Looking out towards Monserrat, Penedès. Photo Siro Rodenas, Shutterstock

Penedès is one of the few places outside Champagne with a truly unique culture of Traditional Method Sparkling Wines. So why is it in such a muddle?

D.O. Cava

Appellations can be victims of their own success. If the conditions are right, scale players can corner the market and capitalise on the equity of a name such as Cava, eventually becoming so influential that the whole system begins to warp into their image. Freixenet and Cordoniù, owned respectively by Henkell (the source of almost one in ten glasses of sparkling wine in the world) and The Carlyle Group (Accolade Wines), produce around 70% of all Cava. Amid a picture of “imbalances in supply-and-demand” , prices paid to grape growers sunk to €0.30 per kg in 2019 – one twentieth of that fetched by grapes in Champagne. The average selling price for ‘Cava de Guarda’ (the basic catergory which represents 87% of sales) is €4.70.

Where does that leave those who want to escape the rather low-level orbit set by the industrial producers? The grievances that have led to the recent splits have been twofold:

  • Origin. How could it be that four distinct regions across Spain can come under one D.O.? In a tale too long and meandering to recount here, around 5% of ‘Cava’ does not actually come from Penedès, but one of three other authorised regions. This is still the case under the new D.O. regulations, although zones have been updated in some detail following a recent consultation with Tom Stevenson, Sarah Jane Evans MW, Richard Juhlin, Pedro Ballesteros MW and Ferran Centelles.
  • Price. How can artisanal producers expect to fetch higher prices for wines labelled Cava? D.O. Cava introduced the ‘Paraje Calificado’ accreditation for wines from vineyards of recognised quality in 2017, but it has not been enough to appease those working at the top of the quality ladder. Ambitious producers believe. that low prices set by basic Cava are always going to exert downwards pressure on the top of the pyramid.

Splits

Things started coming to a head when Raventos ì Blanc left the appellation in 2012, effectively founding their own appellation (the Conca del Riu Anoia). Two years later, the Penedès D.O. still wine appellation gave birth to Clàssic Penedès, a Traditional Method D.O. that serves as a home for eighteen former Cava malcontents. By excluding wines with a majority of bought-in grapes, specifying organic viticulture and setting a fifteen month minimum lees-ageing time, the group put some quality air between it and the much looser Cava D.O.

Then came the big move in 2018: Corpinnat. The renowned producers conspicuously absent from the Clàssic Penedès move announced their new association, and the three-way split in Penedès was complete. But why did these producers not join Classic Penedès?

Corpinnat and Classic Penedès have been in talks , but, as the slide below shows, there are some fundamental differences in outlook. Classic Penedès is almost a re-think of a still wine appellation, with the authorised grape varieties in the D.O. Penedès leaving room for a wide variety of styles. Corpinnat, however, has a traditional streak when it comes to grape varieties, and an even stricter outlook in terms of bought-in grapes:

Spanish Sparkling Wines Comparison
1. Place
D.O. Cava

New zoning definition in 2020. 95% comes from the 'Comtats de Barcelona' (Catalonia) but wines also permitted from the Ebro Valley (La Rioja), Levante (Valencia) and Viñedos de Almendralejo (Extramadura)
MAP

Classic Penedès

The same area as defined by the still wine Penedès D.O. MAP

Corpinnat

A unique delimitation within Penedès, similar but not identical to the Penedès D.O. MAP

Spanish Sparkling Wines Comparison
2. Grape Varieties
D.O. Cava

Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Monastrell, Garnacha, Subirat, Trepat, Chardonnay, Pinot noir

Classic Penedès

As for D.O. Cava + permitted grapes in the still wine D.O: Carignan, Sumoll, Muscat d'Alexandria, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and others!

Corpinnat

As for D.O. Cava, but with max. 10% permitted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trepat and Malvasia de Sitges

Spanish Sparkling Wines Comparison
3. Ageing on Lees
D.O. Cava

Cava De Guarda 9months,
Cava De Guarda Superior:
Reserva 15months (moving to 18 months), Gran Reserva 30months, Cava De Paraje Calificado (certified exceptional vineyards) 36months.

Classic Penedès

Effectively all Reserva (15 months minimum).

Corpinnat

18 month minimum. Producers use Reserva/Gran Reserva terminology from D.O. Cava.

Spanish Sparkling Wines Comparison
4. Notes
D.O. Cava

'Integral Winemaker' label for 100% estate production.
Organic requirement for Cava de Guarda Superior by 2025

Classic Penedès

100% Organic
All winemaking must take place in a D.O. Penedès registered cellar.
Minimum 51% Estate grapes.
Bottles must feature vintage and disgorgement date

Corpinnat

100 % Organic.
75% minimum Estate grapes.
0.70EU minimum grape price.
Entire winemaking process must be in-house.
Unlike Classic Penedès, NV is allowed

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The Morning After

No sooner had the horses bolted than D.O. Cava started upgrading the stables with the zoning re-think and the ability for grape-to-glass producers to use the ‘Integral Winemaker’ label. But will this be enough to bring producers back together?

It doesn’t look likely any time soon. Neither does it look particularly efficient to have three overlapping appellations for the same type of wine from the same place. In the long run, something will have to give if Spain hopes to present a united front.

Placing Penedès Wines

There are other sparkling wine regions with comparable climates and soils, but none with such a firmly-etched picture when it comes to indigenous grape varieties. Are some of these the first varieties you would jot down on a blank page as suitable for fine sparkling wine? Possibly not. Tom Stevenson, writing in Christies World Encyclopaedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, ventures that Cava producers:

“…just fell into the habit of thinking these varieties were indeed classic for Cava, This illustrates how premature it is for Cava’s three so-called varieties to assume traditional, let alone classic, status.”

There is value, though, in starting from a sense of heritage and building from there. That is where the diversity of wine comes from – perhaps the world is a more interesting place with one outstanding Corpinnat than ten very good sparkling Chardonnays. Nevertheless, Corpinnat’s insistence that no more than 10% of any wine can come from international varieties does seem to ‘make the bed’.

Xarel-lo, the grape behind Penedès’ top sparkling wines. Photo Claudio Valdes, Shutterstock

With lower acidities and a punchier sense of extract and grip, the finest Spanish sparkling wines don’t get knocked about by food quite as much as champagne can, taking on green vegetables, fried foods, herbs, bitterness…The ‘gap’ in the restaurant wine list – above prosecco but beneath (decent) champagne – is surely begging to be plugged. Since first testing the water with Terrers a decade ago, Recaredo’s UK agent Les Caves de Pyrène now deal with an allocation of 4-5000 bottles per year. Not large – but there isn’t much to go round. I asked Spanish buyer David Cañadas about his experiences trying to place the wines:

“I think it depends very much on the open-mindedness of the buyer or sommelier. Are they brave enough to tell their customers that there’s a world outside of grower champagne? That’s the discussion we’re having with Recaredo – they’re growers, focused on growing well. You can talk about them in the same breadth as grower champagne.

It’s not a price discussion – if you set about saying “this wine is a bit like something else, but cheaper’, you’re set for a fall. For me the discussion is about the way you farm and the efforts you’re putting in to increase quality. It doesn’t matter so much about being in an association – you can’t be successful or target the market off the back of Corpinnat or whatever organisation it might be. It’s about the producer, the producer, the producer.”

In that regard the current Spanish muddle should serve as a warning sign to other sparkling wine regions (including England). New appellations and terminology are usually met with ambivalence at best, and suspicion at worst (there is something Bond-villain-esque about Corpinnat – a sponsorship opportunity, perhaps, to set against 007’s glass of Bollinger?). Whether the appellation will ever mean half as much as the reputation of the producers alone remains to be seen.

I’m exhausted! But what does it taste like?

If you’ve made it this far you might be feeling thirsty. So where do the great and the good of Penedès fit, both in your cellar and at the table?

Xarel-lo is clearly the star in Penedès. It is a grape variety that carries pithy, herbal and citrussy intensity but seems resistant to flab ( by keeping low pHs, good acidity and displaying some resistance to oxidation). When some of Penedès’ wilder aromatic flourishes get captured but the wine retains a magical sense of finesse, energy and delicacy, then the results can be captivating.

Both Recaredo and Llopart seem to work some magic with Parellada, although many are phasing out this occasionally dilute, low-acid variety. When it’s good, Macabeo seems firm, square, front-loaded. It can get a bit flat and lifeless sometimes – whether blind or sighted I tend to find heavily Macabeo-dominant wines a bit less invigorating than those dominated by Xarel-lo. Chardonnay can certainly inject a bit of zip and finesse when Parellada and Macabeo are looming large – think polished shoes and a new haircut. Both Gramona Imperial and the brilliant Llopart Integral are fine examples of Chardonnay blends.

Wines tasted in 2021. Tasting notes from 2020 are marked *

Gramona III Lustros Reserva Brut Nature 2013 17.5

Corpinnat. 70% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo. 80 months on lees.

Gramona’s top cuvèe (bar the Celler Battle, which I’m not always sure I prefer to this) opens up with an alluring floral complexity, before an intense core of grapefruit, orange tropicals and zesty bergamot. Where this wine really stands out is its follow-through, all that time on lees building with cream, wax and hazelnut biscuit. Touches of starfruit and anise give it this slightly exotic lilt. Exciting wine.

Gramona Imperial Brut 2014 17.5

Corpinnat. 40% Xarel-lo, 40% Macabeo, 15% Chardonnay, 5% Parellada.

I love the airy, floaty flavours of lime and green apple macaroon, followed through with a sparky brightness to a close that starts to show just a little toasty development. Although it doesn’t posses the concentration or complexity of the top wines, it has a magic all of its own. *

Gramona III Lustros Reserva Brut Nature 2012 17

Corpinnat. 65% Xarel-lo, 35% Macabeo from the single estate Font de Jui. A change of gear from the entry level wines, with greater weight of lime oil and herbal honey layered up on rich pastry and fresh nuts. It is a much broader style of wine, with absolute dryness laying bare plenty of grip and tow on the palate. Crying out for partners on the table.*

Recaredo Reserva Particular 2005 17

Corpinnat. 52% Xarel-lo, 48% Macabeo.

A conundrum of age, power, openness and persistence. Despite some oxidative characters and quite developed fruit, this powered through with set honey and wild herbs. Real concentration and complexity. This was a March 2017 disgorgement; if you caught this wine one or two years ago it would have been even better. Look out for the new vintage and crack it open. *

Llopart Integral Brut Nature 17

Corpinnat. 40% Parellada, 30% Chardonnay, 30% Xarel-lo. Breaking the Corpinnat rules with that Chardonnay addition!?

The high percentage of Parellada is unusual, but the Chardonnay seems to pull it tight and allow some of its floaty blossom notes to do their thing. It flirts with some peardrop but gets away with it – there’s lovely squishy apricot and pineapple fruit with some more developed notes of cooked lime and demerara. Clarity and and refreshment on the palate. Totally charming stuff.

Raventós i Blanc De la Finca 2017 17

Made from the oldest vines on the estate. 60% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, 10% Parellada.

Under a smart layer of hazelnut and set honey is some beautifully wild ‘n wooly russet apple, reaching a little creaminess, with addictive wisps of briny, chalky flavours dancing around. The classiness of pale lemon shortbread, so bright on the palate like a shock of tight, white silk. Herbs and grippy phenolics are beautifully woven-in, and the mousse is so suave for Penedès. It keeps unfurling over hours, and days even.

Raventós i Blanc De Nit 2017 17

5% Monastrell gives this unique wine a lovely peachy hue. Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo in an unspecified blend. Delicate, charming and, unlike the vast majority of Spanish sparkling rosés, boasting clarity of texture and a buzzy, relentless energy. Juicy clementine and grapefruit, some fuzzy white peach and delicate florals riding on chalk and a subtle injection of grippy sage/tarragon/bitter herb complexity, kept in check with real succulence of fruit. Beautifully soft mousse.

Segura Viudas Torre Galimany Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2015 17

Cava D.O. A showcase for Xarel-lo aged in oak, with a small addition of Macabeo and Parellada.

You might think that oak, zero dosage and Xarel-lo would lead to something a bit brawny, but this was a lovely surprise. Refined, and carefully handled. An inviting orange blossom/peachy top note draws you in to lemon verbena, candied grapefruit and rosemary honey. It is intense with herbal notes, but not hard or too pithy. Just a little spicy creaminess on the palate takes you to oak. Great on day two – the sure sign of a good wine.

Recaredo Terrers Brut Nature 2017 16.5

Corpinnat. 57% Xarel-lo, 37% Parellada, 6% Macabeo.

I think this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve had yet. Some have been a little dried-out and dominated by oxidative notes, but this is in a good spot. Freshness of orange citrus and slightly wild green pear, with rosemary and mild fino sherry notes. It’s a dangerous game with these, but Recaredo play and win with clarity and brightness on the inside, and a sense of fruit sweetness to carry all that character. Impressed on day two as well.

Raventós i Blanc Blanc de Blancs 2017 16.5

40% Xarel-lo, 32% Macabeo, 18% Parellada.

The Blanc de Blancs is by far the most prominent, widely-available wine. There’s an element of defiance even in the name, as no Chardonnay is present. This 2017 vintage is pure refreshment, showing a gentle suaveness of texture beneath classic lime and white stone fruit. There is some grip on the back of the palate, but it is perfectly integrated. Necessary, even. Lovely style. *

Castellroig Reserva Brut Nature 2017 16.5

Corpinnat. Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel-lo, Chardonnay. Blend unknown. Stainless steel.

Clearly good materials and excellent winemaking! Jasmine, bergamot, a nice aromatic brightness with some orange citrus and rosemary. Some reductive control and finesse of texture. Well tucked-in phenolics. They have really worked hard to preserve freshness and elegance, and it shows. 16.5

Gramona Font Jui 2017 16.5

100% Biodynmaic Xarel-lo. OK, so this isn’t a sparkling wine. But it it worth noting. Some developed gingerbread spice, fino and slightly wild apple notes. Beneath, roasted citrus over honey-nut richness and chamomile; it is complex, oxidative in a managed way, and pulled tight with just enough acid line.

Vardon Kennett Esplendor 2013 16.5

55% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 5% Xarel-lo. Full malo, a small (unspecified) amount of oak.

The Torres family’s sparkling wine. Quite a gaudy clam-shell style bottle. After much fanfare this seems to have gone somewhat quiet, with no new releases in almost three years! Not sure why as it is well done, although I wouldn’t place it in Penedès blind. Refined with some apple macaroon, blossom with ripe orange fruits and some classical praline richness in there from time on lees (and on cork). A suave, slightly reductive frame. Maybe a bit more Xarel-lo would make this more distinctive?

Mas Del Serral 2007 16

This is Pepe Raventós’s personal project. A single vineyard in the Conca del Riu Anoia, planted in 1954 with Bastard Negre and Xarel-lo. This ambitious wine wears its sense of development and openness on its chest with intense baked apple and quince, honey and sherry notes enriched with salted nuts and bakery flavours. It did leave me wondering what it would have been like at 8-10 years of age rather than 12 (and less time on cork), as it is rather dominated by oxidation. *

Recaredo Terrers Brut Nature 2016 15.5

Corpinnat. 60% Xarel-lo, 20% Macabeu, 6% Monastrell, 6% Parellada. Stainless steel.

Tasted blind. Very oxidative style, but quite intriguing and with some finesse on the palate. Nuts, quite blowsy florals, pithy and dusty. Nice herby set honey, with reasonable acidity. A big character, although this bottle has tired a bit post-disgorgement. *

Colet Vatua 2017 15.5

Classic Penedès. This is unusual in being a blend of 50% Muscat, 40% Parellada and 10% Gewürztraminer.

Hardly classic but if you’re going to be different, be different! My favourite wine of the portfolio. Lots of fun, with pure peach blossom and bergamot, even some ripe gooseberry and tropical flourishes. Some citric, oily phenolics perhaps but it’s balanced with dosage and freshness. I can think of lots of settings for this wine.*

Colet Vatua Rosé 15

Classic Penedès. The same as the Vatua but with a dosage of Garnacha from Priorat. This adds a sort of cherry bomb to the picture, with quite fun floral and herbal touches that go a little savoury alongside orange and strawberry fruit. A touch of cream on the finish. It works, but I prefer the straight Vatua. *

Torelló Brut Special Edition 2015 15

Corpinnat. 49% Macabeo, 39% Xarel-lo, 16% Parellada. A reasonable amount of age behind this for the price. Disgorged October 2020.

Lemon pith, green apple and green herbs, straight up the middle in style without great complexity but a pleasing line and length. It suffers slightly from the wishy-washiness of some Macabeo-dominant wines, but stays focused enough. This is a great example of a wine that benefits from a really recent disgorgement.

Colet Navazos Reserva 2014 15

Classic Penedès. Chardonnay, dosed with 3% Manzanilla Pasada from Equipo Navazos.

The sherry-with-bubbles idea really fits the Colet style. Crystallised fruits, nuts and baklava with dried apples and pears. Deep, golden and very open and oxidative, it makes no apologies for its stance. Quite complex and interesting, going towards salted meats on the close. Divisive. *

Vilarnau Reserva Brut ‘Organic’ 14.5

Cava. 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 15% Xarel-lo. 15 months on lees.

Tasted blind it was clear some ‘flab’ was on show, and that there wasn’t much Xarel-lo focus here. A bit fatty and soapy, with dosage bumping up against phenolics and nothing adding up to much refreshment unfortunately.

Colet Tradicional Extra Brut NV 14.5

Classic Penedès. Macabeo.

A nice ripe, expressive styler marred by some rusticity. Dried apple, baked limes and honey with some sulphurous, vegetal notes that let it down. *

Colet Gran Cuvée 2016 14

Classic Penedès. 70% Chardonnay, 20% Macabeu and 10% Xarel-lo.

Quite formidably developed, deeply oxidative style of bruised apples and spiced brandy. A bit tired and dried-out. *

Sparkling wine has hardly been at the forefront of our minds over the last year. Not only are we not getting together to celebrate much, but online sample-based tastings are noticeably…still. Sparkling wines do not decant well, they cannot be coravin’d, vacuum-packed or argon-ned. It’s full bottles or nothing.

There is an upside, though. Even if breadth of experience has been missing, almost every sparkling wine I have tasted over the last year has been from bottle over two or more nights. No flunked, cursory auditions or flash-in-the-pan flatterers: we get to know each wine as well as we could hope to. Wine is full of simplistic binaries; natural vs conventional, big vs small, oxidative vs reductive. There is one, though, that this period of more-drinking-and-less-tasting has reinforced as true, to me at least. I’m not sure if it has a name, but I can try to describe it:

A sparkling wine either has it, or doesn’t (a division I find a bit cloudier in still wines). It is quiet, often missed in tastings and lineups. In fact, there are wines for which it seems the entire point…and then we miss that point somehow, finding the wine boring or simple, or downgrading it in preference to surface showiness. We can take it for granted if we start looking for descriptors, or pigeon-hole fillers; it isn’t a flavour, really.

To call it ‘freshness’ seems too faint. Too prosaic. It is not the same as youthfulness, or high acidity, or reductive qualities alone. For me, it is the inside of a wine. Its fuel. If a wine has energy, is that energy on the surface, furiously working away to keep to impression of life? Or is the energy itself deep, perpetual, working its way up from the core? 

When the Tom Stevenson/Essi Avellan school seem to favour reductive over oxidative sparkling wines, I understand them because what they are expressing is not so much a simple stylistic preference as it is a recognition of this kind of quiet, inner brilliance. An understanding that this quality is hard-won, and that few regularly achieve it. Those that do can be hundreds of miles apart, working with totally different material, yet their best wines sit together like members of a secret international society. They can do the thing. 

If you’re not bothered by the thing, then the producers that get bigged-up can seem arbitrary, baffling even. If you’re into it, though, you also feel its absence acutely. If I end up landing with ambivalence on some fêted fizz it is usually because the outside is better than the inside. It takes resourcefulness to design, but actual resources to build.

The thing also challenges those that want to believe that sparkling wines can be made passively. In a process as delicate as the Traditional Method, shepherding it requires constant effort, even if you are lucky enough to receive its potential in your grapes in the first place. There are a million places it can be lost.

It may be a difficult thing to achieve, but it is not a difficult thing to taste. In fact, it is one of those features so elemental that wine folk can quickly un-learn it in pursuit of something easier to write about. As the promise of tastings, events and visits starts to become a reality again, though, it is time to sharpen up get used to the idea of the getting-to-know-you process happening somewhat faster than we have become accustomed to. Missing (or mis-attributing) the thing is what I fear the most. The rest of wine’s shadow play I can live with.

I came across a young couple yesterday whilst on a run in Wanstead Flats. They were resting on a damp log, swaddled up to the hilt to keep out the cold, her head nestled in his lap. This log, the remnant of a felled oak, sits behind an artificial lake surrounded by dingy thickets that harbour rats the size of juvenile polar bears. They play chicken with you, scampering close to your feet as you pass by the busy road which groans and sighs with empty buses heading towards the cemetery. Urbanised, gluten-fatigued swans sidle past empty bottles and faded crisp packets. In other words, there are nicer spots nearby. More uplifting spots. Spots you would choose if you didn’t mind being seen together. If you were allowed to be seen together.

The man – mid, possibly even late twenties – followed me with his eyes as I ran past, his head remaining perfectly still. This is romance in 2021, forcing the behaviour of desperate teenagers upon fully-grown humans. What was in their hands? Bottles of Budweiser. Will I see these two again on February 14th, on the same log, with a bottle of Bollinger Rosé in hand?

If we had been in a better place, perhaps the Government would have allayed the disappointment of Christmas with a relaxation of the rules at Valentine’s Day – spend a night in someone else’s home! Or perhaps the defunct NHS Track and Trace system could be re-purposed as some kind of Covid-friendly Tinder, notifying singletons if someone nearby has antibodies and enjoys long walks by the sea? Alas, we are where we are, and Valentines Day 2021 is really only for those of us that already live with the people we love. It’s a bit like celebrating the impeachment of an already-departed President – technically worthwhile, but prone to remind us of things we ought to have done earlier.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and absence is in short supply. Not only that, but the respective durations tend to match; a day at work, a day at school, a day of fondness. A trip to the bathroom or the recycling bin might only be repaid in seconds. I don’t want to sound glib in front of those that are living alone, but solitude is not something us cohabiters can possibly feel qualified to comment on any more. We have forgotten what it is, and we lack the opportunity to do any research.

What I do know is that my wife and I have agreed, for the first time ever, to celebrate Valentines Day. We will head out to the most romantic place I can conceive of; a place where lovers meet, where nature thrives, where all of life, from start to finish, can be taken in during the course of one deep breath. There must be something good about that log, after all. We will bring with us a three year old boy, a bag of crisps and a bottle of pink champagne, and we will take all of them back home afterwards. I think we will have a grand time.

If a characteristic can be applied to any wine, no matter where it is from or what it is made of, how do we value it? Are generic flavours ever interesting or worthwhile?

This is a particularly thought-provoking question for those of us interested in Traditional Method Sparkling Wine, which deliberately adds flavour through induced, repeatable processes. Robert Walters, the author of Grower Champagne manual Bursting Bubbles, doesn’t think that the Maillard reaction, for example – toasted and caramelised flavours that he links to the sugar addition at dosage – is worth much. He quotes his friend wine consultant Dominique Denis:

‘Sugar is like the fourth musketeer of Champagne: there’s only supposed to be three: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. Then you read the book and find out, to your surprise, that there is in fact a fourth musketeer and, even more surprisingly, that he plays a major role in the story!’

Walters has learnt to recognise a flavour of process, and now finds it intrusive. Is this fair? Or can we be triggered into forming opinions by generic flavours that we pluck out of context?

This is an area where personal taste matters. I know I have mine, and I also know that I have to keep re-assessing whether my reactions are reasonably fair and balanced. None of these flavours have hard boundaries, and we only really interpret them as combinations with other elements. Wine is more than the sum of any of these parts, but it is still useful to to take it apart and use this knowledge to reflect on our own reactions.

This is particularly true if we are trying to judge its quality. Is this wine really flawed/superb or does it just display a character I associate with other flawed/superb wines? When I return to a wine with the feeling that I misjudged it the first time, this is usually the culprit.

A Very Personal Run-Down

There’s a lot of ‘I’, here, but when it comes to flavour it makes sense to talk in the first person.

New oak

New oak is an obvious flavour. It is also delicious. We bemoan its dominance in wines, but it would be a hard heart that always recoiled at the slightest whiff. An observation; people that complain about overt oakiness in still wines sometimes don’t notice it in sparkling wines! Perhaps we mistake it for Maillard flavours? Or because we don’t think to look for it?

I usually find high levels of sweet new oak (and even new-ish oak) distracting in champagne and sparkling wine. It also doesn’t tend to integrate over time in the same way that we think of in still wine. But those arguments are for another time…

Verdict: Gets a pass if used as part of a genuinely long-lived style. Otherwise, flashy.

Volatile Sulphur Compounds (VSCs) and ‘reductive’ aromas

Winemakers have broadly understood how to hone and cultivate some of these flavours for a while now. The classic example is the ‘matchstick’ or ‘gunflint’ aroma, which is found in more and more moderately-priced still wines. It can provide some distraction, although it can seem a bit ‘bling’ in basic wines, to me at least. Great wines manage to incorporate reductive qualities with more elegance.

Sparkling wines cannot be made without the reductive environment of lees-ageing, but this does not mean that they always show reductive characters. These are still usually cultivated, to some extent. I would argue that there is a generic reductive ‘signature’ in sparkling wine, found especially in long-aged blanc de blancs and magnums. It doesn’t seem ‘tacked on’ in the best Traditional Method wines; it sits comfortably in the complex crowd of flavours that arise through bottle fermentation, autolysis and disgorgement. Even the SO2 addition at disgorgement can add to it!

Verdict : it’s about how you wear it, darling

Saltiness

I’m staying clear of the M world – minerality – but I will say a word about ‘saltiness’. It often strikes me as a generic term that people use to describe wines that show some combination of mild oxidation, phenolic grip, and…well, the buzz around the water cooler is all about succinic acid at the moment. Yeast behaviours are responsible for the formation of this weak, bitter and slightly salty-tasting compound. Whatever it is, it can be an interesting element to a wine, but I’d stop short of automatically declaring a great terroir whenever I taste it. How interesting it is depends on how interesting the rest of the wine is.

There are kinds of stoniness, chalkiness, flavours that seem carbonic…things that a bit more mysterious, ethereal almost. The lines are blurry. But as I drink a very cool, acclaimed Grüner Veltliner that appears dull and pudgy at heart despite being dressed up in this sort of lightly-oxidative, salty coating, I wonder if it is easy to get seduced. I saw someone write the words saline acidity recently. What does that mean? Perhaps this will soon be one of those words that goes out of fashion.

Verdict: Part of some great wines, yes. A sign of a great wine? Probably not.

Is ‘saltiness’ the sign of an interesting terroir?

Amlyic flavours

These are straight from hell, where Satan is almost certainly sucking on peardrops. The product of cool fermentation, especially with certain yeast strains, these banal, confected fruit flavours are seen in poor Prosecco and rushed or cynical Traditional Method sparkling wines. They are perhaps a necessary evil in cheap wines, where ‘fruitiness’ has to be added in the cellar if lacking in the grape material itself. Disappointing to find in high-end wines.

Verdict: Gross

Oxidation

Sometimes oxidation can seem quite exciting. The toughness, nuttiness and bitterness it brings is heavy, though, so it needs fuel to propel it. Sugar and/or alcohol usually work, together with lowish acidity (i.e. tawny port, amontillado sherry). Wines can be made with oxidative processes that nevertheless avoid flavours of oxidation by the time they are in bottle.

I have a theory: some people to oxidation as a marker of seriousness. It triggers them, in quite a guttural, instinctive way (I wonder whether there is some kind of physiological reasoning behind this!?). Those of us that are wary of oxidation need to take this into account. I almost always find oxidation frustrating in sparkling wine, which has neither enough sugar, alcohol or flavour intensity to ride out the sort of gnarly, heavy energy it brings. Oxidative flavours just seem, to me, to jar with very dry, high-acid styles.

Verdict: Marmite. Divisive, but not worth losing friends over

Autolysis .

Now here’s an interesting one. Anyone can age their wines on lees. Red, white, sparkling, whatever. So is it a boring flavour? No. I don’t think so. It is subtle, textural and, in the case of sparkling wine, a breeding ground for compounds that will do interesting things later in life.

Can you overdo it? I think so. Most of the sparkling wines that feature heavy-handed autolytic characters seem to be those that have seen a lot of action before bottling – perhaps long ageing on primary lees with bâtonnage. If autolytic characters get too broad in sparkling wines, winemakers either disgorge the bottles or turn them on their heads to reduce the surface area in contact with the lees (ageing sur pointe).

Verdict : Yeast, in death as in life, are always fascinating

Wine yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Maillard Reaction

Caramelised flavours. These are largely – but not exclusively – developed after disgorgement (edit – thanks Tom Stevenson for pointing to ongoing research in this complex area. Something I hope to report more on!).

How we get on with these flavours comes down to personal taste. Some producers aim for a very biscuity, caramelised style and work to achieve this from the beginning. Other wines seem to take forever to develop these characters.

I agree with Walters that some wines use them to mask deficiencies elsewhere. I don’t agree, however, that finding rich, toasty characteristics is always boring. In good wines these are part of the whole picture: filters through which other flavours are sent, mirrors on which other flavours are reflected. They are only maquillage – make upwhen there’s something to hide.

Verdict : Delicious enough to arouse suspicion.

Where do we stop?

Is it even possible to assign some flavours as ‘natural’ and others as ‘unnatural’? The waters get murky when we start talking about the effects of yeast strain, malolactic fermentation and perhaps even Noble Rot formation on grapes for dessert wines. Those of us with unhealthy interests in wine flavour can learn to spot these characters without being blinded by them. Open-mindedness always rests on a tiny speck of naivety, even if we have to suspend some of our knowledge to maintain it.

Unless, of course, we get a glassful of peardrops and almond essence. In which case the sink is the only way out.

Franciacorta, sitting below Lago d’Iseo in Italy’s Lombardia, is one of the few Traditional Method sparkling wines outside France to have developed a tightly-regulated identity tied to a restricted production zone. Total output is around 18 million bottles per year, making it similar to South Africa’s Cap Classique and about one tenth the size of Champagne. Visit a bar or restaurant in Italy and you’ll be just as likely to see it on a wine list as Champagne; the Italians drank 89% of the entire production in 2019, leaving those of us elsewhere facing a difficult job tracking some of the wines down.

A few key facts:

  • Franciacorta is tightly regulated, adapted from Champagne with similarly-mandated lees-ageing times (18 months for non-vintage, 24 months for Satèn, 30 months for vintage and 60 months for the lesser-seen Riserva category). 
  • Chardonnay is in charge with 81% of plantings. Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco are used sparingly. Some producers are experimenting with the native grape Erbamat, which is the only non-Champagne grape variety allowed in the wines. 
  • Lago d’Iseo, which sits to the North of the vineyard area, moderates temperatures. Nevertheless this is one of the warmer areas in the world for top Traditional Method sparkling wine. With some harvests beginning in July over the last decade, Franciacorta’s battle is to lengthen the season and preserve acidity and elegance in the wines. Some believe Erbamat, which ripens almost a month later than Chardonnay, might provide the answer. 

Below is a collection of notes from the last few months. 

Satèn

Bellavista Satèn 2015

The formalisation of this style is unique to Franciacorta. An inventive twist on the Italian for silkenSatèn wines are 100% Chardonnay (although 50% Pinot Bianco is allowed), produced to a final pressure of no more than five atmospheres. Satèn is all about taming the bubbliness of full-pressure sparklers in favour of the silkier, gentler mousse that comes with lower pressure. 

When it works, the Satèn style cleverly carries Franciacorta’s sunny, ripe nature with a cool, calm texture that emphasises elegance rather than weight. Some of these wines would jar with a big, lively mousse – the sunny style of Chardonnay can be a little closer to a still wine than some, so it does make sense. 

Of the wines tasted below, the Bellavista was (perhaps unsurprisingly) my pick. Winemaker Mattia Vezzola did invent it in 1984, after all. The model in this case is suave and sweet-natured, but aligned with enough zip and energy to keep you dipping back in for another glass. Flavour is not in short supply in Franciacorta; the magic comes teasing out front-end ripeness into something long, fine and refreshing.

Bellavista Franciacorta Satèn 2015

17

100% Chardonnay, 65 % oak fermentation. Disgorged Autumn 2019. I love the hedonistic style here, with lots of candied lemon, lime and yellow tropical fruits, wrapped up in white chocolate and hazelnut wafers. Just puts a smile on your face.

But there’s detail and nuance too, from interesting florals to heady vanilla/tonka. Some real grace in how the palate plays out too, even when it is wrapped in silky-sweet pasticceria goodness. Cin cin! 

Guido Berlucchi Franciacorta ’61 Satèn

16.5

NV, disgorged in 2019. This such an assured wine, perfect for anyone trying to get to grips with what Franciacorta Chardonnay is all about.

The fruit is so clear and transparent, sunny but controlled with fragrant peaches, ripe pear and a nice juicy grapefruit bite keeping it keen. 2 years on lees just rounds it out – it doesn’t need more as the body and freshness is right where it should be. It’s not toasty or developed in style. Just pure fruit, perfect for a sunny aperitif. Great value. 

Mosnel Satèn 2015, Franciacorta

16

Mosnel’s 2015 Satèn is a real charmer. Disgorged October 2019. All estate fruit from Carmignone. Dried yellow apples and pear tart, lovely candied yellow grapefruit and this subtle perfumed note that reminds me of jasmine and Turkish delight.

You’re hit with a lovely peachy/juicy pear ripeness up front, but there is enough transparency and interest – flower, pepper, chalk, even a nicely pitched reductive streak –  to stop the sweet-natured fruit running away with the whole show. It would be ungainly, jarring even with a big, zippy, insistent mousse. Silk is where it’s at for this style. Approachable. 

Bonfadini Franciacorta Satèn Carpe Diem

16

100% Chardonnay, steel and oak with 24 months on lees minimum. Dosage 6.5g/l

Peach yoghurt and a slightly funky jackfruit aroma on opening, then some interesting aromatics – a snap of chicory and charred lime peel veer towards herbaceousness, but talc and something lavendar-like add some intrigue. Pineapple sweets. A decent mousse, plateauing with herbal sage and lime flirting round the edges. Not totally harmonious but full of interest. Orange oil on the finish. 

Ferghettina Franciacorta Satèn 2015

15

100% Chardonnay, 10% barrique with 3 yrs on lees.
This is a little clunky, feeling both over and under-ripe in ways. Pineapple and almond, with sourdough crackers a little yeasty richness but also some tough phenolics and not as much elegance as the other wines here. 15

 

Blends and Rosé

Ca’ del Bosco Annamaria Clementi 2010

Chardonnay still tends to dominate, with Pinot Nero is a natural second-in-command (and Pinot Bianco third). The two Ca’ Del Bosco wines below are hard to beat; this producer does have a unique way of injecting energy and direction into their wines. Annamaria Clementi is mightily impressive, but the Vintage Collection wines are superb too (and much more affordable). I did end up wondering whether Annamaria Clementi would edge even a tiny bit higher if they re-introduced just a smidgen of dosage, but you can see why they have taken it in this direction. 

I was also impressed by the style of the Antinori wine, which takes a few leaves from Bellavista in its suave coffee-morning confidence. The Guido Berlucchi wines also tend to impress, although the Rosé was not up to the Brut and Satèn this time. 

Ca’ Del Bosco Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2010, Franciacorta, Italy

18

55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Bianco, 20% Pinot Nero. 18 vineyards in Erbusco, Adro, Corte Franca, Iseo and Passirano. Notable for the high percentage of Pinot Bianco, otherwise declining in importance in Franciacorta. Whole bunch pressed to 39% extraction – coeur de cuvée style. 100% fermented in small oak barrels (minimum 3 yrs old), on which the base wines remain for 6 months. Full malolactic. Disgorged Autumn 2019 with no dosage or sulphite addition. 

2010 opens up with explosive charred grapefruit, ripe yellow apples and blossom honey. It manages to tone down anything too peachy or tropical, trading off delicious verbena/bergamot perfume and a gorgeous spicing from white pepper, cinnamon and basil. Shifting in its seat, it gives you a different view every 5 minutes. Proper complexity from blending here. 

It’s also pretty remarkable for a 100% oak-aged wine, letting the wood play brilliantly off reductive smoke and frangipane sweetness without smudging the fruit in butter or toffee. Golden crystal fruits just march steadily, evenly, towards more charred grapefruit and spice as it closes out. Lingering almond skin sends you back in. Wonderfully addictive. 

It does offer that little squeeze though the mid-palate you get with some zero dosage wines (and a touch of powdery, rocky grip), but here it is refreshing and light, not hollow or abrupt. There’s intensity, but it’s delivered with a cool, steady hand. Will it maintain this poise with age? Who knows! I wouldn’t bet against it. 

Ca’ Del Bosco Vintage Collection 2014

18

Fermentation in small barrels for about 5 months. Chardonnay dominant, with a splash of Pinot Blanc and around 30% Pinot Nero. 

Cut a slice of ripe grapefruit and beautiful Mediterranean lemon, drizzle it with Demerara and pepper then roast it until just charring..grind up some hazelnuts (you left a bit of coffee in there), then smash it up over a fresh almond croissant. Finish it off with a teeny bit of woodland savour..scrunchy leaves, a little haunting of Pinot…delicious!

It manages to shape that lovely Franciacorta fruit into something with real direction and length. The sweet nature is there, but it is honed, channelled. 

Guido Berlucchi Brut ’61, Franciacorta, Italy.

17

90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero. 24 months on lees. All Stainless steel. 

So appetising. Ripe, golden Chardonnay fruits and some lovely buttery, peppery and spicy notes coming in. A little tropical. Pristine, sunny, very good indeed. Who wouldn’t like this wine? 

Marchesi Antinori Franciacorta Cuvée Royale

16.5

78% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Nero, 10% Pinot Bianco. All steel.

Sweet apple purée on opening, with some pretty raspberry tart and dried peach. It does move up a gear, though, with chocolate croissants and charred clementines completing an alluring, swish kind of nose. It hits with a little fruity paunch up front, with candied fruits and peachy sweetness coloured with smoky charred citrus marmalade. A one act show, but it’s a good one. 

Lantieri de Paratico Franciacorta Extra Brut

16.5

85% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Nero, Steel and some small oak.

This took a while to open. Initially it just showed a fruity duo of white peach and slightly chewy citrus, but it opened up to some nice candied ginger, golden apple and fragrant tropicals. A bit butch on the palate on first impressions, seeming young and undeveloped, but there is some elegance and clarity lurking. Fairly priced. 

Guido  Berlucchi ’61 Rosé

15.5

60% PN, 40% CH, 2 years on lees.

Sweet crabapple, fruit a little muted at first but opening up very slowly with some bitter herbs and grapefruit. The fruit sweetness – nectarine, raspberry – arrives after a while, tagged with a little autolytic and cut with fine phenolic details. Seems a touch charmless and anodyne compared to the others in this range at the moment. Difficult base vintage?