IS CHAMPAGNE LOSING ITS SPARKLE?
Or is it that Cava is now of such exceptional quality that it’s leaving its illustrious neighbour floundering in its wake, its head just above water clinging onto the dubious lifebelt of its ‘prestige’?
Firstly some background. In the UK, in preparation for opening my first restaurant, I started (and successfully completed) the Certificate Course of the Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), in an effort to secure an advantage over restaurants in the area where I was about to open. There were some good ones, but the common denominator was that they little (nothing?) about the wines on their list, and indeed wine in general. Scandalous, really, when one considers their duty of ‘care’ for their clients and even more so when thinking of the contribution that their wines made to their profits! Remember the horrendous mark-ups in the UK?
Of course, we studied Sparkling Wines with the WSET, starting, of course, with Champagne, and being honest, not spending much time on any other sparkling wine production! (NB this was 25+ years ago – it’s far more comprehensive these days). Now, as any wine person will tell you, one of the best advantages of thirsting for wine knowledge is that one has to drink, sorry, taste, a lot! One’s hard drive needs a continuous stream of examples that to taste in order to acquire knowledge and form opinions.
I therefore tasted sparkling wines from other regions of France, from Spain, including, but not exclusively Cava, from New Zealand, Australia, Germany and California. [Interestingly, considering the Prosecco tsunami that is so prevalent in the UK nowadays (why?!), I didn’t taste any of the P-word – it simply wasn’t really available then!]. I also tasted plenty of other Champagnes too, mostly Non Vintage (NV), but also Vintage and top Cuvees, including, for example Dom Pérignon and other really excellent, though very expensive, top quality Champagnes.
In my restaurant (which was soon to be joined by another – those were the days!) I settled for an NZ Fizz (what a shame I can’t now remember its name) and a Champagne, H. Blinn, which, although of far lesser fame, was for me superior to the ubiquitous Möet, found on every other restaurant list in the area. (You have to hand it to the Möet Chandon marketing team!).
It was this initial sustained tasting that established in me an insatiable desire for quality fizz and, I like to believe, at least a little knowledge and expertise. It’s an interest of mine still, and I’ve certainly been able to satisfy my thirst for knowledge (and to quench my thirst) here in Spain.
It seems that I had accrued sufficient knowledge and tasting ability to have been invited to join the Spanish Panel of the International Wine & Spirits Competition several years ago, judging still wines as well as Sparkling Wines. Plus I have also been invited to judge for a few years now the 50 Great Cavas and the 50 Great Sparkling Wines of the World competitions. Indeed I’ve just returned from the latter.
It is really these recent competitions, along with having the extremely good fortune of having great, and generous friends who have been plying us with Champagne recently, that have inspired me to write this article, and to conclude that *Reserva and Gran Reserva Cava is better than NV Champagne!
Now, I’m quite sure that there are many readers who will say yes, they like Cava, but it has to be an option only if there is no Champagne. I’m also sure that some of that group will fully mean that, when tasting Champagne against Cava. However, and I’m neither preaching nor criticising here, I’m equally certain that there will be those who pay more attention to the Champagne hype than to their senses of smell, taste and touch (all three, crucial to wine appreciation, along with sight, and to a point, hearing)!
Many of us rely on the ‘fake news’, to put it in common parlance, of pre-conceived ideas, formed by a long and sustained brainwashing from the Champagne promotional machine. It’s understandable, and I’m certainly not pointing the admonishing finger here – there are vast sums of money being spent on promoting the ‘prestige’ of Champagne. After a while, we begin to believe it!
However when in Champagne a couple of years ago I learned that in fact everything is geared, mostly completely falsely, to maintaining this notion of prestige. Champagne is always sold at deliberately inflated prices! The land in Champagne is extremely expensive, far more so than it should be. Champagne grapes are the most expensive in the world. It’s all inflated in order to make consumers think that the finished product is the best!
Did you notice the *? Well, it’s there for a reason. Readers might accuse me of not comparing like for like – Reserva and Gra Reserva against Non Vintage Champagne. To a point I agree, however, if, instead, we compare prices then you’ll see what I mean. To me there is no doubt that these two styles of Cava represent far superior value for money – and definitely more flavours, aromas, presence and depth!