For many years, Don Day’s Wife and I have spent a couple of weeks of the late Summer in France. The regions of the country we’ve visited have varied but the central theme never has. Food. And wine. And more food. And more wine.
One year, when we went to The Loire Valley, the theme was 9 Michelin stars in 9 days. These days though, if you’re looking for restaurants who’ve been awarded Michelin stars, you’re better to head south. To Spain. To places like San Sebastian where there are more Michelin stars per capita than any town in France. So, this year, we altered our travel plans to spend a couple of weeks of the late summer in Spain.
Now if you know anything about Don Day’s Wife, you will know that at exactly 5:00 pm, on almost any day of the week, she starts to sing an old Olivia Newton-John song. Only she spells it a little differently. It’s her not-exactly-subtle way of letting me know, when I hear the words “Let’s Get Fizzical. Fizzical.”, that it’s time to pour her a glass of sparkling wine. And that song gets sung no matter what side of the ocean we’re on.
Making the holiday shift south from France to Spain was an easy one when it came to sparkling wines. France is the world’s largest producer of sparkling wines. Spain is the world’s second largest producer. And ever since the Avis “We Try Harder” ad campaign that pitted their business against the reigning champion of the car rental business, Hertz, and particularly when I remember who Hertz chose as their spokesperson, I’ve had a soft spot for second place.
France’s sparklers, depending on whether they’re produced in a specific area in the northeast of the country, are called either Champagnes or Cremants. Spain’s sparklers, no matter where in the country they’re produced, are called Cavas. France’s sparklers, particularly when they’re produced in that specific area in the northeast of the country, are also called expensive. Spain’s sparklers, on the other hand, are also called affordable. And particularly when you’re drinking them in Spain.
I think I first saw the word Cavas used in the eighties. And I thought what a dumb idea using a word that translates to English as caves to identify such a wonderful product. I think it’s still a very dumb name but, in spite of their strange moniker, Cavas did very well in the eighties and even better in the nineties both home and away. Since that time though, sales have been fairly static domestically and even went into decline over the last couple of years. Internationally, things are much brighter with a 40% increase over the last five years. And how much per capita do we drink? In Spain, it’s about two bottles per person annually. In the U.S. and Canada, it’s about one bottle for every 17 people. In Mexico, it’s one bottle for every 296 people. I couldn’t help thinking what those Mexican numbers would be without Don Day’s Wife’s consumption.
Why did I want to know those numbers? Well over the last 20 years, there’s been a dramatic shift in the world of fine cuisine. France, the recognized number one for…well…forever, has encountered its own Avis. Spain is threatening France’s leadership. Could the same thing be happening in the world of sparkling wines?
There are two types of French Champagne, vintage and non-vintage. In very simple terms, vintage Champagne is older, better and more expensive. How much more? At La Europea, the San Miguel de Allende liquor store, vintage Champagnes average about 3500 pesos and non vintage Champagnes 800 pesos. Which means, when we’re in Mexico, we never buy vintage Champagnes and we very, very rarely buy non-vintage. We just can’t afford to.
There is only one type of Spanish Cava, non-vintage, because Cavas are always sold young and fresh. At least I thought that until earlier this year when I saw a bottle high up on La Europea’s shelves, where my eyes seldom go and my hands fortunately can’t reach, with the name Gramona and a price tag of 972 pesos. Whoa, I thought, pretty hefty for a Cava, that must be something special. Then I saw something else on the label. 2004. Wow, a vintage Cava, a very vintage Cava. For about the same price as a non-vintage Champagne. Maybe someday, on some special occasion (like when I’ve come home at 5:00 am the night before), I should treat Don Day’s Wife to that.
Cut now to late September. The scene is a supermarket in Barcelona. And there on the shelf is a bottle of vintage Gramona, a 2010 Imperial Gran Reserva. The price is 16.5 Euros (about 350 pesos). “What’s say we pick up some picnic goodies and stay home tonight” I said to Don Day’s Wife. You know her answer.
Now what’s different (and very nice) about Spain is they somehow haven’t heard about the 200% mark-ups that restaurants add to wine in a place called North America. In fact, often the price in restaurants is no different than what you pay in a wine shop, corner store or supermarket (don’t ask me how or why). So that definitely wasn’t our first bottle of Gramona.
Gramona, the company, goes back to the nineteenth century, one of quite a few Spanish winemakers to take advantage of the spread of phylloxera, a disease that eventually wiped out most of the vineyards of Europe. The insect that caused the disaster, like Don Day’s Wife and I, chose to go to France before Spain and Gramona was one of the Spanish wineries that sold a still white wine to Champagne as well as directly to the Champagne bottlers’ customers in places like England, Holland and Germany. For the first time, Spanish wines were on the European if not quite the world map.
In 1951, Gramona made its first vintage Cava. They called it Gramona III Lustros (I know, not the catchiest name) and, after seven years of aging, they released it. It was the same name I saw on that label on the bottle at La Europea earlier this year.
So how was that first bottle of vintage Cava we drank in our apartment, that bottle of Gramona Imperial that we paired with jamon Iberico, Idiazabal cheese and pan rustico? Well I thought it was the best Cava I’d ever tasted. And I thought it might be the best sparkling wine I’d ever had for under 500 pesos. And I thought it had distinct similarities with French Champagne but, no, I didn’t think it had that richness, that fullness, that aroma and taste of fresh-baked bread that you get from a vintage Champagne. But there were better things to come. What if we could afford to go another step up the Gramona ladder? What if we could find and afford a bottle of Gramona III Lustros, the one I saw at La Europea? A week later, we had the opportunity.
We were in the little town of Haro, the home of many of Rioja’s big names in wine. We were having lunch with Gabriela Rezola who’s with one of the biggest of those names, La Rioja Alta S.A. I asked Gabriela for recommendations on local restaurants with the most extensive wine cellars. On top of her list was La Vieja Bodega.
When we arrived home I did an Internet search for the restaurant. There was a a website and there was a wine list. On the list was a Gramona III Lustros. On the next day we dined at La Vieja Bodega.
The vintage Cava was priced at 28 Euros which translates to 550 pesos. There are restaurants in San Miguel who don’t have a single bottle of wine on their list for 550 pesos. The Gramona III Lustros was, obviously, about to be uncorked.
La Vieja Bodega is a very handsome restaurant with the kind of timeless decor that I would call elegant but not over the top. There’s a lot of wood, a little leather. It’s very private clubby, with wall spaces filled with contrasting contemporary art. It very much reflects the style and manor of its owner, the very affable Miguel Ángel.
Don Day’s Wife and I had decided to do something we’ve never done before. We had decided to pair all of the courses of our meal with a Cava. I asked Miguel Ángel what he thought of the idea of pairing his specialties with a Gramona III Lustros.
“I like it”, he replied. “I really like it”.
”I love Cavas and I love Champagnes. I love Gramona because the difference between each of their Cavas is very clear; the taste of each is very distinct. It’s because they know how to make Cavas the right way. Every one of them is amazing in their own special way.”
”I have joked with Gramona’s owner saying, “Please do something wrong. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to choose what I put on my wine list. Otherwise, I have to put every one of your wines on my menu. Everything you produce is all so very good.”
”I think Gramona III Lustros pairs very well with our croquettes. I think it’s ideal with our rice and octopus. I would recommend it for every single one of our daily fish choices and especially with the merluza and mushrooms that’s always on our menu.”
We did pair the extraordinarily good merluza or the fish that I call hake with the Gramona and, before that, the simplest of salads with tomatoes from La Bodega’s garden that brought memories of the way tomatoes used to taste.
When it comes to beef, Don Day’s Wife is a cheeky sort. Those two morsels of flesh on each side of a cow’s nose are her favorite parts of a cow. But because the heads of Mexican cows rarely make it to San Miguel de Allende butchers, when there are beef cheeks on a restaurant menu, they just can’t be passed up.
Red meat and sparkling wine? Sounds strange but even the richness of beef cheeks worked with the effervescent freshness of the Cava. And the only real challenge was to save enough in the bottle to wash down a superb apple tart.
The Gramona III Lustros uses a slightly different combination of grape varieties than Gramona Imperial and it’s aged seven years rather than five. In San Miguel de Allende, III Lustros is priced, as mentioned, at 972 pesos while Imperial sells for 580 pesos. So was the III Lustros better?
“Yes”, said Don Day’s Wife, “especially if being more similar to a vintage French Champagne makes it better. It’s toastier, nuttier, creamier. But I’d still settle for either one, any time you want to buy me one.”
I emailed Linda Díaz Morales, Gramona’s head sommelier and asked her how she thinks the company’s vintage Cavas compare to vintage Champagne.
Linda told me, “Backed by the biggest marketing budgets in the wine industry, Champagne continues to sell the idea that no producer outside their borders should even bother trying to emulate the quality of its sparkling wines. In a way, it finds itself in the same position that haute cuisine was in decades ago.”
“Cava producers close to the French border started to believe that they produce great sparkling wines from their own, native grape varieties. They became aware of the great potential and beauty of the raw material that they had on their doorstep.”
“International critics and journalists started to talk about Cava in the same flattering terms that they had only reserved for Champagne, while also recognizing the uniqueness of our sparkling wines. Today, 20 years later, Cava is a fine wine which is of world class quality.”
Linda continued, “Long aging with the yeast is the common factor among the great sparkling wines of the world. That is why Gramona has this bready, ripe, complex profile. That’s why in blind tastings, it’s so hard to determine what’s Champagne and what’s Gramona. Quality, balance and elegance are at the same level. But Gramona does have its own Mediterranean character.”
In addition to Imperial and III Lustros, there’s a third Gramona Cava available at La Europea. It’s called Celler Battle (like I said before, they’re not exactly good at catchy names). Celler Battle uses the same grape varieties as III Lustros, in the same quantities, is aged two years less and has no sugar added. Yet it costs 1944 pesos a bottle, exactly twice as much as III Lustros. So is it exactly twice as good? That I don’t think I’ll ever know because that bottle is up on a shelf I can’t even reach with a stepladder.
Or maybe not. There was something earlier I didn’t tell you about when I asked Don Day’s Wife how she thought Gramona’s vintage Cavas compared with vintage Champagnes.
“You know what makes it so difficult”, she said to me. “It’s really tough to compare them to something that you only get to drink every five years. Wasn’t it you who told me that it’s not just birthdays that end in zero or five that are important when you reach our age?”
I think Don Day’s Wife will be better equipped for that comparison soon. But should I get her Gramona or Champagne?
La Europea is located at Canal #13 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There is a limited quantity and selection of Gramona in the San Miguel store. A better choice will probably be available in the chain’s Queretaro locations.