Cava has an image problem. The vast majority of bottles sort in the UK and Ireland are mass-produced, by-the-numbers plonk. Even though it’s made by the more expensive – and generally higher quality – traditional method, Cava is generally seen as being in the same “party-drink” class as Prosecco. To be honest, neither cheap Prosecco nor cheap Cava float my boat.
Serious Cava is getting some serious attention at the moment thanks to the Cava de Paraje single vineyard classifications, and hopefully that will be extended and filter down in time. Until then, the mid market seems to be somewhat neglected – where is the good Cava that doesn’t cost the earth?
Here are a couple I tried recently which are well worth trying:
Perelada Cava Brut Reserva NV (11.5%, 8.0g/L RS, RRP €20 at The Corkscrew , Jus de Vine, The Hole in the Wall)
Perhaps any Catalan-speaking readers might be able to tell me if the similarity in spelling between the town of Perelada (near Girona) and the Cava grape Parellada is linked or just a coincidence? This is a blend of the three traditional Cava varieties, being 45% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeu and 25% Parellada. The second fermentation in bottle is for 15 months which is the minimum for non vintage Champagne but significantly longer than the nine month minimum for non vintage Cava.
This is quite a fresh style of Cava, with a fairly low 8g/L of residual sugar. There’s a little influence from the time on the lees but it’s much more about the tangy apple and citrus fruit.
Disclosure: this bottle was kindly given as a sample
Llopart Cava Brut Reserva 2014 (11.5%, 8.0g/L RS, RRP €30 at The Corkscrew, Mitchell & Son, Redmonds)
This is producer Llopart’s standard bottle and is actually fairly similar to the Perelada above in terms of residual sugar and blend – it consists of 40% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeu and 30% Parellada. The time on lees is given as 18 months minimum but, to my palate, this has spent quite a bit more than the minimum; it has lots of biscuity notes which are generally the sign of a good Champagne. This is a classy Cava which would be a better choice than many Champagnes!
Wine is my passion and my favourite drink, but if I fancy a change now and again it’s cider that I took to (beer no longer gets a look in due to my wheat intolerance). Cider actually has quite a lot in common with wine as it’s made from the fermented juice of an annually harvested fruit.
So what better that a cider made by winemakers?
With a nod to Ireland’s Simon Tyrrell, here is one of the finest – and most vinous – ciders I have ever tasted, from the winemaking team at Hush Heath Estate in Kent. The orchard was replanted 20 years ago around the time of the birth of the owners’ son Jake, and so it eventually took on his name.
The cider is made from a blend of Cox (aka Cox’s Orange Pippin), Bramley and Egremont Russet apples, with a little essence of strawberries & blackberries added. Do not think, however, that this is a sickly sweet syrupy concoction like some ciders on the market – it’s elegant and light, and is great option for the dinner table.
Interestingly, secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle – just like traditional method sparkling wine – which makes it naturally sparkling rather than carbonation. Those with keen eyes might notice that it is fairly strong in alcohol for a cider at 7.5%, but it doesn’t taste that strong at all – the sign of a well-balanced wine cider!
Crisp and clean, with a touch of fruit sweetness but fairly dry overall. Delicious! Drink from a large wine glass.
A cursory search through my blog reveals that Blanc de Blancs is one of the wine styles I write about very frequently – mainly because I really like it as a style, and if there’s a bottle shown at a trade tasting I will make a beeline for it.
So when Mike over at Please Bring Me My Wine asked for suggestions beginning with B for New Wine This Week #53, I naturally piped up with Blanc de Blancs – and would you believe it, other voters on the poll (narrowly) agreed with me.
So a few important questions to be answered – what exactly is it? why do I like it? and what should a neophyte try?
What The Heck Is a Blanc de Blancs?
In my mind a true Blanc de Blancs is a white wine made with white grapes where there is a possibility that black grapes could also have been used. The vast majority are traditional method sparklers such as Champagne:
But before we dive into sparkling, there is a much less well known version; if you’re a real Alsace geek like me then you might think of different Pinots being used in white wine, and as long as the juice is taken off the skins quickly, even black grapes can be part of the blend. If it’s just from white Pinot grapes – i.e. Pinot Blanc – then it can be labelled as a Blanc de Blancs:
So after that small detour, let’s get back onto the main road.
Champagne was the region that popularised the term, and there it usually means a white fizz made from just Chardonnay without any juice from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are some very small plantings of other grapes in Champagne that could go into a Blanc de Blancs, but they are rare indeed.
In other parts of France where traditional method Crémant is made, popular local grapes can be used to make a Blanc de Blancs, especially if they are high in acidity – Chenin Blanc in the Loire, Sauvignon in Bordeaux, Pinot Blanc in Alsace.
A fact often overlooked is that Chardonnay is sometimes permitted in the AOP rules for a fizz when it’s not allowed in the local still wine – sometimes even a 100% varietal Chardonnay such as this Crémant d’Alsace:
Other traditional method sparkling wine is often made with the main three Champagne grapes, whether Tasmania, Marlborough, California or southern England.
Why Do I Like It?
When it’s young, it’s fresh, floral and citrusy, and can be on the simple side. But there’s nothing wrong with that – the perfect aperitif.
The best examples, particularly from the Côte des Blancs’ Grand Cru villages, have a haunting purity about them.
With extended lees ageing it takes on biscuit and brioche characters; while this is obviously true for other sparklers, Blanc de Blancs seem to be more coherent and integrated.
And of course many of the long-lived prestige cuvées are Blanc de Blancs – think of Charles Heidsieck’s Cuvée des Millénaires, Salon Le Mesnil, Krug Clos du Mesnil, and so on.
Do Try This At Home
If you see any of the wines above in the shop, then snap them up!
I also heartily endorse the Sainsbury’s Non Vintage Champagne Blanc de Blancs that Mike recommended on his site. If you’re lucky you might see it on promotion when it can be ridiculously good value for money.
Some other Blankety Blanks that I’ve really enjoyed:
Clover Hill Sparkling 2003 (O’Briens, €31.99)
Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Aldi, €26.99, also covered here)
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (£44.98, Majestic)
Wiston Estate, Blanc de Blancs NV (Le Caveau, €47.70, also covered here)
Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009 (James Nicholson Wine, £31.95 / €46.99, also covered here)
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007 (Berry Bros, £35.95, also covered here)
Now get supping!
Also check out Confessions of a Wine Geek’s post here
Despite not making a personal trip to Champagne in 2014, it was an excellent year for fizz, rounded off by a big fizz tasting on New Year’s Eve.
During the year I observed that nearly all retailers in Ireland have very good Champagne and sparkling wine on their shelves, whether from a recognised big producer or not.
More and more countries are now making top rate sparklers to satisfy the increased international demand for bubbles: old favourite Cloudy Bay Pelorus from New Zealand was joined by Roederer Estate Quartet from the USA and Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante from Portugal.
Despite my intentions at the beginning of the year, I didn’t taste any excellent Cava during 2014 and Franciacorta remains an enigma – more tasting needed on both fronts! I also hear of sparkling Arneis from north west Italy which I will endeavour to seek out.
So what were the hits in 2014? As you will see, I tried some outstanding new (and established) English sparkling wine plus some excellent Champagnes.
10. Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Just like that crappy advert for Shake n’ Vac from the 80s, this English fizz really puts the freshness back! As hinted at by the term “Classic Cuvée, this is made with the three main Champagne grapes. As the blend is 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier it has a fresh and lively aspect to it – a great start to a party!
I would be interested to taste the same bottle with a bit of age to see how it develops.
9. Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012
Or to give it its full name Nino Franco Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG. If that sounds a mouthful, it is – but in a good way. I was keen to try it at the James Nicholson tasting after hearing it had been recognised by Mr Fizz himself, Tom Stevenson.
As I often say, when trying most Prosecco one glass is enough for me, a second means a really good wine – well this is “give me the bottle and I’ll finish it on my own” good. In case that wasn’t quite obvious enough – I really like it!
This single vineyard bubbly is made by the Charmat method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character. It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.
8. Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV
Several people who like Champagne but aren’t that well-acquainted with English sparkling wine have been surprised by the proportion of English fizz that has a vintage, i.e. made from grapes harvested in a single year. Given the vagaries of the English climate – even more unreliable than that of northern France – you might expect many more non vintage wines where reserve wines have been used to smooth out less than perfect years.
I’m not sure why this is the case – it could be that so many English wineries are new and haven’t had the time or spare cash to lay down lots of reserve wines – but here’s an exception to the norm.
Irishman Dermot Sugrue has done a wonderful job with the Wiston Rosé, but the combination of creamy bubbles, refreshing lemon sherbet and hints of tropical fruit blew me away. If you like your fizz and you haven’t tried this yet, sort it out!
7. Leon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
As I mentioned in the introduction, the big retailers in Ireland have put a lot of effort into their house Champagnes as there were some very creditable bottles tasted this year.
Among the best were Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (from Molloys), Bissinger Premium Cuvée Brut NV (from Lidl) and Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve NV (from O’Briens).
However, my favourite – and one that exceeded my expectations of a house Champagne – is Aldi’s Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006. From the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay has spent half a decade on the lees giving it lovely brioche character supporting refreshing lemon.
6. Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
First, an admission: on meeting a well-presented chap at the James Nicholson tasting with the hand-written name badge “Charlie Holland-Gusbourne” I leapt to the conclusion that this was an English toff with a double barrelled-name showing the fruits of his ancestral estate. Prior research or even just paying attention would have revealed that Charlie Holland is the award-winning winemaker fromGusbourne. I’m still blushing.
Anyway, trying Gusbourne’s wines for the first time impressed me, and the Blanc de Blancs was my overall favourite. Fairly young still but with three years minimum on the lees behind it, this will continue to improve and add layers of complexity over the coming years. 2009 was an excellent vintage in England!
5. Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This is a non-vintage, but as a “prestige cuvée” it deserves the more fitting moniker “multi-vintage” as used by Krug for their Grande Cuvée, for example. I took this as an interloper to Morgan Vanderkamer’s Grower Champagne tasting and it was tricky to guess (almost) blind
It had much more body and texture than usual for a Blanc de Blancs. But rather than maturing base wines in oak, it’s the extended ageing on the lees (five years minimum) and the excellent fruit that give the oomph. Denis Varnier eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible.
The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who moved on from “just” growing grapes to being a fully-fledged Champagne producer when already in his 50s.
4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
I had three opportunities to taste Nyetimber’s “best vintage yet” over the course of 2014.
Firstly with the nice people of Liberty where it showed well.
In the middle of the year I took my wife to Ely Wine Bar for her birthday. After a few bubbles at home she wasn’t in the mood for any more when we arrived at Ely, but she changed her mind when she saw Nyetimber on the list.
Then finally I popped a bottle on New Year’s Eve – and it was better than ever! Perhaps the bottle on my wife’s birthday hadn’t really shone as much as it should have done after a heavyweight rosé Champagne (so heavyweight that I put it in my Top 10 Reds of the year!) But in a more sympathetic context it was magnificent, and the Pinot really shone through.
3. Dom Pérignon 1995
You know how when you’re having a ball of a time at a party, and you open a bottle that, in a more sober frame of mind, you might have saved for a special or at least contemplative occasion? If you’ve been there, did it feel like a waste?
Sometimes, it’s not a waste! Thus it was when I popped my oldest bottle of Dom Pérignon, from the excellent vintage of 1995 – it was just sumptuous!
As part of the drinks group Moët-Hennessey (itself part of luxury goods group LVMH), Moët et Chandon NV is much more about marketing than wine quality. Unfortunately, the Moët vintage was also a disappointment this year. But the prestige cuvée is still the real deal, in my opinion, despite the large quantities produced.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that even Champagne has to be kept until the right age and the right moment – whenever that comes – and then it can be a transcendental experience.
2. Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 1999 (Magnum)
This modest co-operative-produced Champagne was a delight over Christmas (I think I had a magnum to myself on Christmas morning) and the star of the night at the NYE Glasnevin Fizz Fest.
As you might gather from the name, it’s another excellent aged Blanc de Blancs from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, one of the top few villages for Chardonnay in Champagne. It has the trademark yeasty, bready characters on the nose., followed by a sumptuous palate of citrus and soft stone fruit. Just delicious.
1. Charles Heidsieck Cuvée des Millénaires 1995
Even in the context of all the excellent sparkling wine I tried in 2014, there was only ever going to be one winner for me.
The Charles NV is pretty good, but this is on another level entirely. Almost two decades maturing in the cellar has brought aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts and candied fruit in addition to refreshing citrus. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel. It’s time to sell a kidney and buy a case.