Champagne or Cava? It is fair to say that in the world of sparkling wines there is a trinity of heavyweight contenders for the accolade of being the best. To some extent the depth of your pocket may determine your preference but no celebration or commiseration is complete without some bubbles.

It is often, though not exclusively, served in a fluted glass to toast the happy couple, to coat the winning racing driver’s helmet or to perform as ad hoc shampoo for bikini wearing revellers at a beachside pool party. However, not all sparkling wines are created equal.

So Who Are Our Frothy Contenders?

In the ring, from a very specific region around the Cities of Rheims and Epernay in North-Eastern France, we have Champagne. The location is typified by a climate with low rainfall but often hot summers and cold winters.

For me, Champagne is the reigning champion of deliciousness in the fight to be regarded as the finest of all sparkling wines.

The origin of Champagne is not crystal clear. In the middle of the 16th century the Church owned most of the rural land and various orders of monks worked it. In the Southern French town of Carcassonne, the Benedictine monks at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire bottled their wine before the initial fermentation had completed its process and thereby created a sparkling wine known as the Blanquette de Limoux. This is thought to be the first of the genre.

A century later, and contrary to the myth that he was the ‘inventor’ of Champagne, Dom Pierre Pérignon, also a Benedictine monk, contributed greatly to its production. He avoided the dangerous in-bottle refermentation, that gives sparkling wine its bubbles, but which also resulted in many bottles exploding due to natural yeasts being warmed in spring following the colder winter months. Based in the Abbey Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, just North of Epernay, he became an expert in the pruning of vines and the blending of grapes from multiple vineyards. Around the same time, English glassmakers were improving the capacity of the bottles to withstand the internal pressures generated during the secondary fermentation.

All About Champagne

Champagne, like most sparkling wines, is produced using a traditional process known as Méthode Champenoise. A sharp tasting base wine, made from early picked grapes, typically of the Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay varieties, starts off the process. The addition of small quantities of lesser known grapes from varieties including, Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Arbane or Petit Meslier, are used to augment the depth of flavour in the blending process.

To the base wine, sugar and yeast are added with the latter consuming the former, releasing carbon dioxide into the wine, giving it sparkle. The Champagne is then aged. By rotating the bottle in the rack in a process known as remuage, the dead yeast cells, called lie are collected at the neck of the bottle. A later process known as disgorgement involves the neck of the bottles being frozen, opened and the lie removed. The dosage stage involves a final mix of wine and sugar being added to the opened bottles for yet more flavour before they are resealed. A second fermentation follows for a minimum period of fifteen months that delivers a ready, but a non-vintage, Champagne. To satisfy the definition of a ‘vintage’ Champagne, the second fermentation needs to continue for a minimum period of three years.

It is interesting to note that the 19th century version of classic Champagne would have been far sweeter than those of today. For his 1846 vintage, destined solely for the British market, Perrier-Jouët refrained from adding sugar. The expression Brut Champagne, the driest, was specifically introduced for the British market in the 1876. Champagne should always be served cold, ideally between 7C and 9C.

There are more than fifty major Champagne houses with some of the best known being Bollinger, Moët y Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Pol Roger, which is apparently the Queen’s favourite. Equally, there are many smaller domaines that make a few thousand bottles of Champagne annually, including the house of Jacquinot & Fils, that my wife and I discovered in Epernay, twenty-six years ago, when seeking our wedding Champagne! The European Union has a series of measures intended to protect iconic products by the designation of origin, authenticity and geographical region. Champagne is one such product and varieties which are not from the defined Champagne region are prevented from using its iconic name.

France has its own rules known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) that impose local geographic restrictions, defining which grapes may be used and from which domaine those grapes may be grown in order to qualify to be used in the production of Champagne. The intention is to ensure that the market is delivered the genuine article. While this creates a clear monopoly, the dominant producers are at pains to point that the overriding aim of these regulations is to provide customers with certainty and a quality product. The consistent high price charged for Champagne open up gaps in the market that others can very capably fill.

Crazy About Cava

Our second contender, Cava, is a sparkling wine that hails from the Spanish region of Catalonia. Cava takes its name from the Spanish word for ‘cellars’ where it continues to be produced.

Champagne and Cava are made by a very similar process. They both contain three varieties of grapes that are harvested early to ensure high acidity. However, the grape varieties differ. Although some Cava producers use Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes, the majority use the distinct local varieties of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.

Unlike Champagne rosé, which is produced from a base wine that usually contains a small amount of Pinot noir red wine, most Cava rosados are made with a rosé base wine produced from Trepat, Garnacha or Monastrell varieties.

Cava production requires a double-step fermentation process that significantly changes the flavour by reducing the acidity, giving it fruity notes including melon and peach. Typically, a simple Cava’s second fermentation takes a minimum of nine months. This period is extended for a Reserva Cava or Gran Reserva to 15 and 36 months, respectively.

Cava benefits from a Spanish Denominación de Origen (DO) status and only wines produced by the traditional Méthode Champenoise, detailed above, can be labeled Cava. Around 95 per cent of all Cava production comes from the Penedès region of Catalonia. Notably the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia near Barcelona is home to three of the best-known Cava houses. Codorníu, which was founded in the village in 1551, Freixenet in 1861 and Juve y Camps, who have been making delicious Cava since 1921.

Some records suggest that Cava was first made in the early 1850s. Others note that Josep Raventos, who promoted Codorníu’s still wine products in the 1860s, visited the Champagne region and appreciated that the vineyards of Penedès could be repurposed to produce sparkling wines of a similar quality. The Europe-wide vine plague, phylloxera, delayed Joseps ambitions and it was not until 1872 that he launched his first Cava. The destroyed vineyards were replanted with varieties of white wine grapes and commercial production was underway.

Technology-assisted the Catalonian producers when a device called the gyropalette was developed to mechanise the process of remuage prior to disgorgement. Invented in 1968 by two French vintners, Codorníu became its first major user in the mid 1970s. Many of the established Cava houses now age using this technology.  In addition to rosados versions, Cava is produced with various levels of sweetness, with brut nature being the driest and dulce, the sweetest.

I am particularly fond of the reasonably priced Codorníu product Anna de Codorníu named after one of the founders. However, one of the finest Cavas I have tasted to date is the slightly more expensive 24-months aged ‘Cinta Púrpura Brut Reserva’ from Juve y Camps. Both of these fine wines are deliciously complex and present very acceptable alternatives to non Vintage Champagne.

Prosecco, a Popular Choice

The third contender in this trinity hails from Italy and is called Prosecco. Typically the wine comes from the village of Prosecco close to the north eastern city of Trieste. Predominantly made with Glera grapes, historically known as Prosecco grapes, it may also contain grapes of other varieties including Verdiso, Bianchetta, Trevigiana or Perera.

I confess to being fond of Prosecco. It is usually light yellow in colour and has a wonderfully crisp, fresh and predominantly citrus flavour. It characteristically stops forming bubbles soon after it is poured. For a modestly priced bottle of sparkling wine, Prosecco is on a par with many Cavas. However, I would argue most Champagnes and some better quality Cavas are superior. Additionally, it does make an excellent sparkling cocktail when accompanied by Aperol! Geographically protected by a method similar to Champagne and Cava, the wine rarely ferments in the bottle and is usually drunk young.


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