The sparkling wine sector is gaining complexity, with cava and prosecco looking to the future and the past
In 2012 something cataclysmic happened in Spain’s Catalunya region, the heart of cava production. The two huge brands of Freixenet and Codorniu, often known to have been feuding, came to an arrangement. This agreement, of a kind almost unprecedented in a wine region, was that they would cease production of supermarket own-brand wines. They were taking a long term view: to pull up value and drop the bottom end.
Cava has been produced in Spain since 1872 but it was only in 1972 that the first regulations were put in place. It does not qualify as a DOC as cava can be made anywhere in Spain, though the vast majority comes from Catalunya. Italy’s prosecco, on the other hand, is not only a DOC but has a DOCG contained within it. It is perhaps not surprising, with almost non-existent quality control, that cava has trailed behind the similarly-priced prosecco.
Buoyed by the 2012 agreement, cava is now clawing its way up and aggressively promoting its high-end reserve wines (which have always been there), including the increased bottling of single vineyard cuvees. An issue for the customer is that these wines can all be so different one from another, but it may be that this diversity becomes a strength: there is so much to explore. In the same way that mass-produced Moet is the sibling of high-end Dom Perignon, so too can Freixenent and Codorniu produce boutique wines as well as crowd-pleasers. Comparisons with champagne end there.
These higher quality categories of cava are both oak- and bottle-aged but what is striking, as a generalisation, is that they do not seem oaky. But they do emerge with the affects of autolysis. This refers to the complex chemical reactions that take place when wine spends time on lees – the dead yeast cells produced in the fermentation process. This process lends to particularly striking secondary aromas, though fruit and flower notes still sing through.
A great place to start on this high-end cava journey is with the great value Segura Viudas Gran Cuvee Reserva NV with its ripe and complex fruity nose. The fruit is carried across the palate and the wine finishes dry but warmly rich and rounded. In general, cava shows a gentler acidity than much sparkling wine.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the biodynamic Freixenet Casa Sala Gran Reserva 2006. It is a confident wine of great structure, containing 53 per cent of the earthy Xarel-lo. Those earthy notes of mushroom are also perfectly exhibited in the fascinating Recardeo Brut de Brut, Serral del Vell Estate, Brut Nature, Gran Reserva 2006.
Meanwhile, the demand for cheap and cheerful, soft and round prosecco knows no bounds, causing some consternation among more serious producers. The availability of prosecco on tap, like beer, does not help. Producers complain that if you are outside the price point, you are out, full stop. Sebastian Bonomo, export manager for Giusti and Casa Paolin, says that the way to approach emerging markets such as China is to enter with the easy, basic prosecco. The problem of how then to move the market upwards in quality (and price) terms is one now being tackled by cava producers.
When prosecco is good, it can be highly stylish. Ca’di Rajo Prosecco DOCG Valdobbiadene Brut “Cuvee del Fondatore” 2014 goes “ge-zing” in the mouth and is very dry but softly fruity at the back, too. The dosage is a low 7g/L that helps to show off the quality – and clarity – of the fruit. Export manager Marco Pozzi stresses that the producer is committed to promoting local grapes – such as Valdobbiedene and Manzoni, a cross between Trebbiano and Traminer.
Giusti Cuvee NV is from Asolo-Montello DOCG in Treviso – a region which was literally at the front line in World War 1. The wine is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; a beautifully flowing wine with lifted acids. It was surprising to find that it is made not via the Traditional Method but the rather more lowly-regarded Charmat method. Why is that? “Because we are expert in Charmat,” smiles Bonomo. However, Casa Paolin “Vino Biologico Frizzante” Col Fond NV from Asolo-Montello DOCG is made according to the Metodo Ancestrale. This is the way prosecco used to be made, says Bonomo, and involves a second fermentation in bottle.
High-end sparkling wine from Italy is generally associated with Franciacorta, but there’s plenty of quality to be found in prosecco, particularly within the DOCG. Let’s hope it begins to reach the market in the same way as premium cava.