Spain is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, confirmed last week by the plane loads of spring breakers traveling to the country out of DFW. I’ve just returned from a week in the Catalan region in and around Barcelona for an in depth look into the world of making Cava in the classic Methode Champanoise style from great Spanish grapes. I was an invited guest of Segura Viudas Cava which makes approximately 400,000 cases of the bubbly a year ranging in price from around $8 a bottle to $20 a bottle; but to simply say that this is an $8 bottle of bubbly would be a severe injustice to the product that is created with dedication, respect and intense passion.
Over several days my traveling companions and I had an “assemblage” experience, learning the art of making Cava from vine to glass. The French term “assemblage” is simply blending of several fine wines, generally from different grape-varieties, independently vinified. However, much goes into the process before you get to the actual blend. So the next few posts will take you through the same experience I had in learning the art of making this artisanal product in the heart of the Penedes region of Spain.
Though Segura Viudas does follow the traditional techniques of Champagne this bubbly is 100% Spanish, made from the Macabeo, Xarel.lo (pronounced “charelo”) and Paradella grapes, each adding their own flavor, finesse and structure to the wine. Macabeo is usually the predominant grape in the blend, adding the balance, body and structure to the wine while maintaining a low alcohol level; Xarel.lo is commonly the second highest percentage in the wine, adding creamy, tropical fruit notes like banana and citrus with good texture, acidity and balance, which also allows for it to be bottled on its own as a still wine; often only a small amount of Paradella is added to a Cava blend as the wine doesn’t age well, and Cava has to be aged a minimum of 9 months by law before it is released, but Paradella adds softness and spice, essential in great Cava.
By law, Cava can only come from the Penedes, and vineyard owners are allowed higher production levels when they certify their grapes will be used in Cava. There are hundreds of growers throughout the region, often small farms families have owned for generations, which keeps some of their grapes for their own consumption and sells some of their grapes off to larger production houses like Segura Viudas. About 80% of the grapes Segura Viudas uses comes from these types of growers, which makes the work of vineyard manager Sebastian so important as he not only meticulously watches over his own vines on the Segura Viudas estate, but personally works with each one of these vineyard owners to ensure the quality of the grapes they provide are up to his and the company’s standards.
And those standards are high. Founded in the 1950′s by Senior Segura in an 11th Century former military outpost with Romanesque, Gothic and Visigoth architecture, which had been transformed to a common farmhouse, or masia, known as Can Esbert in the mid 1300′s in Torrelavit, Alt Penedes, the heart of Cava country. He had a goal to produce the very best Cava in Spain using the same equipment that was used in Champagne, and using a fresh yeast from Champagne to give his Cava a French style with toasty notes and higher acidity than other Cava produced at the time. This yeast has become the proprietary yeast of Segura Viudas. He began to market his product in 1969, and though the product was successful, the process for making the best became too expensive and Sr. Segura eventually had to sell the winery in 1978. The Ferrer family bought Segura Viudas in 1981 when it had been put up in a public auction, and made a commitment to respect its foundation and keep the tradition, heritage and artisanal dedication as the focus, and grow the product with this history in mind.
This commitment Vineyard Manager, Sebastian Raventos embraces with obvious passion and pure joy. It is inspiring to meet someone who so transparently loves his profession, dissolving the Spanish/English language barrier I had, as his body language and the enthusiastic tone in his voice fully spoke to his commitment to these vines. A combination of both trellis vineyards and spur training systems, known as goblet or bush vine systems, are planted on the Segura Viudas estate, similar to many vineyards throughout the area. Though the popular trellis system seen throughout the New World opens up an easier ability to train, prune and manage the vines mechanically, Sebastian prefers his goblet or bush vine system. Spur trained vines will often have thick, gnarled cordon branches, or arms, and are often quite old. These branches will be kept and preserved each year, with only the canes being pruned back each winter. However, the pruning of these vines has to be done by hand, so the work is long and constant, but these vines can last up to 80 years; trellised vines only last about 35, beneficial as many of these goblet vines are around 45 years old now.
Though the vineyards and winery are not organically certified, they do work as clean as possible, focusing on the environment, with Sebastian working closely with each vineyard owner they purchase grapes from as well to make sure they are working as sustainably as possible, suggesting the pesticides they use, for ripeness control and keeping quality at the forefront, following the philosophy of Segura Viudas. He has even found a way to use the cuttings from pruned vines for biomass instead of burning the pruned vines from 61,000+ acres in Penedes each year. In addition to the sustainable practices in place, the estate is also home to thousands of trees, birds, animals and insects all good for the vineyards.
Sebastian and winemaker Gabriel Suberviola can tell at bud break in the spring when they will harvest, pretty much nailing their timing on the head year after year. They are able to do this due to logs Sebastian has kept since the early 1990′s, along with watching current trends. Harvest used to start in mid-September and grapes did not grow above 550 meters; now harvest starts mid-August and vines can grow up to 800 meters above sea level. If ever there was evidence of global warming, just look at the vines.
Whether is be August or September, the pace is intense and lengthly. Harvest can last up to 50 days, with over 1 million kilos of grapes received at the winery each day. As grapes arrive they immediately go through processing where they are classified using 14 different quality parameters. As many growers find when they reach the winery, higher quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a better paycheck; quality is always the most important consideration and careful regulations ensure that each and every grape that Segura Viudas purchases will help create their award winning and always highly regarded Cava.