The best grape varieties for Spanish sparkling wines: Richard Esling, October 13
Appreciation of good quality sparkling wine appears to be gaining ground all around the globe.
Once reserved for high days and holidays, popping the cork on a decent bottle of fizz has now become more commonplace for a mid-week tipple, or to pair with a delicious meal either out or in. Taking their cue from Champagne, recognised the world over as king of all sparkling wines, the best from other regions and other countries are made by the same method, that is with the secondary fermentation in the bottle.
This method is called the ‘traditional method’ and the interaction of the wine with the yeasty deposit, or lees, in the bottle, gives added layers of flavour and complexity to the finished wine. Recognising the huge success of Champagne, many producers in other countries use the same grape varieties, that is pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. From South Australia to Sussex these grape varieties make first class sparklers when grown in the correct climatic conditions and then handled by a competent winemaker.
However, by no means all top-quality sparkling wines use the Champagne grape varieties, some producers or regions, opting for varieties more suited to the local conditions of terroir and above all, climate. Such is the case for the production of cava in southern Spain, where local grape varieties seldom seen outside the region, are used to great effect. The main three grape varieties for cava – all of which is made by the traditional method – are xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada, all of which are better adapted to the Mediterranean climate than the varieties grown for Champagne.
As with the three varieties for Champagne, each variety contributes essential characteristics to the finished wine. Xarel-lo is great for body and structure, helping with longer ageing which creates more complexity. Macabeo gives balance of fruit and elegance, often being the dominant variety in the blend. Parellada, an ancient variety, gives floral notes, delicacy and freshness. These three are the traditional varieties of cava from the Penedès region of Spain, the home of cava.
The origins of cava in Catalonia go back to 1872, but it only became recognised as a DO (Denominacion de Origen) in 1986, when three quality levels were introduced. Normal cava has to spend a minimum of nine months on the lees, whereas reserva must spend 18 months and gran reserva a minimum of 30 months. These latter wines are among the highest expressions of quality of cava wines with great depth of flavour, complexity and finesse.
The family business of Sumarroca uses only its own estate grown grapes and only produces reserva and gran reserva wines from organic certified vineyards. Sumarroca Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2017 is a fabulous quality world-class sparkling wine with over three years bottle ageing and zero dosage, giving a very dry, complex, elegant wine. Astonishingly good value at around £16 per bottle.
Similarly priced is Roger Goulart Gran Reserva Brut 2015 with a slightly higher, but still low, dosage of 5g/l. This wine has five years on the lees, being bottled in 2016 and disgorged in March 2021. Amazing depth of flavour, with savoury, toasty aromas and flavours and a beautiful golden colour.
Both wines available from specialist shops and online.
Richard Esling is a wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. He runs agency and consultancy WineWyse, is founder and principal of Sussex Wine Academy and is chairman of Arundel Wine Society