Cava or Champagne?

In the November edition of Decanter there is an article signed by Andrew Jefford that has stirred a degree of debate in the Cava world. Jefford, a reputed wine journalist (in fact the 2010 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the year), writes under the somewhat jaded title of “Homage to Catalonia” a well reasoned praise of Cava, or, rather, the potential of Cava when quality and not price is the driving factor both in the winemaker and consumer mind.

His main point is that the critical difference between Champagne and Cava is not grape varieties, or the production method (which is the same for both, unlike Prosecco and most of Sekt, that use the Charmat large tank method), but lies in the opposed climates.

The cool climate in Champagne produces barely ripe grapes that will give a highly acid base wine that sugar, long ageing in contact with lees and skilful expedition liquor design complement to render one of the world’s outstanding wines.

In contrast, warmer climate allows grapes to ripen to a less aggressive acidity and higher sugar content that enable producers to avoid any sugar addition, other than for secondary fermentation, in most of the top quality Cavas and still offer a nose, different from Champagne, but equally attractive.

He humbly pleads guilty of not knowing a handful of smaller producers that he visited last summer, which showed him the real potential of Cava. He proposes Cava as an equal competitor to Champagne and reasons that sparkling wines of other warmer regions may wisely model themselves on Cava rather than Champagne.

He blames British supermarkets for obscuring these wineries from the general view; I would also finger bigger Cava companies that dominate exports based on a low price strategy.

I have browsed through the webs of two of Britain’s more conspicuous supermarket chains to assess differences between Champagne and Cava, with telling results.

At Tesco, Cava offerings (excluding the Tesco brand) ranged from £3.05 to £6.50; 12 bottles from 4 big companies. Champagne: from £9.97 to £125.00; 37 bottles from 19 companies. Additionally, in the Fine Wines section 7 more champagne bottles, from £36.00 to £145.00, were available. Clearly, two different niches with no overlap.

At Sainsbury’s, Cava from £8.99 to £11.99: only 3 bottles and all from 2 big wineries. Champagne? From £14.99 to £43.99. Again no overlap.

This is, for me, the great success of Champagne (and to a similar degree, of other French wines): there is Champagne, the only and one,... and there is a riff-raff of substandard imitators that can only compete for the low price range substitution. For great occasions, Champagne; for everyday use, the rest. This is the reading, even in Catalonia: I have heard from people, posh or otherwise, that “Cava is nice, but Champagne is the real thing!” or “Cava is too acid and gives me heartburn; Champagne does not”. Further questions often show that their experience is restricted to cheap Cava and have never heard of the high quality products.

Does all this mean that Cava is better than Champagne and should sit on the throne? Certainly not. I only ask to wine lovers to try and know Cava better, striving to unearth bottles from the smaller wineries (see a previous post or the Internet addresses below) and approach them from an unprejudiced standpoint, not comparing them to Champagne.

Imagine tasting fine Burgundy for the first time after a lifetime of avid Bordeaux consumption. Is one better than the other? No, they are different, both excellent and only personal preference should matter. It is nice to know that somebody like Jefford, prestigious and obviously not prejudiced against Champagne (see his 2010 prize) shares this view.

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