Monthly Archives: February 2011

Cava: Spanish Wine 101

Cava.  Don’t call it champagne.  Champagne refers to the region of France where sparkling wine is produced.  Therefore, it is more accurate to say that Cava is sparkling wine made in the traditional French method.  In the same way that the use of the namesake “champagne” is restricted to a particular region of France, “cava” is restricted to production in the Catalonia, Castile y Leon, Valencia, Extremadura, Navarra, Rioja, and Basque regions.  A four-pointed star is printed on the base of the cork of a true cava wine.  (Be on the lookout for it next time you’re shopping for wine!)


Cava originated in the 1800s at the Codorníu Winery, located in the Catalonia region of Spain.  At that time, red wine vines were destroyed by a parasite and replaced with white-grape producing vines. Josep Raventos is attributed with creating cava, after observing the success of the French Champagne region and wanting to do something similar.

95% of cava produced is from Catalonia.  The town of Sant Sadurní is home to some of the largest producers of cava in Catalonia.  Annual production is in the 18 million case range (where a case contains 12 bottles).  In 2010, sales of cava increased 10%, primarily due to the price point being much more affordable than French and California sparkling wine counterparts.


The primary grape varieties include Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo.  Macabeo provides the sweetness and aroma that is so characteristic of cava.  Parallada gives cava its “fresh,” crisp taste, and Xarel·lo provides body.

But how does the wine get its bubbles?  After the bottle is filled with blended wine, a mixture of yeast and sugar, called liquor de tirajo, is added.  A temporary stopper is added to the bottle and the bottles are stored in a cool cellar.  The yeast causes fermentation to take place.  I’ll spare you the high-school chemistry details of what the fermentation process looks like, but yeast will convert sugar to carbon dioxide.  In fact, cava undergoes a second fermentation while in the cellar and lasts for 9 months.  Throughout the 9 months, the bottles are stored horizontally and rotated by hand.  Rotating the bottles allows the yeast to collect at the neck of the bottle, allowing for easy removal once the cava is ready (i.e., all of the unused yeast is at the neck of the bottle).


During that time period, the cava is also aged.  As I discussed in a previous post, there are various aging periods for wine; cava is no exception.  Joven is aged for 9 to 15 months, Reserva is aged for 15 to 30 months, and Gran Reserva is aged for over 30 months.

No two types of cava are alike; similar to champagne, taste and body will differ depending on the sugar content.  Therefore, cava is categorized by “grade.”

Brut Nature: Contains 0 – 3 grams of sugar per liter (no additional sugar is added).  Brut Nature and Extra Brut are the “driest” cava wines.

Extra Brut: Contains 0 – 6 grams per liter.

Brut: Contains 0 – 15 grams of sugar per liter.

Extra Dry: 12 -17 grams of sugar per liter.

Dry: 17 – 32 grams per liter.

Semi: 32 – 50 grams per liter.

Dulce: More than 50 grams of sugar per liter.


As for pairings: I’ve noticed that most people in the United States will drink cava with a meal, whereas when I spent time in Spain, cava is typically served after dinner and majority is consumed around Christmastime.  It is very normal to have turron with cava – in fact, for the Feast of Three Kings, children will traditionally present a bottle of cava and turron to the Three Kings. (Makes me which I could be one of the kings and drink lots of cava!)

Aside from turron, I like to pair cava with fatty or fried foods, due to its mild acidity.  Croquetas, salmon, and goat cheese (Garrotxa is my favorite!) pair very nicely with a dry cava, as do spicy foods.  Interestingly enough, the heat of the spice will not amplify the heat from the alcohol.

Pimientos de Padron

Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non.” 

(Rough translation: Some Padrón peppers will “bite,” others will not.)


As someone who considers herself to be a pretty big risk taker, it’s only obvious that I’d be taking risks while eating as well.  “These green peppers look pretty harmless,” you may think.  But think again – consuming pimientos de padron is like a game of roulette.  Some are mild, sweet peppers, while others will have you gasping and wishing for a glass of milk.  (Full disclosure: Been there, done that.)  What makes consuming these peppers all the more fun is that there is no way of distinguishing a spicy pepper from a mild counterpart.


Padrón peppers are a type of chile, belonging to the same family as serrano and jalapeno peppers.  The peppers made their way to Spain when Franciscan monks from Herbón brought seeds back from the New World in the 1700s.  In Spain, there is even a festival in Herbón, located in Padrón, Galicia (not far from Santiago), dedicated to these peppers.


Padrón peppers are in season from May through September.  It is said that those peppers harvested later in the season have a higher probability of being hot due to increased exposure to the sun.  (Hmm, sounds a potential topic for a graduate school thesis if you ask me!)  Traditionally, the last day the peppers can be sold is on November 11, Saint Martin’s Day.  Spain seems to have a regulation for everything and peppers are no exception: all padrón peppers must be clearly labeled with their geographic origin. 




I have searched high and low for true padron pepper seeds, in order to cultivate my own crop and (literally) entertain my friends.  Because I had no luck finding suitable peppers here in the United States, I may have decided to “pull a Franciscan monk.”  I’ve started out with just a few plants this year, to assess the “heat” of these peppers.  If all goes well, I’ll plant a few more, so if you need peppers, shoot me a note.

So what do you do with these peppers?  Other than find some really hot ones to feed to your nemesis?

Pimientos de padrón are quite possibly one of the easiest tapas to prepare.  All you need are the peppers, olive oil (2 cups is more than enough for 1 pound of peppers), and coarse sea salt.

Rinse the peppers in cold water, but DO NOT cut off the stems.  You’ll need them to help you eat the peppers.  Yes, you eat these with your hands.

Pour the olive oil into a pan on medium heat.  When the oil gets hot, put the peppers in the pan and fry for 2-3 minutes.

Drain the excess oil by using a paper towel and sprinkle the peppers with sea salt.

Padrón peppers are served warm and it might be a good idea to have some broa bread (which I will discuss in an upcoming post) around in case you get a fireball.


Have you tried pimientos de padrón?  Is half the fun seeing who gets a hot one?

Caldo Gallego: Spanish Cuisine 101

My immune system is failing me.  AND I’m pressed for time.  AND I have zero appetite.  So when I’m feeling under the weather and need to keep my strength, what better cure than an easy-to-prepare, hearty soup?  Most recently, I fixed up some Caldo Gallego.


Caldo Gallego is a typical soup of Galicia.  There really is no wrong way to prepare the soup; each person has their own artistic liberty with the components.  Ingredients that are consistent from variant to variant are turnip greens (or kale) and potatoes.  Some people add lard to the broth to give the soup some flavor, but I live the lie of trying to be healthy and use chorizo to flavor the broth.  (You can also use ham.)  Another variant; I like to add fabada beans in order to get protein.

Eating and powernapping – sounds like the perfect cure.

Have you had caldo gallego before?  If so, what are your favorite ingredients to include?  Even if you haven’t had caldo gallego before, isn’t soup a great cold weather food?  Leave me a comment and let me know (techniques to fight a cold are also welcome!).



Gildas: Pintxos 101

With the Super Bowl this weekend, I want to have snacks that are easy to prepare and pair nicely with beer and wine.  Tostitos and dip aren’t the most thoughtful things to bring as a guest, plus they’re kind of boring.  So what am I making?  Gildas!


Gildas are very typical of the Basque region of Spain.  The pepper that tops the gilda is a guindilla, which is also indigenous to the area.  Guindillas are delicious – they are a great combination of sweet and spicy and the vinegar they come packaged in provides tanginess.

To make gildas, you will need the following: a baguette, green olives, guindillas, anchovies, and toothpicks.  Really simple stuff!

Some assembly required.

…And you’re done!  Gildas go well with a dry white wine (such as an Albarino) or a pale ale.


What are you doing for Super Bowl Sunday?  Who are you rooting for?  Or are you like me, and really just use the Super Bowl as an excuse to socialize, critique TV commercials, and eat?  And maybe even watch REAL “football” (aka the Real Madrid game) instead?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

Rias Baixas – Spanish Wine 101

Our next installment of Spanish Wine 101 will take us to the DO region of Rías Baixas.  This is appropriate because I am now a fully matriculated student for the summer semester at the University of Vigo!


Where exactly do Rías Baixas wines come from?  Galicia – the province of Pontevedra and the southern portion of A Coruña.  The area literally translates to “Lower Rias” (“Ria” in this case is a flooded river valley) because of the 5 rias that form estuaries along the Portuguese coast and Atlantic Ocean.  The area is home to many large fishing and commercial ports; Vigo is the largest port city. What was very interesting for me to see was the juxtaposition of heavy industrial equipment and towers that are almost 2,000 years old.  Enough with the geography lesson, let’s talk wine!


The area is famous for its white wines, especially those made with the Albariño grape.  90% of the vines planted in the area are Albariño.  The average vineyard size in Rías Baixas is less than half an acre, so don’t expect to see many huge bodegas producing tens of thousands of barrels a year.  It’s for this reason that Albariño can be pricey.  The region is divided into five sub-regions, each of which have their own traditional styles.

Val do Salnés

O Rosal

Condado do Tea


Ribera de Ulla


It is interesting to note that the soil in each of these regions is very different.  For example, O Rosal has alluvial (sand, silt, etc.) soil, as a result of the proximity to river basins.  On the other hand, Condado do Tea has granite and slate based soil, due to its position in the Miño Valley.  The sandy, slate-like soil translates to a slightly flinty flavor for Albariño wine.  Wines typically have a minimum alcohol content of 12% and are produced in a dry style.  The wine is extremely aromatic and smells of fleshy fruits, such as peaches and apricots, and sometimes citrus.  On the palate, the fruity flavor is apparent and because the wine is dry, it causes a little bit of salivation.  For me, Albariño wine is a great alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc.


Albariño is a great wine to pair with seafood, but also pairs very nicely with fattier or heavier foods (due to the wine’s high acidity).  I think Albariño pairs very nicely with grilled octopus or sardines, fresh shellfish, and cod croquettes.


As I mentioned before, Albariño represents the majority of vines grown in the region.  The Consejo Regulador has also authorized other vines.  White grape varieties include Godello, Loureira Blanca, Treixadura, Caiño Blanca, and Torrontés.  Red grape varieties include Caiño Tinto, Mencía, Loureira Tinta, Souson, Brancellao, and Espadeiro.  I’ll be sure to do some research this summer while in Galicia and report back with my findings with respect to these other grapes.


Have you tried any wines from the Rias Baixas region?  Which in particular are your favorites?  Do you consider Albariño to be more of a summertime wine or something that can be enjoyed all year?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

Gran Reserva y Mas: Spanish Wine 101

Now that you know the basics on the classifications of Spanish wine, we are ready for our next lesson: the aging of wine.  If you pick up a bottle of Spanish wine, you may notice the words “vino joven,” “crianza,” or a few others scrawled across the label.  Does it matter?  Absolutely.  By the end of this post, you’ll be speaking like a sommelier.

This Gran Reserva Rioja is from the Rioja Alavesa region.  I’ve had it on the shelf for a few years now and it should be ready to drink!

How do you prefer your wine?  Lighter and fruity, or full-bodied with lots of tannins?

Or do you care more about the region or varietal (aka the type of grapes) than the aging process?

Do you put much thought into pairing your wine based on what you’re eating?  

Leave me a comment and let me know!