Sometimes I literally run into a good wine, as I did a couple of weeks ago with a first-rate summer quaffer. The setting was the James Beard Foundation Awards, which are often described as the Oscars or the Pulitzers of the culinary world, depending on the category. The awards were given out over two nights and on the first, for journalism, I had the honor of receiving the best multi-media writing award for a column and companion video last fall on Santa Barbara County wines.
The second night honored the country’s top chefs, restaurants and cookbooks and culminated with a walk-around dinner reception featuring signature dishes of dozens of well-known chefs from around the country.
Parched and famished after the lengthy awards program at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, I burst out of the auditorium in somewhat dire need of a drink and some food. Fortunately, right in front of me, was a table offering a sampling of wines from Spain.
In a moment I was sipping a glass of refreshing cava, the Spanish sparkling wine that is one of the best wine bargains around. This one, the $10, non-vintage Cava Brut from Casteller, was dry, light and thirst quenching, even without food.
But it was about to get better. Right next to the display of Spanish wines was an excellent food match, from Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door in San Francisco, one of the top Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.
With my glass of cava in one hand I picked up a little plate of “Carmelized Contessa Shrimp with Lemongrass and Thai Chile” with the other. Hot, sweet and rich, the dish almost demanded a sparkling wine to balance out the vivid flavors. Champagne? Not necessary. The more humble cava, with its sublte notes of apple, lemon and lime, did the trick perfectly, as it will for many occasions
And therein lies a secret. Many people don’t realize that sparklers are excellent food wines, especially with strongly flavored dishes like the Vietnamese shrimp and with another dish I enjoyed that evening from Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain in New York – cold and piquant “Oyster and Lobsters Shooters,” which, as the name suggests, you belt back like a shot of tequila. Again, the cava provided a good balancing act, cooling down the spice and washing down the food without being overpowered by it.
Casteller’s cava is made from three local grapes in the Catalonia region near Barcelona – macabeo, parellada and xarello. The name cava, by the way, comes from the Catalan word for cellar. The wine is made by the traditional “Champagne” method in which there is a secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Casteller also makes a rosé cava, which I tasted and enjoyed at home with a simple Sunday brunch of scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and freshly picked sliced asparagus. This one had subtle notes of strawberry, raspberry and citrus. It lightened up the meal and was delightful on a cool, sunny afternoon, its dark salmon providing a pleasing visual contrast to the yellow and green of the eggs and asparagus. The rosé is made from two red grapes, the little-known trepat, which, as far as I can tell, is used mainly in cava, and the more familiar garnacha, or granache.
Casteller’s wines are imported by Olé Imports, which tells me they are available in several dozen states. If you have trouble finding them, pick up another cava or two; with their inexpensive prices, I don’t think you’ll go wrong.