by Chef Mark Tafoya
No one can dispute the global dominance and reputation of true Champagne from France. The classic Méthode Champenoise accounts for some of the best wines in the world. There are also sparkling wines produced in other parts of the world using the French method, and American, Chilean, and Australian producers have been producing them for the past several decades. While most call themselves sparkling wines, some unscrupulous (mostly American) producers actually call their wines Champagne.
However, in other parts of Europe, home-grown sparkling wines are indeed produced, and they have their own unique characteristics. The Spanish have Cava, The Italians Prosecco and Spumante, and the Germans Sekt. Each has distinct methods for production, as well as grapes native to its respective country.
While Champagne was being produced in France from the Seventeenth Century onward, the first bottles of Spanish Cava were produced in the Northeast of Spain in the 1870s. In 1872, Josep Raventos, a Catalan vintner of the house of Codorniu, succeeded in creating the first Cava. Raventos had traveled throughout Europe and seen the popularity of Champagne, and wondered if he could adapt his family’s still wines into sparklers. Many winemakers in Spain had attempted to copy the French method, but due to differences in climate, grapes, bottles and corks, all such attempts had failed. Raventos was a member of a group known as the “Seven Creek Sages,” who were all devoted to duplicating the Champagne method.
Champagne is generally made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes (and sometimes blended with Pinot Meunier grapes) whereas Cava uses Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada grapes, which are specific to Catalunya. Cava tends to be very dry, and is described as lemony, light, white, fruity, and perfumed. Cava Rosado, or Rosé, is made from the red Garnacha and Monastrell grapes.
For the process of removido (remuage in the Champenoise method), in which the sediment is slowly coaxed down into the neck of the bottle, the Cava industry uses a device known as the Girasol, or sunflower. It’s a large rocking chair-like device onto which an entire pallet of wine can be attached, and which is rocked back and forth twice a day to encourage the descent of the sediment.
Like the DOC designation held by the Champagne region in France, Spain has a dénominacion de origen, which requires that all wines labeled as Cava be produced within specific regions. Cava was first produced in the Penedès area of Catalunya, about 40 km west of Barcelona, but Cava may also come from Aragon, La Rioja, Navarra and the Pais Vasco, all in the northeast of Spain.
Of all the Cava wines, Americans are most familiar with Freixenet, an enormously popular bubbly. Freixenet is the major producer of Cava, and accounts for more than sixty percent of total production. Today’s Cavas are fresh and lively, yet more sophisticated than those of the past, and are recognized for their value, especially when compared to French Champagnes of comparable quality.
Not to be outdone, of course, the Italians have their own sparkling wine. Around the same time that Raventos mastered his first Cava, the process for the production of Prosecco was developed in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. Made from the Prosecco grape native to the Conegliano and Valdobbiadene DOC areas, this bubbly is bright straw-colored, lemony, and light, with fruity taste. Many drinkers note tones of melon, honey, and almonds, and think of Prosecco as an ideal summer wine.
The Prosecco of old was very low in fizz and high in sweetness, but nowadays it tends to follow the taste of Champagnes, drier and more bubbly. There are different Prosecco wines with differing levels of fizz: Tranquillo (still), Frizante (semi-sparkling), and the mainstay, Spumante (sparkling wine).
Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is made using the Charmat method, in which the second fermentation is done in pressurized tanks rather than in the bottle. This shortens the fermentation time and keeps the final product light and fresh. The wine can generally be released to the market within thirty to forty days. This is much shorter than for the Méthode Champenoise.
Venetians are very proud of the bubbly of their native region, and enjoy it as an apperitivo on its own, or combined with peach juice to make the famous Bellini cocktail. Like Cava, Prosecco is generally much more affordable than its French counterparts, and is starting to become more popular in the United States.
Although Germany produces much less sparkling wine than its European neighbors, it too has its own type: Deutscher Sekt, made exclusively with grapes grown in Germany. After the treaty of Versailles gave exclusivity to France in calling its sparkling wine Champagne, German bubbly was given this name. Like the DOC or DO regions in other European countries, Germany has b.A. regions, or bestimmte Anbaugebiete. In the case of Sekt, it is controlled as Qualitätsschaumweine b.A, or quality sparkling wine from specified regions. Sekt is usually less alcoholic than French Champagne.
Whichever sparkling wine you prefer, they all are good choices for a toast on a special occasion. We also encourage you to try the different varieties along with the food of their native regions. Wine lovers often speak of terroir, or the particular qualities imparted to a wine from the specific land and climate conditions of its growing area, and this notion of terroir applies as well in microregional cuisine. What better way to celebrate Catalan tapas de calamares or pulpo than with a fine Cava from the northeast of Spain, or a fine Venetian anguille in umido than with a light, fruity Prosecco? I can think of no better way to develop a remarkable palate.
Mark Tafoya is the Executive Chef of the Gilded Fork, and the chef/owner of ReMARKable Palate Personal Chef Service in New York, NY. His website, food blog, and podcast can be found at www.ReMARKablePalate.com.