I’ve now written three consecutive posts extolling the virtues of Cava, and by now – unless you’re getting paid to promote Spanish sparkling wine – you’ve probably thought at least once, “Wow, does he ever stop?”
Of course. And that’s why I decided to write this “Cava Caveat.”
See, for all the good things that can be said about Cava – its value, its versatility in the kitchen, and its broad resonance with Spain itself – there are still many aspects that could be improved. Until that happens, Cava will always live in the shadow of regions such as Champagne, and even if it does, it’s still a distinct possibility.
So what are the complaints or short-comings one could list about Cava? Where do producers like Segura Viudas need to focus their energy in coming years, so that the wines produced measure up to the best sparkling wines in the world?
As I mentioned previously, Cava’s primary advantage compared to other sparkling regions is its consistent ability to manufacture a “smart buy.” It wins easily when price is involved, but on the merits of taste alone, how does Cava measure up?
Not awfully. To use a baseball analogy, Cava’s affordable and quaffable entry-level wines allow it to stake an early lead. But as the game drags on, Champagne’s pitching rotation depth holds Cava’s run advantage to a minimum until finally, in the bottom of the ninth inning, some brut-ish (har har) French slugger steps to the plate and crushes a three-run blast to deep center.
The reason for this is simple: To date, Cava hasn’t delivered more than a handful of truly standout wines (in the 94+ range) at a premium price point. To go toe-to-toe with a major French Champagne house, a producer such as Segura Viudas would need to deliver more than its current signature wine, the Reserva Heradad. While good, especially considering its rather affordable $23 MSRP, how could it ever truly compare to a luxurious Champagne?
I’m not the only one who has ever noticed the lack of “premier” Cavas, as The New York Times’ Eric Asimov did so in a 2010 tasting of 20 bottles.
While the pursuit of a spectacular release shouldn’t get in the way of continuing to produce affordable “smart buys,” it’d be nice to see a handful of “blow you away” Cavas that go far beyond the straightforward acid-fruit flavor profile. In my opinion, the 2005 Segura Viudas ‘Tore Galimany’ Brut Nature (currently unavailable in the U.S.) is a start, offering up more complex, yeasty aromas and a more glycerine mouthfeel. How far can a Cava go?
My guess is that if the Cava region is ever to deliver a wine that floors critics and wine snobs, it’ll come from a small, artisanal producer, who perhaps even dares to think outside the box and eschew some of the stringent D.O. provisions in favor of natural/biodynamic principles. But the very nature of Cava’s arrangement prevents that, as major producers like Segura Viudas and the larger Freixenet brand buy grapes from local growers to supplement their own yields.
This set-up has worked for decades, but it also means there are but a handful of “little guys” willing to produce independent, daring wines. The Loire Valley this is not, and in that respect, Cava is very similar to Champagne. Its main assets, again, are consistency and value, which naturally come at the expense of eccentricity and flamboyance.
While writing my post about Cava’s great value proposition, it struck me that when it comes to sparkling wines, there is a major opportunity across the board to help consumers better understand what they are drinking. A more informed consumer is a more comfortable consumer, and if he or she knows what they’re going to get, they’re also more apt to buy that product.
One of the great fears about buying a sparkling wine is that it’s so hard for many average buyers to understand what’s behind the label and elaborate packaging. That issue is compounded when little-known Spanish grapes are involved.
But where there is difficulty, there is also opportunity. Would it be possible for Cava to lead an educational charge?
The assemblage experience is a great example. When understood simply as a blend of three grapes, each with unique personalities, Cava becomes infinitely more accessible. The right proportions and expert blending, together with aging, produce the best Cavas. So it goes without saying that to sell more (and more expensive) wines successfully, producers in Cava should tout not only the labels on the bottle, but also the process, so that they can stake their claim as the most informed / knowledgeable / experienced blenders.
Taken together, these three “caveats” indicate the room Cava as a region has to grow. Just as in anything, there’s always a way to improve on current work, and it’ll be up to Spanish winemakers and vine growers like those at Segura Viudas to continue building the legacy of sparkling wine in Catalonia.