Elegant rival to Champagne

Two cava producers in the Penedes region of Spain offer examples of how this rival to Champagne is taking on the world. For publication in week starting 14 November 2016.

Respect for the environment is the key to how wine is made at Parés Baltà near the town of Vilafranca del Penedes in north-eastern Spain. This family-owned estate believes taking care of the land gives them a sense of identity. All wines are certified as organic. That process started in 2005 and Parés Baltà has been certified biodynamic since 2013. Only a handful of estates in the Penedes are biodynamic.

No herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used on the 100 hectares of vineyards in the Penedes, or their two smaller estates in Priorat and Ribera del Duero. A flock of about 100 sheep fertilise the vineyards, and maintain the soil between November and March after the harvest in October. These are healthy and contented sheep, as the accompanying video shows. Bee hives distributed around the property help pollinate the many flowers and shrubs, and they sell a small amount of honey at the winery.

About 60 hectares of their vineyards are in the Foix national park, a magnificent 600 hectare site of pine forests several kilometres from the winery. The vines are grown on terraces built centuries ago but abandoned because of their high cost of maintenance until the past few decades. The national park is isolated and surrounded by mountains reaching an altitude of 750 metres. Boars, foxes, rabbits and Bonelli’s eagles can be seen in the park. The only water the vines receive comes from rain or groundwater.

Export manager Maxime Bazart described the national park as a “perfect location for growing quality grapes” because “it’s the middle of nowhere”. The Xarel-lo vines in November during our visit glowed gold in the autumn sunshine. The location is perfect for generating the freshness and acidity needed to make premium cava.

It would be a mistake to call the 2013 Parés Baltà Brut Nature an entry-level wine, though it is the lowest priced of the Parés Baltà cavas, at 8 Euro from the winery. It spends 24 months in the cellar after bottling and is an easy-drinking, zingy delight with soft minerality and honey aromas, combined with flavours of pears and white flowers.

Cava, named after the Catalan word for caves, is made in the same way as champagne, with the secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle. The finished wine is cellared until it is released. The deep cellars typically maintain humidity of about 80 per cent and an average temperature of 14-16C all year round.

Regular cava must spend at least nine months in the cellar. A gran reserve must be cellared for a minimum of 30 months before being sold, a requirement of the Cava Regulatory Board. But most gran reservas are kept for much more than the minimum requirements because they represent the winemaker’s statement of greatness.

About 95 per cent of all cava is produced in the Penedes region. Cavas are classified as dulce (sweet) if they contain more than 50 grammes of residual sugar per litre. Semiseco (medium dry) has 33-50 gm/L, sect (dry, with 17-35 gm/L), brut (dry, but with a hint of residual sugar and 0-15 gm/L), or brut nature (totally dry). The last has almost no residual sugar (0-3 gm/L).

The star grape for cava production is Xarel-lo, regarded as one of Spain’s best white varieties. Highly aromatic, it has a thin skin and offers an excellent balance of sugar and acid, which gives cava its ability to age. Xarel-lo is typically blended with Parellada and Macabeo, all three grapes indigenous to Spain, though winemakers are also using Chardonnay and other international grapes. The common factor in all good cavas is their delicacy, a cool-climate feel and great balance and restraint.

Parés Baltà is unique in having two women winemakers, Marta Casas and Elena Jiminez. Jordi Fernandez makes up the trio of oenological talent at the estate. The women are the spouses of the two brothers who currently run Parés Baltà, Josep and Joan Cusiné. They are the grandsons of the man who founded the estate in 1978, Joan Cusiné Hill.

The estate produces seven excellent cavas. The 2010 Blanca Cusiné is made from Xarel-lo, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and spent 60 months in the cellar. It echoes of green apples on the nose with spicy acidity. This brut nature wine is the epitome of elegance. The lovely 2012 Rosa Cusiné is made from the Garnatxa (Grenache) grape and has flavours of rose petals and a pure mineral zing.

Parés Baltà also makes a range of excellent table wines. Bazart explained that a green harvest — thinning out grapes before they ripen — was employed to concentrate the flavours and character of the grapes left on the vine. This means yields are low. “In the case of the Grenache used for our [flagship red] Hisenda Miret, we take away more than half of the grapes.” The 2009 vintage of this beautiful wine feels like a premier cru burgundy with its soft tannins and perfumed nose.

At the other end of the cava spectrum are two huge names, Codorniu and Freixenet, who dominate the market. Freixenet is the world’s biggest cava producer, making upwards of 87 million bottles a year which are exported to 140 countries. Their Cordon Negro, in its distinct black bottle, is probably one of the world’s most recognisable wines.

Parés Baltà, by comparison, makes about 700,000 bottles, including table wines. Freixenet concentrates on entry-level wines, but also produces small amounts of premium cava, though many of these are not exported. Two cavas that are available in Asia are the Elyssia rose and white. The name comes from the Roman word Elyssium, meaning heaven. These classy wines represent an attempt to create a modern cava using the traditional Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and are worth seeking out.

Words: 987


Categories: cava, Not home, Spain, wine

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