Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cava: Spain's bubbly answer

Cava production, driven largely by the wine's straightforward flavors and perceived value, exceeds 200,000,000 bottles annually, making it second only to Champagne in volume terms.  In this post I will examine the region, its wine, and the issues it confronts.

Prior to Spain's entry into the EU, its sparkling wine was called Champán or Champaña. With the EU regulation that all sparkling wines called Champagne has to originate from the Champagne region of France, the Spanish sparkling was renamed Cava, a reference to the place -- caves-- where the early wines were stored for aging.  Cava was granted DO designation in 1986 on Spain's entry into the EU.

Cava is produced in 159 municipalities spread across Catalonia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, and Valencia but fully 95% of that production originates in Catalonia's Penedès, a wine region located about 40 kilometers southwest of Barcelona.

Penedès is surrounded by the Monserrat range which provides a protective barrier from the heat and humidity of the Mediterranean as well as the cold winds -- levanter -- from the north and east. The climate is Mediterranean with annual temperatures averaging 15.5℃ (60℉) across the region but with slightly differing micro-climates within its three sub-zones. In Baix Penedès, the area closest to the coastline, elevation ranges between 0 and 250 meters and the temperature is milder, thanks to its proximity to the sea. In Penedès Superior -- 500 - 800 meters elevation -- there is greater rainfall than in the companion zones and a greater differential between maximum and minimum temperatures. Penedès Central (250 - 500 meters) experiences a mix of the Superior and Baix microclimates.


The soil in the Penedès region is a mix of limestone, sand, and clay with a chalky top layer atop a layer of clay which in turn overlays a rocky base.

While the Méthode Champenoise is utilized in the production of Cava, the traditional Champagne grapes, if used at all, are bit players in this drama.  The prime varieties used in Cava are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda but small amounts of Chardonnay, Malvasia, Pinot Noir, Trepat, Red Grenache, or Monastrell can be used in the blend. Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada are grown in both Baix and Central Penedès but the highest-quality Parellada grapes are grown in Penedès Superior.


In order to be called Cava, the sparkling wine made in the region has to be aged a minimum of 9 months before being taken to market.  Many producers age their wines for 2 to 4 years in order to provide wines with more character.  To be classified as Gran Reserva, a Cava has to be aged for at least 30 months.

Cava DO can be either white or rosé styled as follows:
  • Brut Nature -- 0 to 3 g/l
  • Extra Brut -- 3 to 6 g/l
  • Brut -- 6 to 12 g/l
  • Extra Dry -- 12 to 17 g/l
  • Dry -- 17 to 32 g/l
  • Semi-Dry -- 32 to 50 g/l
  • Dulce -- > 50 g/l.

The attractiveness of Cava is tied to its perception as a "crisp, fruity, well-balanced" sparkling wine with straightforward flavors which can be acquired at prices well below the cost of Champagne. For example, I have called upon the services of the NV Segura Viudas Cava Aria Brut on many an occasion and have been impressed by the pineapple, honey, pear, and bread aromas and flavors which have been delivered at the pocket-pleasing price of $12/bottle. The leading Cava producers are Codorniu, Freixenet, and Segura Viudas.

Cava production in 2011 was 239,556,000 bottles, 63.5% of which was exported.  While domestic consumption in 2011 fell by 8.7% over 2010 ( a result of current economic conditions within the country), exports increased by 2% resulting in an overall reduction in production of 2.14%.  The primary export markets for Cava are Germany, the UK, Belgium, and the US in that order.

But it is not all peaches and cream in Cava-land.  According to an article on (Friday, November 2, 2012), producers in the Penedès wine region are deserting the Cava appellation and branding their wines as Spanish sparkling.  The producers are taking this action because they feel that the Cava brand has a poor image with low prices baked in in many markets. Further, these producers feel that the appellation is too large to be managed or regulated effectively.  According to Josep Albet, President of the Regulatory Council of Penedès (as quoted in the article), nine producers have already deserted the appellation and five others are poised to follow.  He will be making two recommendations to the authorities as potential solutions to the problem: (i) shrink the appellation and (ii) have the entire Penedès region designated organic.  The latter proposal is seen as adding value and allowing market differentiation.  This is an issue in its early stages and it is not yet clear how it will evolve.  It is unclear however how a Spanish sparkling branding would work as I already think of Cava as Spanish sparkling.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, January 28, 2013

Italian Merlots: Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's Masseto (Bolgheri, Tuscany)

Any discussion of Merlot wines generally begins with a deep bow in the direction of Bordeaux's right bank and wines such as Le Pin, Pétrus, L'Eglise-Clinet and a host of others that are produced in Pomerol and neighboring St. Emilion.  And that acclaim is justified.  But Merlot wines from Bordeaux no longer have a monopoly on greatness as a number of small-production, mono-varietals reared in the Bolgheri region have begun to gain critical acclaim.  Names such as Masseto (Wine Spectator 100 points in 2001), Redigaffi (Wine Spectator 100 points in 1997 and 2000), and Messorio (Wine Spectator 100 points, 2004), among others, have grabbed the attention of critics and wine collectors alike and, in so doing, have led to steady value appreciation for those lucky enough to own these wines.

I will be exploring these Italian Merlots in a series of upcoming posts beginning with today's post on Tenuta dell'Ornellaia's Masseto, an estate which I had the privilege of visiting last year with a Bordeaux Index team.

The Ornellaia estate encompasses 180 hectares -- 97 of which are planted to vine -- divided between two properties: the 37 hectares of vineyards and the winery on Via Bolgherese and a 60-hectare property called Bellaria which is located to the north of Bolgheri.  The Via Bolgherese property is divided into a 30.37-hectare vineyard dedicated to fruit for non-Masseto Ornellaia wines and a 6.63 hectare vineyard dedicated to the growth of Merlot grapes for the fabled Masseto wine.

The Masseto vineyard lies on soil comprised of thin silty clay and broken rock fragments. There is some confusion as to the planting date of the vines with the Masseto website stating the year 1984 as the planting date and other sources (see using 1981 as the planting date.  The older date seems to be more reasonable as the first vintage of the wine is identified as being offered on the market in 1986.

The Masseto vineyard is sub-divided into three distinct sections based on soil characteristics and resultant wines.  The lowest section of the vineyard is called Masseto Junior and its soils are characteristically a clay-sand mix.  According to the winery the wines produced frrom grapes grown in this section are lighter and serve to smooth out the tannic roughness associated with the wines from the other sections as well as contributing to the overall delicacy of the final product.  The middle portion of the vineyard is called Masseto Centrale and has the highest levels of Pliocene clays.  Wines produced from these grapes are powerful, concentrated, and tannic.  The top portion of the vineyard is located 120 meters above sea level and the soil here consists of loose clays and sand along with pebbles.  The soil here is the shallowest in the overall vineyard and the grapes tend to ripen earliest.  The wines produced from this section of the vineyard are dense and linear.


The Tenuta dell'Ornellaia winemaker is Alex Heinz and the winery's philosophy is "quality without compromise."  The quality begins in the vineyard and continues throughout the winemaking process.  Grapes are hand-harvested and subjected to a three-part selection process which ensures that only the best berries make it to the fermentation tanks. Suspect grapes are selected-out in the vineyard and before and after de-stemming.

Fermentation is conducted in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and oak vats with each block fermented separately.  Blocks are aged in wooden barriques for one year prior to being blended into the final wine by the winemaker.  The barriques of choice are procured from the Massif Central area in France and have a medium toast.  After blending, the wines are returned to the barriques for an additional year of aging.  Specific lots of wines may be clarified prior to bottling depending on their characteristics.  The wines are aged for an additional year in bottle before being released to the market.


Annual production of Masseto averages around 30,000 bottles and the wine sells for around $450 upon release.  Recent vintages that are especially well regarded by the critics include the 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2008. Axel Heinz, the winemaker, in a Decanter interview (Ornellaia, May 2013) said "When young, Masseto can seem monolithic, but it often shows much more complexity with age."

Masseto has the distinction of being the first Italian wine to be sold through the Place de Bordeaux, a marketplace ttraditionally reserved for First Growths and a small number of foreign icon wines. Other foreign wines sold through this marketplace include Opus One and Almaviva, both estates associated with Baron Rothschild ( 11/18/08).  The first Masseto vintage offered through this marketplace was the 2006.

On a personal note, this is, for me, one of the great wines of the world.  I have had the pleasure of tasting vintages from the mid-90s and and have been consistently blown away by how elegantly they transit time.  Our team tasted the 1996 vintage during one of our many local tastings and the notes talk of a terroir-driven wine with coffee notes.  The wine was smooth with great texture and complexity.  It was concentrated but not weighty.

Masseto has been referred to as the Pétrus of Italy and it is a moniker that, in my opinion, is not without merit.  Will there come a day when we refer to Pétrus as the Masseto of France?

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The continuing travails of Jacques

So Jacques descended on Orlando once again to show us barbarians what good wine really looks (tastes) like.  You remember Jacques, right.  He was the guy who was unfortunate enough to bring two (count them, two) corked bottles of 1986 Mouton to a dinner with a group of my friends in December, 2010.  Jacques walked away from that dinner bowed but not broken and vowed that he would return to vindicate his family name and honor.

In December of last year I received a call from Jacques.  He was going to be in Tampa over the Christmas holidays and wanted to get together with me to share some red Burgundy that he was particularly proud of.  After some back and forth we settled on brunch at Prato, a Winter-Park-based restaurant which features "hand crafted Italian cuisine."

Sunday broke bright and sunny and I made my way to Prato accompanied by my wife and a friend who was visiting from NY.  When I arrived Jacques was already there and had settled in comfortably with the other brunch attendees.

Jacques is meticulous about ensuring that his wines are decanted for an appropriate period prior to drinking and, to that end, he had arrived in town the day before and deposited his bottle at the restaurant along with specific instructions as to when the bottle should be opened and decanted.  The wine in question was a 2005 Nicolas Potel Nuits St.-Georges aux Chaignots and the restaurant was instructed to decant it 2 hours prior to our 1:00 pm start time.  When I arrived the decanted wine sat in the middle of the table patiently waiting to deliver Jacques from the self-imposed purgatory in which he had been existing since the dual TCA attack.

As I settled into my seat, Jacques announced that his wine was not yet ready.  It would require some additional caressing by the oxygen blanketing its surface.  I was prepared for this.  Remember I had seen this guy in action before so I had brought along a few "backup" bottles and I threw them into the breach.

The first wine I opened was the Tenuta Villa Crespia Franciacorta NumeroZero NV.  This zero dosage sparkling wine has become one of my go-to Franciacortas combining as it does richness and elegance with citrus, melon, and almond notes.  It should be noted that all of the wines were tasted in conjunction with food which we ordered from the menu and shared as small plates.

The second wine tasted was the 2004 Hospice de Beaune Meursault-Genevieres.  I have had this wine on a number of occasions and it is normally rich and palate-pleasing.  Not so this bottle.  The wine was a thin, pale shadow of those prior bottles.  I chalked it up to bottle variation because this bottle had been stored for a similar period and under similar conditions as were the more enjoyable bottles.

At this time I gave Jacques the option of either pouring his wine or for us to shift to the trio of Italian wines which I had brought.  His eyes lit up.  We would wait on the Burgundy.

Of the Italian reds, two were Barolos (The 2002 Monfortino and the 1997 Corino) and the third was a 1983 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.  These wines were all excellent.  The Barolos were of different pedigree with the Monfortino, held by many to be the finest Barolo label on the planet and this particular vintage, initially a controversial bottling, now held to be a legend. The Corino provided riper black fruit, anise, and tar.  The Emidio Pepe was characterized by earthiness and dried cherries.

Jacques was in heaven.  He had come bearing French gifts and was being rocked back on his heels by a range of Italian wines.  Well his time had come.  All eyes were now on him.

According to the Wine Advocate, the Nicolas Potel Nuits St.-Georges aux Chaignots "... offers alluring aromas of strawberry and red cherry, comes onto the palate smooth and polished with abundant ripe fresh fruit and subtle raw meatiness, and finishes with satisfying length."  When we poured Jacques bottle, these were not the aromas and flavors that greeted us.  The aromas were muted and washed out and the flavor was pale strawberry.  The satisfying length mentioned in the tasting note had turned tail and ran, along with the attack and all of the other elements of the wine.  The wine had been left to the vagaries of the elements for too long and had faded out.  Jacques' bottle had turned on him again.

He looked at me sheepishly, cursed the gods, and poured another glass of the wines on offer.  I wonder what he will be bringing next year.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme