No longer in a pickle with Spanish bubbles

John H. Isacs
An affection for all things pickled is nothing new.
John H. Isacs

This week, my learned friends at Shanghai Daily are delving into the deliciously diverse world of Chinese pickles. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, as I've long loved pickles of all shapes, tastes and styles. An affection for all things pickled is nothing new.

Pickling is an ancient method of food preservation that has existed for at least 5,000 years and likely much longer. The Mesopotamians were already avid picklers as early as 2,400 BC, as were their contemporaries on the Indian subcontinent. Pickles were essential provisions for Middle Eastern and South Asian traders, who transported these preserved treats and the secrets of their preparations to far off lands.

In China, the art of pickling was widely practiced in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) more than 3,000 years ago. Many food historians hypothesize that pickling in the Middle Kingdom existed in pre-Zhou times. Though the original raison de faire was food preservation, our ancient ancestors soon developed a taste for pickled food using them to spruce up more mundanely flavored or textured foods and frequently serving them as condiments or snacks.

My love affair with pickles began with Kosher dills, and has expanded to the broad range of Chinese preparations. More than 300 distinct types of Chinese pickles are said to exist, and all are delectable and present a clear and present wine-pairing challenge.

When pairing Chinese pickled foods with wine, one is, as we like to say in colloquial English, literally "in a pickle." The chief culprit is the pickling agent that's often overtly acidic and sour, salty or sweet. The pickling agent may be vinegar or other acidic juice combined with salt and pungent spices, or a savoring liquid like soy sauce. Sugar is frequently added to create sweet and sour sensations. This potpourri of ingredients and flavors requires some application.

The easiest and arguably best wines to pair with pickles are dry Sherries – think Manzanilla or Fino – or a Shaoxing yellow wine. Both readily accommodate the sour, salty or savory qualities of many Chinese pickles, while embellishing the flavors of any accompanying ingredients.

Fresh dry Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, Aligote or similarly acidic whites may also be fine choices, but in some cases can be overwhelmed by the most pungent styles of Chinese pickles. Dry sparkling wines with good intensity are a better solution, as they're less likely to be overwhelmed or compromised by pickled foods. One of the world's most pickle-friendly wines hails from the northeast of Spain.

No longer in a pickle with Spanish bubbles
Ti Gong

Sprawling, well-groomed CAVA vineyards in Penedes


Today, CAVA sparkling wines are made in several Spanish regions, but the vast majority come from the Penedes DO in Catalonia – where the whole story started. CAVA is made using the process of second fermentation in a bottle that was invented in the south of France in the 16th century, and subsequently perfected in Champagne by the monks in the 17th century.

Sparkling wines were first made in Spain sometime in the mid-19th century, but production was miniscule. This changed when a Spanish man named Josep Ravento traveled extensively in France in the 1860s trying to sell the still wines of Catalan wine producer Codorniu. Ravento returned to Spain with a new vision for Codorniu, and convinced the company to make a sparkling wine using the classic Champagne method but with local grapes.

In 1872, the first real CAVA was made by Codorniu, and soon the popularity of the wines incentivized other Spanish wineries to produce sparkling wines. Today, even though CAVA are made throughout Spain, the spiritual as well as commercial home of CAVA is still in the Catalonian town of Sant Sandurni d'Anoia where Codorniu first made wines with bubbles.

Though Codorniu was first, Freixent, which is also headquartered in Sant Sandurni d'Anoia, also deserves mentioning, as it has become the world's largest producer of Champagne method sparkling wines.

Three local Spanish varieties – Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo – dominate the CAVA blend, while Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Subirat may also be used. The first CAVA to use Chardonnay, one of the three varieties used to make Champagne, was made in 1981. But what really differentiates CAVA from Champagne isn't the grapes but the price.

Expansive growing areas and advanced, highly mechanized winemaking enable big CAVA producers to turn out high-quality sparkling wines at very affordable prices. The only other sparkling wine that can rival the attractive price-quality ratio of CAVAs is Prosecco, a rival Italian sparkler that is made using the Charmat method.

With a friendlier style and far better international marketing and communications, Prosecco has far eclipsed the international popularity of CAVA. Despite this, CAVA retains a special place in the world of bubbles, and I could make an argument that the more austere qualities of CAVA make it a more suitable Chinese pickles partner.

You're in luck if you share my passion for these frequently overlooked Spanish bubbles, as Shanghai has no shortage of easy-to-find CAVA wines. Just look for the names of top CAVA producers like Codorniu, Freixenet, Alsina Sarda and Segura Viudas, as well as some producers better known for still wines like Torres.

Enjoy well-chilled CAVA sparkling wine around 6-8 degrees Celsius. Most CAVAs are best when young, but Reserva and Gran Reserva CAVAs can age well and develop for a decade or longer.

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