Sparkling wine was arguably invented, or rather, stumbled upon by the English around 1662. Why that date? Well, because on December 17th, 1662 Dr. Christopher Merret, in an historic first, delivered a paper on sparkling wine to the Royal Society of London, in which he outlined a method that had been previously perfected for making sparkling cider in the West Country of England by adding sugar to dry cider and corking it for a "sparkling and whizzing noise", (Silas Taylor, 1624-1678).
Fast forward about 50 years, 1714, to be exact, and Dom Pérignon, French Benedictine, perfects the method for creating highly effervescent pinot noir in newly developed English bottles of fortified glass. The Dom soon realized that blending other varietals with pinot noir often gave sparkling wine more complexity. Today, classic champagne is made of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Variations on French sparkling wines include Blanc des Blancs, which is pure Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noir, which is pure Pinot Noir.
Ok, so Champagne is a sparking wine made in the region of Champagne, France with Chardonnay and Pinots, using the méthode champenoise, which means creating sparkle through a second fermentation in the bottle.
Cava, whose origin is consensually dated from 1872, when the Catalan winemaker Josep Reventós introduced French sparkling wine methodology to vineyards northwest of Barcelona, unlike forced-carbonation in Italian Prosecco, is a sparkling wine elaborated with the same méthode champenoise, (called mètode tradicional in Catalan), but in Catalonia, and with grapes native to that region: Macabeu, Xarel·lo, and Parellada. The grapes make the difference. While Champagne's noble Chardonnay and Pinot Noir create a rounded, well-balanced and soft tingler, Cava's own grapes create a sparkling which is bright, citric and audacious.
Let's begin by saying that traditional sparkling cider has nothing to be shy about. As we have seen, it predates sparkling wine by years. So, emulating Cava, which by its lively nature is far closer to cider made of heirloom apples, especially crab apples, than, say, Champagne, is not a move to turn sparkling cider into something that it is not. The fact, though, is that sparkling cider has largely become a drink elaborated from sweet varieties of eating apples that are low in acidic content and that are "sparkled" through forced-carbonation, like Prosecco .
A little while before sparkling cider first made its debut in England, Lord Baltimore ordered in 1634 that settlers headed for the colony of Maryland should plant pears and apples for the making of cider and perry. Such apples were cider apples, mostly Pippins and Russetts.
So, we want acidic apples to make a good sparkling, and by good I mean a champagne-like sparkling. Champagne is made out of grapes that are harvested early to give it a higher level of tartaric acid, as well as malic acid and citric acid. The pH of brut Champagne is optimally about 2.9, and a brut Cava is as acidic as Champagne in the laboratory (2.9 pH), but has traditionally aimed for more of a lively taste in the real world; and I have tested many closer to 2.75 than to 2.9. But, what gives Cava its pizzaz over Champagne if it's not a tad bit more of acid? I'm not sure I have the answer to that one, but the subjective experience of Cava is indisputable. Perhaps it is because its three principal grapes are white, and one of them, Xarello, is very acidic, whereas Champagne rounds out its taste with the broader, more subtle red Pinots, while its white grape, Chardonnay, is not particular acidic; or perhaps it has to do more with the type of acid Cava contains, rather than the amount.
pH is perhaps not the best measurment of acid in sparkling wine. While it tells us how strong the overall acid content of the wine is, it does not tell us how much there is of the three principal acids: Citric, malic and tartaric. Citric is stronger than malic which is stronger than tartaric. The laboratory measurement "Total Acid" gives the percentage of the acids which make up the pH. I suspect the difference in taste between Cava and Champagne lies more in the relative amount of the three acids in each drink. Parenthetically, I have had one Catalan cava-maker tell me that citric acid is high in Cava.
Now, "eating apples" are not very high in acid, but certain cider apples are. For example, the Virginia Crab (Hewes) that we just harvested last week had a pH of 2.95.
What better base for making a good sparkling is there than this! By the way, apple cider's principal acid is malic, which is known to be tart, and is, after all, the characteristic that Cava drinkers covent.
So let's talk about sugar. Ciders made from eating apples are usually low in sugar and, thus, low in alcohol, which makes them perfect for drinking immediately after fermentation, and gives them a very short shelf life. Cider apples, however, are usually higher in sugar content. The crab apples pictured above from our orchard were harvested at 24 Brix, which will yield a base cider of about 14.5% alcohol. Now that's a little too high in and of itself, but then these tiny crab apples are mixed with other cider apples to yield a base cider of around 10.5% alcohol, which is the same percentage of alcohol found in Champagne and Cava base wines.
With a base cider of between 10 to 10.5% alcohol, the cider can be bottled for a second fermentation in which enough sugar is added to increase the final alcohol content to around 11.5%; (10.8% to 12.8% alcohol is the percentage officially allowed in Cava). With this level of alcohol, we can confidently allow it to age over a period of years to improve its final taste, and to pressurize the bubbles that make it a sparkling cider into tiny little things that line up single file when finally poured into your glass.
Bubbles are created from the CO2 that is deposited in the bottle as a byproduct of a second fermentation. There is about 95 pounds per square inch of pressure (PSI) in Champagne and in Cava, whereas Prosecco is much less. Most sparkling ciders either force carbonation through feeding CO2 into the still cider, as does Prosecco, or by bottle conditioning at a level of carbonation commensurate with beer. In contrast, we apply the mètode tradicional with our Cava-Style sparkling cider, which gives it the same 6 atmospheres or 6 bars (95 PSI) of pressure that defines Cava and Champagne.
What is sparkling without hundreds and hundreds of nose-prickling bubbles? Delicate bubbles, not forced carbon dioxide or nitrogen; but, rather, naturally formed bubbles that are yeast's gift; that are compressed ever so gently over time, a very long time, into a twinkling sparkle that is like no other. This is the mètode tradicional.
That is Window's Watch Cider.
Tiny little bubbles, that float upward in unison, one following the other, in a perfect column.
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