Cava savvy: new life for Spain’s favourite fizz?

xProducers of Spain’s premium sparkling wine, cava, could be forgiven for not wanting to do anything to disrupt a successful formula. Already the second biggest-selling sparkling wine category in the world, after Champagne, it combines bulk with a hard-won reputation for quality. It may not have been invariably appealing a generation ago, when poor winemaking practices often turned out wines with that off-puttingly rubbery aroma, but that era is well behind us.

In the UK, most supermarket own-brand cava is fresh, lively and more than drinkable. Even the youngest and simplest wines, based more often than not on the trio of indigenous grape varieties, Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo, have a refreshing lemony tang to them. This is a wine that sells for a fraction of the price of champagne, and yet is still made by the same process.

Even the pink versions, rosados, have persuasive raspberry-ripe fruit to them, derived largely from the Monastrell variety (Mourvèdre), and are a world away from the ill-looking, tired specimens that went by this name in the 1980s.

xThat was the decade when the world of cava began to change. As a result of a prolonged campaign, the Holy Grail was won when Chardonnay became a permitted grape in the blends. The borrowed description ‘blanc de blancs’ began to be seen on labels, and more vintage-dated wines cropped up in the export markets. At a time when colossal price inflation was once more beginning to put Champagne out of reach of the average working person, cava looked to be stepping into the breach in the market its distant French neighbour was obligingly leaving.

In the last few years, as though in confirmation of this trend, Pinot Noir has been authorised for use in the rosados, and as of the 2007 harvest, it will be permissible to use it in the white wines too – the first time that cava blanco has had anything other than white grapes in it. It isn’t too difficult to imagine some enterprising new house in the future deciding to make only Pinot Noir-Chardonnay cavas.Whatever one’s view of tradition, these developments may make for generally more harmonious wines. The minimum ageing period for wines labelled Reserva has just been increased from nine months to 15. It has always been suspected that a lot of that rubberiness that plagued the wines in the past derived from the unsuitability of the Spanish varieties for long lees-ageing. If so, then the whiff of gym-shoes that aged Xarel-lo conferred on a wine may be willingly surrendered to the beguiling toastiness of mature Chardonnay.

xThe use of Pinot Noir in particular has been the pioneering concern of cava’s pre-eminent producer, the family-owned label Codorníu. Here too, change is afoot, with the retirement of cellarmaster Juan José de Castro, who made the wines for the best part of four decades, and his replacement by Jordi Ratera, a relative youngster at 48.

Ratera had previously overseen production at the company’s California facility in the Napa Valley, and has a keen nose for what the international market wants from a sparkling wine.

Freshness is all, as is evidenced by the company’s flagship brand, Teresa. The bracing lemony style of the white wine is offset by a faint suggestion of toasted wheatmeal bread, the telltale sign of a healthy dollop of 30% Chardonnay in the blend. It spends a little less than 12 months on its yeasts, and is bottled good and dry with around eight grams per litre of sugar.Its rosado cousin is predominantly Monastrell, backed up with Pinot Noir, and displays a highly appealing, rounded, ripe cherry style, with a little less sugar (7g/l) and decent length. Drunk with jamón Iberico, as well as some lightly seared sliced tuna, its engaging fruit puts many a pink champagne to shame. It is expected to launch shortly in the UK market.

I have a feeling that what we value in good cava, as it enters on a potentially thrilling new phase in its 100-year-plus history, is its increasing assumption of many of the taste signifiers of champagne.

But why not capitalise on the best that method can produce? At the top of Codorníu’s quality tree, the Jaume cuvée (selling at independents at around £20), has a big, mouthfilling palate, with a dry and toasty vintage style. It contains 50% Chardonnay and has been lees-aged for two years.

There will be some who bewail the erosion of tradition in wines like these. To me, they are the indicator that cava, more than ever before, and in a more competitive market than ever before, means business.