Cava is in the throes of reinventing itself. And about time. Spanish food has transformed itself this century into being one of the most dynamic and exciting cuisines in all of Europe. Spanish table wines are now unrecognisable from those of 20 years ago. Spain produces some of Europe’s tastiest and freshest whites and pinks; many old red wine regions and grape varieties are being triumphantly revived. Even sherry has made itself cool and indispensable to trendy bars and restaurants. And Cava? Well, Cava’s trouble was that, perhaps along with red Rioja, it was Spain’s most successful wine style. Everyone knew it. Most people drank it and enjoyed it. But not many people gave it much in-depth attention. Did they ask about its terroirs and its indigenous grape varieties? Not very often. Consumers were happy enough to be getting good quality sparkling wine, made in the time-honoured traditional method, for a very fair price. To the consumer, that is. Too fair a price, frequently, for many producers, as Cava began to trade more on affordability and not enough on uniqueness.
All that has changed. Cava is no longer – thank goodness – thought of as the first-choice party pop – Italy has taken over that role. Cava now sells less wine in our market, but the quality is much higher, and the originality of flavours – quite different to those of champagne – is more and more evident. And with the big upturn in quality comes the question – how DO we drink Cava??
Well, the Cava guys have very intelligently hitched their waggon to their wine’s suitability with food. And not just Spanish – the food of the whole world! They’ve even found a top aroma and flavour scientist – Francois Chartier – to provide scientific evidence of Cava’s broad compatibility with numerous cuisines – pinpointing, in particular, Mediterranean (north and south), Japanese, Peruvian, Mexican and American cultures. He’s been helped in this by Cava now offering itself in 4 very distinct tiers, each with different flavour profiles. Cava de Guarda is the youngest style – crisp, crunchy, sometimes bracing – and this pairs really obviously with raw foods like carpaccios, tartares, sashimis and ceviches. Add to that bowls piled with chompable salads doused with enticingly citrus dressings.
Cava de Guarda Superiore or Cava Reserva is aged on lees for 18 months and is that bit fuller and deeper in flavour. In a way, this is the all-rounder. It’s an uplifting Brunch bubbly, friendly to fish; perhaps you could try your Mexican favourites here. And with the wealth of vegan and vegetarian dishes reaching our consciousness – here’s the fizz to spur them on. I’m especially keen on Cava Reservas which include a lot of the powerful Xarel-lo grape – great for taking on such challenging foods as artichoke, asparagus, and sesame and soy-rich Chinese dishes.
Gran Reserva Cavas rest for at least 30 months on the lees, and are starting to develop fascinating dried fruit flavours along with the beginnings of grilled nuts and pastries. If you’re using dried fruit in your cooking – especially for chicken and pork dishes, along with North African and Middle Eastern fare – Gran Reservas hit the spot. I’d also drink them, nicely chilled, with Spanish, French and Swiss hard cheeses.
Cava de Paraje Calificado wines are single sites and spend at least 3 years on the lees, and I’ve recently tasted excellent examples with 5, 7 and 8 years sitting in the bottle on their yeast lees. These are bursting with flavours of dried fruits, old honey, roasted nuts, bread crust and soy. Wonderful by themselves, but if you’re eating umami-rich dishes – truffles, marinated meats, smoked seafood and fish, aged cheeses – mouth-filling stuff – these magical mouth fillers will make your meal a whole lot more memorable.
Tom Rhodes, Masterchef UK 2021 Champion, put together four mouthwatering recipes to partner with the wines below. So why not dash out and grab a bottle, Click here to download a recipe card and create your own perfect Cava and food pairings.
Made entirely from indigenous grapes, this is a very bright, fresh, citrussy style. But there’s lots of flavour, from fluffy apple flesh and a slight nutty softness through to several different shades of lemon – lemon sherbet, lemon flower and the restrained pithiness of boiled lemons.
I’m delighted to see Vallformosa using Trepat in their Rose. They are very keen on preserving old Catalan varieties and restoring ancient vineyards and this excellent Rose shows they are putting their money where their mouth is. It’s dry but full-bodied, with a gentleness like strawberry ice cream, a scent halfway between strawberry flowers and menthol, and just enough skins chewiness to keep my mouth watering.
Matched with Tom’s Sausage and Kimchi Hash with Gochujang Ketchup
This shows the enormous value of a decent amount of time spent ageing on the lees. This wine spent 5 years on its lees, and the result is a fascinating full-bodied style, balancing nut softness and a blossom scent with the crisp appetising flavours of apple core, lemon pith and lemon oil. The ageing has softened the wine, but not aged the fruit. I wrote “A touch of silver knife slicing through ripe apple”. Don’t ask me why.
Serious wine. Full, mature, a really good example of how Cava can age as well as Champagne but arrive at quite different flavours. The Xarel-lo grape dominates here and brings about a fascinating marriage of madeleine cakes and orange, hazelnut husks brushed with honey, and a little old, shrivelled dried apricot and apple peel.