Cava overlooked everywhere but Catalonia

If ever a grape needed a champion, it may well be xarello. It suffers pronunciation woes (in Catalan, it’s shah-RELL-lo; in Castilian, hah-RELL-lo; in English, zah-RELL-oh). It has spelling issues (it’s often written xarel-lo among numerous other renderings). Most important, it is guilty by association as a key component of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine that most people consider at best cheap and cheerful and at worst a headache in a glass.

Fortunately, xarello could have no more ardent and convincing a proponent than Ton Mata, whose family owns Recaredo, founded 90 years ago by Mata’s grandfather in this center of Catalonian cava production in the Penedès, about 30 miles west of Barcelona.

“Xarello is an original, wonderful, great grape,” he said as we walked through his biodynamically farmed vineyard on a sunny afternoon in June. To the north, Montserrat rises up in impressive crags, blocking cold winds from chilling the vines. From the south, moist breezes from the Mediterranean keep the vines from getting too hot.

“It’s not exuberant — it’s not an impact grape,” Mata said. “It’s deep, subtle and transparent. Even we don’t know the limits of this grape.”

A handful of meticulous, quality-conscious cava producers like Recaredo, Gramona, Mestres, Bohigas, Castellroig and Raventós i Blanc are determined to explore those limits. In the process, they hope to change fixed opinions that consign cava to the bargain bin. It may not take much more than a bottle of Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2008, Recaredo’s basic cava, to make that case. It’s feathery light, snappy yet elegant, lightly floral with a welcome touch of bitterness, a delicious cava with finesse.

The Gran Reserva costs around $30, considerably more than the $6 or so for a bottle of the mass-produced Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut. Recaredo also makes a number of astonishingly good higher-end cavas, like the 2001 Turó d’en Mota, made entirely from a parcel of xarello planted in 1940. The 2001 was pure, fresh, incredibly subtle and very expensive at $175 or so.

Subtlety? Finesse? Complexity? Anybody who ever lubricated an undergraduate party with cases of cheap cava would be befuddled by the notion. Yet cava does have a significant asset compared with other popular sparklers like prosecco: It’s one of the few sparkling wines that is required to employ the same traditional techniques used for Champagne, rather than bulk-production methods. After cava producers make a still wine, they bottle it with a sweet mixture and yeast, as in Champagne. The wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles.

A multitude of grapes are permitted in cava, including Champagne’s chardonnay and pinot noir, but the best are made of the three traditional grapes: xarello, macabeo (known as viura in Rioja) and parellada. Depending on the vintage, Recaredo Brut Nature is generally 50 to 65 percent xarello, with the remainder made up of macabeo and parellada.

“In the 1980s, we planted chardonnay and pinot noir — everybody did,” Mata said. “Now, no. We don’t want to make something like Champagne. Here we have the opportunity to make a sparkling wine of xarello. It’s unique.” He said that of roughly 20,000 acres worldwide of xarello, 90 percent of it was in the Penedès.

Cava can be made all over Spain, but 95 percent of it comes from Catalonia, which has a historic connection to Champagne, said Xavier Gramona, whose family has made cava since the early 20th century.

“Most cork suppliers to Champagne were Catalan,” Gramona said. After phylloxera, a vine-killing aphid, devastated the Champagne vineyards around the turn of the 20th century, he said, Catalonia sent still wines to Champagne, which used them to make sparkling wines. Nonetheless, Champagne’s worldwide reputation has done little to repay Catalan wine producers for their help.

“People believe top sparkling wine must be Champagne, or it’s not top,” Gramona said.

Carefully made cavas like the 2001 Turó d’en Mota can age beautifully. A 2002 III Lustros Gran Reserva from Gramona was fresh and floral, with a lovely light fruitiness. A 1997 Mas Via Brut Gran Reserva from Mestres was full of complex lemon, herbal and floral aromas and flavors that lingered long after you swallowed.

To emphasize the age-worthiness of cava, Mata took me into the Recaredo cellars, where he pulled out a bottle of 1984 Reserva Particular, the last vintage made when Mata’s grandfather was alive. The Reserva Particular blend is actually 60 percent macabeo (also an underrated grape, Mata said) and 40 percent xarello. It was remarkably like an older Champagne, yet lighter in texture, with lightly caramelized flavors of truffles, minerals and chamomile, a beautifully expressive wine at a peak.

The best cava producers take great care in overseeing their vineyards. Recaredo is certified biodynamic and uses only grapes from its own vineyards. Gramona farms organically and biodynamically, and it works with the soil scientists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who were integral to restoring the depleted soils of Burgundy in the 1980s. Mestres is striving to become organic.

“Over 300 companies make cava, but maybe only 10 grow the grapes and make the wine,” Mata said. “Producers are alienated from growers and distant from the terroir. If more producers made cava from their own vineyards, our prestige would grow.”

Not surprisingly, people drink a lot of cava in Catalonia. Good cava goes brilliantly with the plates of jamón Ibérico and olives that seem to appear spontaneously at any gathering, along with the ubiquitous pan con tomate, a delicacy made of the yeasty local bread rubbed with half a tomato, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.

Most cava producers also make still wines of cava’s constituent grapes. I’ve never had one made of parellada, which seems to play a subordinate role to the other grapes. I’ve had mildly interesting wines made of macabeo, which, of course, as viura is used for the great traditional white Riojas of Lopéz de Heredia. Xarello holds the most interest. Recaredo makes Can Credo, a beautifully textured, 100 percent xarello wine that, unfortunately, is not imported to the United States.

Still, xarello shows best as cava, which, if made meticulously by producers and given a chance by consumers, can be wonderful in its own right.