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Is This the Best Cava Made Outside Catalonia?

Spain's sparkling wine comes from several regions; Extremadura might be the best

Cava — Spanish sparkling wine — is a great drink at any time of the year, but especially on a warm spring or summer evening. Sitting on a terrace and watching the sun slowly getting closer and closer to the horizon, there are few greater pleasures than sipping a glass of cava and relaxing.

Cava is sometimes described as "Spanish Champagne," and indeed sometimes used to be described that way by producers, but this is no longer legally permitted. (Spanish winemakers officially adopted the term cava — literally "cave" or "wine cellar" — in 1970 as an alternative.) The wines are separated by a distance of many hundreds of miles and 230 years of history. However, both are produced by the same process, known in France as the méthode champenoise — and in Spain as método tradicional.

By far the majority of cava is produced in Catalonia, typically from a blend of macabeo or macabeu (known elsewhere in Spain as viura), parellada, and xarel-lo grapes, though also sometimes involving chardonnay, pinot noir, and a few other varieties. However, there are six other areas of Spain in which cava can legally be made. If you somehow manage to find a bottle of cava from the provinces of La Rioja, Álava, Zaragoza, or Navarra, or from various parts of the regions of Valencia or Extremadura, do not lift your eyebrow.

Cava from Navarra is definitely worth a try, especially the rosé, produced in very limited quantities. But here we will pay more attention to the region of Extremadura, which borders Portugal. You'll see plenty of vineyards just minutes after leaving Badajoz, the regional capital, and entering the area called Tierra de Barros, or Land of Clay, the most important wine-producing section of the Ribera del Guadiana wine country. Here, in immense fields with glowing red soil, olive trees share space with vines both old and new. The contrast of colors on a sunny summer day is spectacular — bright green vine leaves mixing together with the deeper green of the olive trees against a background color of vivid red.

The town of Almendralejo, southeast of Badajoz, is the birthplace of Extramaduran cava, and the first winemaker to produce the wine here was Marcelino Díaz. Díaz founded Bodegas Inviosa/Lar de Barros in 1931, and later split off a second property, called just Marcelino Díaz. Still wines in Tierra del Barros are great for sipping by the glass when all you need is something fresh and easygoing. In the early 1980s, though, Díaz had the idea that it would be possible to make cava here as well. The quality of the 1983 harvest was particularly good, and together with a couple of other enthusiastic winemakers from the region, Díaz decided to devote some of the grapes to sparkling wine. His first production, of only 6,000 bottles, was amazingly good — fresh, with low acidity, and a light mousse. Today, the Díaz name is usually the first one mentioned when people talk about cava from outside Catalonia.

Listening to Díaz's son, also named Marcelino, talk about cava is a pure pleasure: As he pours his Bodegas Marcelino Diaz Puerta Palma Brut Cava (he also makes a Reserva bottling), made with macabeo and a local variety called pardina, he tells me that he exports a large amount to such countries as England, Sweden, Switzerland, and that it is highly appreciated wherever it goes. (It is not currently available in the U.S.) Consumers are becoming more informed about wine, he says, and appreciating the differences in quality between them.

Unusual among Extremaduran winemakers, Díaz is always keen to discover wines and winemaking techniques from other parts of the world, and regularly holds tastings of both national and international wines, and he strives to maintain the highest standards for his own wine. (Cava has great potential here: About 17,000 hectares, roughly 42,000 acres, of vines produce grapes that could be used to make the sparkling wine, but only about 500 hectares are currently in use for it.) Díaz's efforts result in wines that are a great buy — his regular bottling sells for about $10 in Spain — and quite versatile on the table. While we talk, Díaz serves slivers of jamón ibérico (some of the best comes from Extremadura), which goes very well with the wine. Then he offers a more challenging food pairing: sliced ripe tomatoes, right from his fields — a surprisingly apt complement to the delicious sparkling wine of this under-appreciated region.

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