Cava is Spain's most dynamic wine export, accounting for half of all sparkling wine sales worldwide, excluding Champagne. Yet despite its international success and the serious way in which the finer wines are made in the Penedes hills, Cava is stuck with a cheap and cheerful image. Eighty per cent of the market in Britain is in the hands of the supermarkets, so quality can vary from the dismal - “burnt earth in a glass”, as one wag put it – to the truly delicious, pitched at realistic prices for mellow wines of decent maturity. Where to look?
Sainsburys has a particularly astute selection of sparkling wines: their Cavas regularly come from market leaders like Codorniu and Freixenet which provide consistent quality and value, aided by the supermarket's considerable purchasing power. Their Taste the Difference Cava 2006 (£9.99) is one of the best own-label sparklers on the market – it gets a minimum cellaring of 12 months rather than the statutory 9 months, and loaded with Chardonnay (80 per cent) it's attuned to the taste of the modern consumer who might prefer freshness to strong 'hot country' flavours. For a small saving, Sainsbury's also sell the Cuvée Raventós Brut and Pinot Noir Brut, both from Codorniu (£8.99) and very good they are
Across the road from Codorniu, another member of that renowned house's founding family, Don Manuel Raventós runs a very different, breakaway operation in a strikingly beautiful modern winery fronted by an ancient oak tree. Run like a Bordeaux chateau, all the grapes for Raventós i Blanc Cava come from the estate's own 90 hectares of vineyards; no fruit is bought in. Driving us through the hilly vineyards in his old beloved Land Rover (circa 1970), Don Manuel had discarded his smart jacket and tie, to show us with obvious pride his 70-year-old Xarel.lo vines – the heartbeat of great Cava – which deliver concentrated, complex, but never heavy flavours to the finished wines. The Raventós range available through the Waterloo Wine Company (+44 20 7403 7967 email@example.com) starts with the pure lightly-aged 2005 Raventos i Blanc Brut (£8.10), fresh and crisp, an excellent aperitif. The 2002 Elisabet Raventós is altogether more serious. Deeper gold in colour, rich and vinous, it has the yeasty leesy flavour of real maturity – great with “Bull” the local Catalan pork pâté with inserts of foie gras. The top of the range 2000 Selection Manuel Raventós Grand Reserva Personel (£20.64) has the finesse of fine vintage Champagne at a saving of at least 50 percent on cost.
Gramona is the other top name in San Saturni d'Anoia, an historic Cava bodega that has a mythical reputation among Catalan and Castilian wine collectors. Gramona is also the most innovative producer in the region, growing 20 different grape varieties and making 12 different Cavas and a further dozen still wines. Winemaker Jaume Gramona studied wine science at Dijon university in Burgundy, so he has an open minded, sophisticated attitude towards his grapes. Jaume is happy to use both Catalan and French varieties. The only yardstick is which variety works best in a particular part of his 29 hectares of vineyards, the highest in Penedes. With the cool breezes coming down from the Montserrat Sierra, this is ideal territory for juicy, vibrant Pinot Noir and a fabulous base for the best pink Cava of all – and young with it. By contrast, the Gramona Col.leccio d'Art, 100% Chardonnay, from the 1996 and 1997 vintages shows what complexities of flavours can be achieved with a dozen years in bottle. And the old traditions are also splendidly maintained in the 2002 Gramona Celler Batlle, a supreme expression of aged Xarel.lo.
At the moment, Gramona has no importer in the United Kingdom. But if you're on holiday in or near Barcelona this summer, take the 40 minute drive to San Saturni, where the house is happy to welcome visitors. The fascinating tour to see how these hand-crafted wines are made is worth every cent of the 20 euro entrance charge. And you can buy one of these treasures on site. Ring or mail Gramona to arrange a visit Tel +34 93-891.01.13 Or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Afterwards there's an excellent restaurant round the corner serving roast duck to die for.