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How do bubbles get in Cava and Champagne?

Fun, festivities and fizz

(First published in Living Spain magazine)

Better than Champagne some say, Spanish bubbly also lends itself to some stunning cocktails. Try Cava for life, not just for Christmas

The first bottle of Cava, a type of white sparkling wine mainly produced in Catalunya, was created and commercialised in Spain in 1872. But I don't suppose people who favoured the tipple in those days gave much thought to creating a miscellany of cool and colourful concoctions with it, and I don't suppose many people these days who drink Cava in preference to its more expensive counterpart (Champagne) give an awful lot of thought to its history, wonder about its production or, indeed, how the very bubbles that tantalise their taste buds actually get into the bottle.

The answer lies in the soil as they say - in the green valleys and rolling hills of the Penedès region of Catalunya in north east Spain, known as 'Cava country', where around 95% of Cava comes from. The land is good and has been home to vineyards since the Greeks settled there in ancient times; it's protected by the Montserrat hills from northern winds coming from the Pyrenees mountains, and the region's stable and temperate Mediterranean climate is perfect for producing bountiful crops of fruit - ideal for the production of Cava. Cava - a word derived from the Catalan word for bodega or cellar - is Spain's traditional sparkling wine; it's crisp, fruity, has long-lasting bubbles, and is considered softer with riper fruit flavours that Champagne itself.

Just imagine the sensation... cool and tingling on your tongue - golden and crystal clear to behold; bubbly and sparkling in your flute. Mmmm! Now savour the taste... exceptional taken neat, interesting with food... and quirky mixed. Try it with a hint of lime or raspberry; maybe a splash of blackcurrant, a shot of vodka or tot of Pimms; perhaps with fruit, a liqueur, or a measure of Guinness. Garnish with a twist of lime, a wedge of peach, a sprig of coriander, pomegranate seeds or brandy-soaked sultanas... even a bitters-soaked sugar cube. It's just so versatile, so bubbly, so delectable... and so very Spanish. It's Cava... and it's surely the country's finest brew.

Not permitted to be referred to as Spanish Champagne since it was decided in the 1950s that the name 'Champagne' belonged only to that region in France, it took some 20 years before the name 'Cava' eventually became established. And, although the production method used is exactly the same as for Champagne, the 'methode Champenoise', for the same reason the word Champenoise cannot be used, so the procedure in Spain is called the 'traditional method'.

Apart from the method name and the fact that good Champagne is considerably more costly than excellent Spanish Cava, the key difference between the two is the acidity - Cava, warm climate fizz, is considered softer and is nowhere near as high in acidity as cold climate fizz - the reason why some Champagnes can age for so much longer. But the key advantage as far as many consumers are concerned, is that Cava doesn't cause grief in the head department - often caused by over-sulphuring. Although all wines do need to be 'kept together' with sulphur-dioxide to preserve the wine and stop it from oxidising, just a little squish is preferable; and as for the few organic wines that don't contain it... they do tend to fall apart.

In the mid-1800s, Josep Raventós - whose family owns the award-winning Cava-producing giant of Codorníu which sells 3.5 million cases worldwide each year - fell on his feet when he made the decision to return to Catalunya after learning how to make Champagne in France. He tried to produce, using local grape varieties, the distinctive sparkling wine he discovered such a success while he was travelling in France. He succeeded, and the first bottle of Spanish Cava was commercialised in 1872.

The Raventós family had married into the Codorníu family in 1659, both renowned wine-making families, but the family's involvement in viticulture went back even further - the earliest records found being the 1551 Will of Jaume Codorníu in which he bequeathed presses, barrels, vats and cellars to his heirs. The real visionary of this company, though, was Josep's son Manuel who was responsible for commissioning the exceptional Puig i Cadafalch designed buildings as well as 18.6 miles/30 kilometres of back-to-back underground cellars. These cover five floors at the Codorníu winery at Sant Sadurni d'Anoia (25 miles/40 kilometres to the southwest of Barcelona) where there is a museum, poster exhibition, and a family portrait sporting four bullet holes: a reminder of the 1936-1939 civil war when anarchists were searching (unsuccessfully) for the Codorníu family.

A tour of Codorníu winery, a popular tourist attraction and whose Cava is the Number 1 brand in Spain by volume and value, shows how Cava is made - pressing, first fermentation, blending, second fermentation, riddling (twisting and turning) and disgorging. After first fermentation in stainless steel tanks, clarification and filtration by the cavista (cellar-man), and blending different wines which have been fermented separately, yeast and cane sugar is added. Second fermentation in the bottle takes about three months, although the wine stays in the bottle for an additional minimum nine months; the yeast-sugar mix causes fermentation and natural carbon dioxide to be released into the wine... herewith the bubbles.

Codorníu Cava is usually aged 15-18 months, and some up to four years; the bottles are 'riddled' over this ageing period until all sediments collect in the bottle neck when, neck down, they are disgorged by being dipped into a very cold brine solution to freeze the neck, then turned upright. The pressure immediately releases a temporary cap as well as the frozen yeast; reserve wine is used to top up the bottles which arre then corked and labelled... and soon heading for a supermarket or wine merchant near you.

Not just a glass of celebratory fizz, Cava can be drunk with some classic Spanish dishes. Check out How and When >>

Try these winning combinations to add a bit of extra fizz to festivities. Check out Cava Cocktails >>

For more information on Cordorníu, visit www.codorniu.es.

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Fresco at Codorniu winery

Catalunya vineyard

Checking Cava

Puig i Cadafalch designed building

Codorniu winery gardens

Vineyard Spain

Codorniu sparkling wine

Entrance to Codorniu winery


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