Cooking with Cava

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On our last day in Barcelona, we were fortunate enough to have a private tour of La Boqueria, the lively market on the town’s busy Las Ramblas boulevard, by Chef Isma Prados, one of Barcelona’s most noted celebuchefs. Isma is something of a phenomenon in Catalonia, and is a mix of Jaime Oliver and Gordon Ramsey.  His focus is on the true expression of the food, and stresses that you should use only the best ingredients to create the best foods.  He also pays particular attention tot he relationship between food and wine, and as we were here to learn about Cava, on this day, we were cooking with and pairing food with the sparkling star. After we tooted around thee busy market, we picked out fresh ingreidents for a wonderful show, a cooking class above the market a bit later on.  Yes kids, we were cooking for our lunch! I will spare you the delicious details of the meal but we had: Spring Salad with winter strawberries.  These are meatier and firmer than the sweet summer berries and take the acid of a cava based dressing well. Halibut Cheeks with fresh peas, au jus Sofrito with pressed & stuffed black Guinea Hen fresh ice cream Each course was more delicious than the last.  The use of the ingredients with the natural flavors, a touch of salt and pepper, and lots of passion made this the most memorable meal I had in Spain. Enjoy!  

Calçots!

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There is something unique to Catalonia, something   delicious.  It is the calçot and the tradition of a calçot lunch to go with it! A calçot (left) is member of the onion family, and resembles a cross between a green onion and a leek.  It’s a uniquely Catalan beast, and are mild and sweet. Every Spring, the Catalan celebrate with the tradition of the calçotada  – much like the American tradition of the summer BBQ, where c alçots are grilled over an open flame (in our case over vine cuttings, yum!).  The result is a charbroiled onion, but a sweet delicious delicacy underneath. How does one eat a calçot?  Once they are grilled, you strip them of course!  After barbecuing, It’s a delicate operation, as you grip the bottom of the calçot, and tug gently so the skin pulls off in one long piece.  Then, as Toni is demonstrating, you eat the calçotada in several bites – but in one fell swoop.  Delicious! a romesco sauce is served, and you strip off the charbroiled layer in a magical feat of action.   They can get a little messy however, so as Toni shows us, it helps to have a bib.  Or a cape.  After a full plate of calçot, and several glasses of cava, Toni became…Super Calcot!  The Catalon superhero! Calçots are particularly delicious with brut cava, as the crisp acidity matches perfectly with the sweet greens and the tangy romesco  sauce. Now, go out and make some calçots today!  when you can’t find the real thing, baby leeks, baby green onions or red onions can be substituted.  Broil or grill them until tender.  Enjoy with a glass of cava!  

Pulling it all together

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Now that we have seen the grapes come in and the base wine made, it’s time to pull it all together.  It’s time for the assemblage! Assemblage is the process of choosing which case wine will be blended to make each sparkling wine.  Each base wine can be classified in to different levels of wine, and the process involves several components, including multiple trials and blends.  But first, you need to taste the base wine from which the blended cava will be made. Each primary still wine is made specifically for the purpose of creating cava.  Unlike the table wine, these wines are made with a lower sugar content and a higher overall acidity. First up, the Macabeo cava base, showed lychee and a slightly tropical undertone, with bright acidity, green apple and grapefruit.  It’s easy to see how this can create an excellent cava. Next, we compare the Macabeo cava base with the Macabeo wine base.  IN the wine base, you get a creamy undertone, it’s roudner and softer with more pear flavors followed by citrus. Now on to the Xarel.lo cava base.  This uniquely Spanish wine has a very subtle nose and is bright, lean and tight.  A strong banana scent is followed by bitter lime.  This wine adds more weights and depth to the finished cava. Finally we taste the Xarel.lo wine base.  This was a bit like unfiltered grapefruit juice, stll with that banana flavor and a heavier mouthfeel.  I would call this a pithy wine. Now that we know who the players are, it’s time to play mad scientist with the assemblage!Now we get to the third traditionally cava base, Parellada.  The base wine had a slight spritz, and  was full bodied and had lemon custard flavors with heavy aromatics and floral notes. Gabriel Suberviola, Master Winemaker at Segura Viudas, was on hand to help walk us through the process.  As we found out in the component tasting, each wine contributes its own unique notes, and bringing it all together takes patience and skill.  To maintain a consistent product, winemakers need to be able to replicate a flavor profile year after year, with minor changes to the blend. Gabriel and his team taste up to 200 wines, and they are classified in to specific lines.  Each line will become a different wine.  For our small team of amateur wine blenders, we had to learn how to spot a premier cava in the making in the unusual base wines we tasted.  The winemaking team has years of practice and can tell in one sip, but we needed a bit more time. We started our adventure with four bottles of base wine: Macabeo base wine Xarel.lo base wine Parellada base wine current candidate of test wine, for control purposes Over the next 2 hours, we tediously tried to create the best blend possible, which Gabriel would then be grading them as we ate lunch.  And so it begins.  Never one to play exactly by the rules, I started creating concoctions immediately.  Instead of […]

The People's Wine

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So I’ve told you a bit about Cava, and a bit about the history of Segura Viudas. Now, let’s dive in deeper. While Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, it is also the national beverage. It’s a drink for the people, and isn’t reserved for special occasions. Cava can be seen every day, in bars, in restaurants, in hotel lobbies, and on the dining room table. The high value proposition makes this an ideal beverage for any occasion. So, let’s review: Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines). Historical records show that some form of sparkling wine has been made in the Catalonia region of Spain since the 14th century; it wasn’t until the late 19th century however, that serious efforts were made to compete with France for a sparkling wine with a similar profile to Champagne. In the US, probably the most recognizable brand of Cava is Frexinet’s Cordon Negro, in the signature black bottle.  This budget bubbly gets a bad rap, and while I was one of the guilty poking fun, it’s a great, fun, simple Cava to serve at parties or in mimosas.  At a recent twitter tasting I participated in, I was pleasantly surprised that my memory of a product similar to Cook’s was completely wrong and the Cordon Negro is really a perfectly fine sparkling wine. Any way you put it, the value proposition for Cava is excellent.  With most bottles hovering around $8 and many more up to $20, there are some great examples at any price point but it’s a great wine to enjoy anytime.  While there are certainly more expensive cavas out there, you can easily find a great example for under $20, which is very affordable in my book. My hosts at Segura Viudas focus on making cava of distinction, in the traditional method.  While you are allowed a certian  amount of other grapes, head winemaker Gabriel Suberviola focuses on the local grapes to create special cavas  that really exemplify the region.  While they are a large operation by American standards, the team at Segura Viudas is careful to maintain the quality of the fruit by hand harvesting the grapes, and evaluating each load carefully.  The grapes are then graded, and sorted in to what wine they will become.    You could make the argument that you can just throw everything in the hopper and see what comes out, but they won’t settle for that.  Less quality grapes go in to the every day wines; not lesser quality wines by any means, but these are your $10 every day cavas, vs the iconic Reserva Heredad ($25).  Gabriel and his team can tell on site, and through a detailed process with 17 data points, what wines each small bin is destined to become. Up next, we blend our our base wine!  This […]

Cava cools you off…

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It’s hot here in Spain, even though it’s only March. There hasn’t been much rain, and you can feel it all around. The rivers are dry, the air is dry, the vines are dry. One critical observation about Spain is there is an inordinate amount of smog at atmospheric gunk. While I believe most of this is organic smog, it makes for a rough go for anyone that is used to clear skies and easy breathing. I myself am suffering after 3 days of heavy smog, where you can barely see the skyline of Barcelona and you can only make the outline of the breathtaking Montserret mountain formation . Even today, from my hotel room less than 1 mile away, the giatn Gaudi Masterpiece, the Segrada Famila, is barely visible in the haze. When i was in Madrid and Rioja last year, I noticed a similar issue. With the constant burning of organic waste (and quite probably inorganic) I wonder how long this city can continue to manage this level of pollution. However, I see steps that are positive: the city busses are natural gas powdered; there are far more diesel fueled vehicles in Europe than anywhere else ( particular in gas guzzling US); Segura Viudas is making steps to become a green, closed ecosystem. While in the vineyard in the Penedes region of Catalonia, we toured one of the old vineyards at the estate.  Segura Viudas is a pioneer in the area, practicing sustainable agriculture, as operates as organically as possible with out being constrained to the organic rules of operation. Currently, they are experimenting with reusing the biomass created by pruning, as well as other vineyard activities, and selling this as fuel. Future plans include using the biomass fuel within the winery system to becoming a self contained ecosystem. Additionally, the vineyard manager Sebastià Raventós has been working with cover crops such as hay and oats, to provide a nutrient balance. Of course, this also protects the vineyards from erosion during the rainy season, and also provides another attraction for insects and animals to build a sustainable ecosystem in the vineyard. Sebastià was born and bred in this small wine growing region, and has the soil in his blood.  His family has worked the vineyards in the area for generations.    He believes that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard, and that great wine cannot be made without great grapes.  He is part of the landscape here, born and bred in this small wine growing region of Penedes, and has the soil in his blood.  His family has worked the vineyards in the area for generations.    He believes that great cava or great wine begins in the vineyard.  To this point, he fiercely guards his vines, and has a particular reverence to the old, gnarly vines that are growing freely.  While there are advantages to head trained, neat, trellised vineyards, they are also more prone to diseases and pests since they aren’t allowed to grow naturally.  These old vines, planted 40+ years […]

Barcelona is for…

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Welcome back! Here we are, on day 1 or day 2, depending on how you look at it,of my whirlwind spin through Barcelona, Penedes, and Priorat. Getting here was certainly enough of and adventure for anyone, let alone someone that is 5’11” and mostly legs, not to mention a tad wider than the last time she few coach. To catch you up, I left my house at 11:00 PST on March 10th. After spending at least 1.5 hours in the check in line – which in itself i absurd for an international departure, it then took another 30+ minutes to clear security and enter the International Departures hall in SFO. Lucky me, I somehow managed not only to score a middle seat, I also managed to achieve that travel mecca – the completely full but not yet overbooked plane. Now, I would have happily given up my fabulous middle seat if it had meant taking a flight that either was not sardine city, or that my possibilities of getting a coveted upgrade (ha fat chance!) were more than 1 billion to one. So there I sat, in my spiffy middle seat. Luckily, I shelled out the extra fee for the extra leg room, because honestly if I had not, this would not have been pretty. As it was, my middle seat was the next to last row in Economy Plus. That would have been perfectly fine, because my seat mates were really nice fellows, until… After watching the first movie and eating a rather unsatisfactory lunch, I downed two melatonin in the hopes that I could catch at least a few hours of shuteye, knowing that I arrived in Frankfurt at 9:30am. Well, that apparently was not going to happen. I am pleased to report that the row behind me was occupied with three people who simply should not keep their traps shut. Even after multiple announcements by the flight crew to please close your window shades, be quiet and let people rest due to the very short night, what I heard for the next 13 hours (and I do not exaggerate when I say this) was the equivalent of 2 nine year old boys playing Angry Birds. Now this was not the soft lilt of a French accent. This was the percussive staccato of two — increasingly inebriated — Germans — who would. not. shut. up. To add a sprinkling of joy to this situation, which could be heard through both earplugs and headphones, two older gentlemen were having a rather animated conversation in the emergency exit row immediately behind my German buddies. And what I mean by animated is loud. Why they felt that it was their right to stand there, in front of the people who lucked out and got the exit row who were also trying to sleep, is beyond me. So here we are, in Frankfurt. No sleep. No brain cells. It’s really only 1am my time since we had just switched to Daylight Savings Time, but […]

¡Viva España!

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Happy February everyone!  I can hardly belive it’s still “winter” here in San Francisco, given that it’s in the mid 70s, and the sun is shining.  Time to get out and enjoy some crisp sparkling delicious Cava! Cava is Spain’s version of sparkling wine, traditionally made from indigenous white varieties – Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada.  Most Cava is made in Catalonia, a region at the north east tip of Spain.  Cava must also be made in the méthode champenoise, whereas sparkling wine made in other (shall we say, less than desirable in my opinion) methods may only be called vinos espumosos (sparkling wines). I am so excited that in 3 short weeks, I will be spend a whirlwind week, learning all about this magical elixer, from the masters of Segura Viudas. Some of the activities I will be participating in are: An Assemblage master class, where we learn about the traditional cava grapes, terroir, region and climate. A blending session, where we will learn to create our own special bubbly blend A cooking class to learn about the regional cuisine Meals paired with the wines of the region A side trip to Priorat, one of my favorite regions.  Did someone say Garnacha?  Monastrell?  Garnacha Blanca?  Pack me a straw! And did I mention, they are rather fond of jamon in Spain? And now, a bit more about my hosts, Segura Viudas: Segura Viudas has developed a reputation as a premium cava producer, with the property dating back to the 11th century.  The brand was born in 1959, and the wines were first released in 1969.  The Ferrer family of Barcelona, who owns brands like Gloria Ferrer and Frexinet, purchased the estate in the 1980s making it a global competitor. I’m looking forward to learning more about cava and the Catalonia region of Spain!  As you might now, I was in Spain & Portugal last year, when I spoke at the International Wine Tourism Conference.  At that time, I took some extra time and explored Madrid, Rioja, and the northern regions, so this will be a great way to round out my Spanish adventure.  I wonder if I can accidentally miss my return flight and get lost in Barcelona? Watch out for tweets and posts from the road!  Can I do this all with just my iPad?  I hope so!

Sparkling Stars on a budget

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It’s that time of the month again!  Time for Wine Blogging Wednesday, when a particular theme is used to inspire bloggers to post on a single subject all over the blogging world. This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day (hurl), Tim Elliot of WineCast asks us to think about sparkling wines on a budget.  In this case, budget means anything under US$25.  Well I can do that!  There are literally dozens of sparkling wines from all over the world that match this price point.  I am spoiled living here int he Bay Area, as I have access to many local wineries – at least 10 sparkling houses among them, as well as excellent retail locations that offer wines of all types and cost levels. Sparkling wine is used to celebrate all around the world.  Sparkling wine is known for toasting at weddings, or romantic dinners.  Well, I’m having none of it I tell you!  Sparkling wine is for every day!  It’s for potato chips and picnics.  Why save something so delightful for a few times a year?  With a few budget selections, you can make it an everyday wine. I have been hard at work … um…researching this for you.  What did I discover?  There are so many to choose from, it’s difficult to walk down the wine isle at the grocery store and not find an excellent wine under US$25.  For my picks, I am going to go for three specific wines:   1.  A house “genertic” from Trader Joes.  TJ’s has realy upped the game from Two Buck Chuck.  Trader Joe’s North Coast NV Sparkling Wine.  For $10, you really can’t go wrong.  TJ’s has been consistantly improving thier house labels over the years; this wine is no exception.  It was very well balanced, and had a roundness of body that I particularly enjoy.  Lots of pear, Asian pear, and apple flaors, with a touch of brioche.  This north coast fruit is 60% Chard, 40% Pinot Noir, from somewhere in the vast North Coast catch all AVA.  It’s hard to tell where it’s really from,but given the cooler growing climate up there, it’s prime for bubby. This will make a frequent appearance at my house! 2.  A favorite of mine, is the Roederer Estate NV.  Typically under $20, and often much lower (like at Safeway, when it’s on sale for $16.99) this is an outstanding example of a domestic sparkler, and one I never get tired of.  Roederer Estate, located in the cooler climate of Anderson Valley, is the US arm of the French house Louis Roederer.   Surprisingly, the NV is a low alcohol wine, so yes, at 12% ABV by all means!  Drink more!  I love the bright green apple, pear, and creamy flavors in this wine.  Bight with citrus, it tastes like it cost a lot more than it does. For a splurge, try the L’hermitage! 3.  A surprise guest appearance of a NEw Zealand sparkling wine, Quartz Reef Method Traditionalle NV, from Central Otago.  Quartz Reef is known as “The […]