The blame lies with the Greeks and the Phoenicians, a man called Louis Pasteur and the region of Champagne, to the east of Paris.
These two peoples, who had a long tradition as traders and sailors, arrived in Empordà bringing with them small vines which they scattered around the area. These must surely have included the ancestors of today´s white wine varieties such as chardonnay, moscatel, parellada, xarel.lo, macabeo, airén and malvasía.
Monsieur Pasteur, who will never receive the recognition he truly deserves, discovered a great deal about yeast in his microbiology research.
“Enfin”, in Champagne, this cold region not far from the Frankish borders, the cold and the enflamed religious wars performed the miracle of breathing life into dead wine. We must look back in time to praise the work of an ambitious blind French Benedictine monk. His aim was to make the best wine in France, the preferred choice of King Louis XIV. And he managed it, creating a new milestone in the history of the wine industry, making sparkling wines of a subtlety and sensuality that were sinful for all mere mortals, monks included. This monk was none other than Dom Perignon.
In Catalonia, they took careful note of this new winemaking method called champenoise and applied it to their own autochthonous grapes. And so, cava, the Queen of Iberian sensuality, was born. We are talking about the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. The Spanish should also take their hats off to Josep Raventós i Fatjó, from the mythical Codorníu winery, who in 1872 created the first white wine with fizzy carbonated bubbles.
The exquisiteness and exclusiveness of cava starts the moment the grapes enter the winery. In fact, the grapes are a source of controversy within the Board that regulates what is one of the most multiregional denominations in Spain. Some time ago, a proposal to include white Chardonnay grapes within the list of those permitted (together with the autochthonous varieties of parellada, xarel.lo and macabeo grapes) for making blended wines was only approved after heated debate, and the recent decision to approve pinot noir as a permitted variety for making rosé cavas caused a similar storm. A balance must be struck between the protection of genuine authenticity and the need for creative wealth and breadth of flavour.
Whichever grapes are used, they are not subjected to excessive squeezing as their nectar is extracted with presses with moving plates or with pneumatic presses. The grapes are pressed just three times during which they release only 50% of their highly prized liquid. This exclusive must is sulphited in a maximum of 10 g/hL and is allowed to rest for a while to bring about static “debourbage”, without the need for centrifuging and without the wine suffering. Then, it is ready for fermentation.
This miracle or perhaps chemical reaction (depending on how agnostic you are) takes place at a low temperature of between 12 ºC and 18 °C, so as not to lose the most delicate and subtle aromas of the wine as would happen in more intensive fermentation at a higher temperature.
During the long winemaking process, the wine undergoes three rackings after its alcoholic fermentation. The first is performed once the lactic acid has taken the place of the malic acid. The second is carried out before natural stabilization and the last, after clarification of the wine. Before this last disturbance, the oenologist has his say. He tunes up his taste buds and tastes all the wines in order to obtain a perfectly uniform blend in which the particularities of each wine are sacrificed to produce a better overall result. The “coupage” also includes a significant proportion (25% to 35%) of wines from good years. This blend is one of the winemakers’ most important secrets. In this case, man supplants machine in a quest for excellence. Technology plays no part….
The fermented must of uniform quality is known as the base wine. It has to meet a series of regulated requirements in order to be able to undergo the fermentation in the bottle which turns it into an authentic cava: the alcohol by volume must be between 9.5% and 11.5%; the total acidity must be more than 3.5 grams of tartaric acid per litre; a non-reducing dry extract of between 13 and 22 g/L; a real volatile acidity of less than 0.6 g/L; a sulphur dioxide level of no more than 140 mg/L; between 0.7 and 2 g/l of ash; and a pH of no less than 2.8 and no more than 3.3. The wine has reached the halfway point. It now enters the second stage in which it evolves to the point where it is transformed into sensual bubbles.
The second fermentation, which takes place inside the bottle, is the one that causes the miracle. This is what gives the wine life and creates the continuous movement of tiny bubbles in the glass.
Before being bottled, the base wine undergoes another selection process in which the volatile acidity, the sulphur dioxide and the reducing sugars are analysed again. Only the most exclusive base wines become cavas.
The next stage involves a series of operations in which the wine is prepared for its long period of enclosure inside the bottle. These activities are jointly known as “tirage”. The first step is to provide “food” for the yeasts during their time in the bottle. To this end, a syrup with a high sugar content (called “liqueur de tirage”) is prepared by cold dissolution of 500 g of sugar in a good aged wine. This solution is left to rest for 6 to 8 days after which it is filtered, so obtaining a clear sugary syrup. Once this “food” has been prepared, we then have to develop the substance that will be eating it, namely the anaerobic yeast (which hardly requires any oxygen to carry out its important task). This is a fundamental stage of the whole process as the final development of the wine is entirely dependent on the yeast.
The yeasts used in what is a most unusual process of fermenting a wine that has already been fermented must comply with a series of requirements: they must be resistant to alcohol and to sulphur, they must be able to use up all the sugar and to ferment at low temperature.
This last criterion is especially important for two reasons. Firstly, because fermentation at low temperature results in a better combination of the liquid and the anhydride that is released, giving rise to finer, more elegant bubbles (a better “perlage”). Secondly, because this enables a more gradual fermentation process in which the wine acquires enhanced organoleptic qualities. This is another of the winemakers’ greatest secrets: good yeasts, low temperatures and a slow passage of time. Finally, the following ingredients are placed in a vessel: the base wine, the “liqueur de tirage”, the active yeasts and associated elements such as fining agents, etc. Before bottling, it is of the utmost importance to oxygenate the blend well so that the yeasts can do their job in the suffocating atmosphere inside the closed bottle.
As one might expect, the bottles used for sparkling wines are also special. The bubbles released by the yeasts during the second fermentation increase the pressure inside the bottle by up to 6 atm. The walls of the bottle must therefore be thicker so as to withstand this higher pressure. The provisional top used during the fermentation and ageing process is known as the ´crown cap´. It has two functions, firstly protecting the highly prized sparkling wine from contact with external oxygen (which would damage it) and, secondly, as the deposit for the lees (dead or residual yeasts) produced during fermentation. The crown cap is made out of tinned iron, aluminium or stainless steel, the last of which is particularly recommended for sparkling wines that are stored for long periods (7 or 8 years) in damp cellars.
During fermentation, the bottles are stacked horizontally apparently asleep. But things are not as they seem, as a strong chemical reaction is taking place inside. Fermentation time normally varies between one and three months. This variation depends on the ambient temperature at which fermentation takes place. At low temperatures (of between 10ºC and 12°C), the carbon dioxide gas and the liquid are closely linked, weaving fine bubbles full of glamour. In this case, fermentation can take as long as three months. If, by contrast, the mercury in the thermometer rises to between 20 ºC and 25°C, fermentation takes place in a month and the resulting sparkling wine has a less fine bouquet and a slightly rougher “perlage”, thereby losing some of its sumptuous quality. Once the yeasts have dried the wine out completely, they are left with no more sugar to metabolize, causing their paralysis and then death.
From then on, the bottles remain in horizontal position during the ageing process. This takes from between nine months (the minimum regulated period for cavas) to several years. During this period, the cava matures in four important ways. Firstly, the bubble integrates with the wine, so becoming more subtle causing less impact on the mouth and in the stomach. Secondly, the cava becomes smoother, so reducing the sensation of acidity. The third improvement comes in the form of greater body and, lastly, the cava gains in flavour and aromas, by incorporating the toasted and woody aromas produced by the contact between the wine and its lees and the gradual process of chemical decomposition known as autolysis.
Once fermentation has come to an end, the bottle is given the “coup de poignet”, in which it is shaken firmly to remove the dregs that have stuck to the walls of the bottle, so that they become suspended in the liquid. These lees, blind witnesses of the transformation process that the wine has undergone, then decant towards the cap where they accumulate, leaving the wine itself perfectly pure. This operation is repeated every six months while the bottles are stacked horizontally. When their time in this position comes to an end, they are given the definitive “coup de poignet” (to knock off the last dregs) and are positioned with the top pointing down towards the ground. Once in this new position, the bottles are turned every three or four days alternately clockwise and then anticlockwise, and their position is gradually inclined. During this period, the dregs become stuck to the top where they impatiently await a chance to escape from the bottle.
The initial wine obtained after the first fermentation has now been transformed into an elegant cava. All that remains is to remove the dregs that have been deposited on the cap. There are two ways of doing this: the “a la volée” method, for bottles larger than the magnum sealed directly with a cork (and not with a crown cap). The second system, the most usual one, is the traditional method. This involves freezing part of the bottle so enabling the cap to be extracted easily together with the lees that have settled on it. This operation is known as disgorgement.
When the crown cap and the lees are removed, a certain amount of liquid is also lost. This loss is covered by adding the “liqueur de dosage”, which like the “liqueur de tirage” is a syrup made up of wine and/or liqueur and/or sugar. The final classification of the wines depends on the amount of sugar which is now added to the cava and is based on the following categories: “brut nature” (less than 3 g/l); “extra brut” (less than 6 g/l); “brut” (less than 15 g/l); “extra dry”´(between 12 and 20 g/l); “dry” (between 17 and 35 g/l); “semi dry” (between 33 and 50 g/l) and “sweet” (with over 50 g/l). Now the cava is locked definitively inside the bottle (where it harmonizes with the “liqueur de dosage” for about 15 days) with a mushroom-shaped cork and muselet, perhaps dreaming of the exclusive palates that will discover all its virtues.
We strongly recommend the driest cavas and those with body, as these are important characteristics of the best base wines. The consumption of cava as an aperitif and indeed throughout the meal is highly recommended, as it is an ideal complement even for certain stews and meat dishes. With desserts, we would recommend any of the world’s great sweet wines, rejecting the widespread combination of cava/dessert. Make sure you enjoy some good bubbles this Christmas, although you should not forget that cava can warm your heart all year round and on any occasion.
Seasons greetings from the whole team at Reserva y Cata!.