gregt, Jun 28, 2010.

WP - I understand the aging.  My point was that the cava sold as GR is not necessarily made to be consumed immediately.  You are talking about aging before disgorgment, or aging on the lees, which is exactly correct - many houses do that in Spain and France and in some cases the wine rests that way for six years or more. 

However, after that, many people subsequently age Champagne "on the cork" for many years because they like the quality that it takes on.  Still white wines also become darker with age in part because of oxidiation reactions, among many many other things.  Some people prefer them old, some young.  I prefer riesling young and also sweet wine, but some people like them with many years of aging. 

Aging the wine "on the cork" is long-standing practice in Champagne.  Not everyone wants their wine aged that way, but many do because they feel that the acidity softens and the wine picks up more complexity. In fact, the French call the preference for aged Champagne the "goût Anglais" because the British have shown a fondness for the aged flavors.  Champagne actually has a reputation for aging longer than most reds, and on the cork.  The 1998 was a few years older than you're likely to find in your local store, but it's far from the oldest sparkling wine I've consumed.  

There are Champagne houses who release vintage Champagne that has aged for a long time on the lees and those late releases are not usually aged on the cork before release.  However, they can be.  So you can have a young wine that you drink young, a young wine that you age in bottle, an old wine that you drink immediatly, or an old wine that you further age in bottle.  All four will produce different results.  It's a matter of preference which you may prefer.

I've opened bottles of the cava that we import after a few years and there's no decline in quality that I can ascertain.

Best!

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Reply by Andrew46, Jun 28, 2010.

"Hmmm. We have a another cava visit on Wednesady so we are going to get some winemaker views on this for you."

I'll be interested to hear the other winemaker's comments. 

I think that some explanations of what is happening in wine get "dumbed down" for public consumption. 

What I am telling you about CO2 dramatically slowing the oxidation process is sound science and backed up by observational data.  We use CO2 in our white wine tanks durring racking to prevent the wine from having contact with O2.  This preserves aromas.

As long as sparkling wine has good bubbles, the oxidative process is being slowed by the CO2.  Slowed in comparison to still white wines, to be specific.

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Reply by dmcker, Jun 28, 2010.

Winepleasures, here's an older thread on the subject that goes into some detail, and warrants reading:  How long to keep non-vintage champagne?

I'd also be interested to hear that winemaker's recommendation about Cava that might be good after a few year's aging after disgorgement. In my personal experience, I'm yet to run across any, but perhaps there are some out there....

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Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Jun 29, 2010.

Here's theLink to How long to keep NV Champers.

While this has only a little to do with the discussion of Gran Reserva cava, i think the points made in that thread can be applied to the Gran Reservas.

I've had my share of aged, and old, vintage champagne and the truth is I don't care for them as much as many others. Ageing Non-Vintage Champagne in one's own cellars is actually quite important in my view.

Having said that I really nejoy some 1979 lanson out of magnum recently, no malo allowed it to stay crisp and focused all these years.

And most vintage Champagnes from 1988, my favorite vintage for current consumption, are absolutely perfect right now.

So I guess my point is these things are pretty durable. Now if I were in the business of selling Gran Reservas, and I had alot to seel, I might be in the business of persuading people to drink them as soon as possible!

 

 

 

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Reply by dmcker, Jun 30, 2010.

Thanks, Greg, not sure why my link got fouled like that.

Also not sure whether you're saying you like aged champagne, or not.... ;-)

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Reply by StevenBabb, Jun 30, 2010.

i think everyone is missing somethings here... and i'm not a cava producer, but i'll jump out on a limb...

cava is made with different grapes than champagne... pinot noir and chardonnay may just age better than the grapes of cava: xerello, macabeo, parellada....

cava to me is a more fresh and vibrant sparkler, and too be honest, unless i bought it with some age after discorgement, i don't think i could hold on to it for very long with out drinking it! hahaha

just my two cents...

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Reply by StevenBabb, Jun 30, 2010.

@Winepleasures...... GREAT step by step post.... i'm jealous, wish i was in penedes.....

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Reply by gregt, Jun 30, 2010.

True the grapes are different.  Well, some are.  Chardonnay is used in Spain as well as in France, and increasingly.  Moreover, one of the best white wines I've had recently was a pristine 1970, which was viura, or if you prefer, macabeo.  And there are many examples of wines from viura that age wonderfully, particularly from Rioja.  So whether Cava or Champagne, all of the grapes are able to age well.

One of the biggest problems with Cava is the fact that production and sales, and consequently the image of the product in the US, are completely dominated by 2 producers.  They sell Cava extremely cheaply and well, but they've killed the market for better products.  The key therefore, is to look for Cava from smaller producers who take the same care with their Cava that you would want from someone who produced still wine.

And it is very possible that a specific producer is not making Cava to be held much longer than a few months, and that's not a bad strategy.

At some point, I'm still hoping to do some kind of a Cava expo and if we can pull it off, will post here to let everyone know.  Not sure if it's better in fall or spring tho.

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Reply by Andrew46, Jul 1, 2010.

I am sure there are differences between Cavas and other sparkling wines.  But the chemistry involved is the same.  What we have is a low pH wine, which is kept on lees for some time in the bottle.  The yeast bodies remove any O2 from the wine.  Then, the yeast is removed but the wine is still under pressure, with CO2 in the headspace.  There is very little O2 and, contrary to the original claim, the wine does not lose it bubbles in 18 months. 

So, while I enjoy the fresh sparkling wines when they are recently disgouged, I disagree with the idea that a 19 month old Cava is past age for ideal drinking.  Any properly made, properly stored sparkling wine will change very little over 18 months time.  We see very little change over 3-5 years.  They are still great after 10 years or more.  Not the same as when disgourged, but not over the hill.

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Reply by WinePleasures, Jul 1, 2010.

We decided to get a second opinion from a local Cava producer here in Catalonia...

http://www.youtube.com/winepleasures#p/a/u/0/yr9OjZJJZ-Q

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Reply by StevenBabb, Jul 1, 2010.

thanks for that winepleasures..... you're doin a great job of documenting your experince in spain... keep up the good work... : )

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Reply by StevenBabb, Jul 1, 2010.

and gregT.... when talkin about the '70 macabeo, was it sparkling?

and yes, chardonnay is grown in spain, but not much.... and i don't think they really use it to make cava....

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