Davy Żyw on Prosecco, Cava and English sparkling wine


A close-up photo of a vine before bud burst at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire, England.

In the second instalment of our two-part series, Davy Żyw shines a light on Prosecco, Cava and English sparkling wine, exploring their cultural backgrounds and the factors that have led to their popularity.

Prosecco has become particularly famous in recent years. Where do its strong cultural associations come from?

If we start with Prosecco and look at where it’s made, it comes from the pianure – the flat plains – under the Alps, from Verona, tucked under the Dolomites, all the way to Udine right on the Slovenian border. Prosecco can come from any vineyard between the two, which is a very large amount of land. Historically, it’s not one of the richest parts of Italy. Ownership of land and borders have changed an awful lot, even in the last 100 years.

But you’ve got a few of these rich merchant towns – Venice being one of them – which have had a huge influence on the economies of these regions and the density of the population: the people who are looking to drink these wines. So, if you take Verona and Venice – two of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy – there’s this very strong piazza culture of eating, drinking and socialising. Prosecco has become this drink that people can start the evening with, because they’re likely to move onto the other incredible wines that are made in the region. There’s a real convivial social element to it: that’s the heart of Prosecco culture.

In Champagne, you only really make Champagne. In Veneto, you’ve got Soave, Soave Classico, Valpolicella, Pinot Grigio, Traminer – the list goes on. So, Prosecco is just one of the wines of the region, which affects how it’s consumed.

In Champagne, you only really make Champagne. In Veneto, you’ve got Soave, Soave Classico, Valpolicella, Pinot Grigio, Traminer – the list goes on. So, Prosecco is just one of the wines of the region, which affects how it’s consumed.

It’s also very cocktail-friendly. Just look at the Aperol Spritz – who doesn’t love an Aperol Spritz? You meet for one glass: it’s fizzy, it’s sweet, it’s bitter, it’s fruity, it’s refreshing. Then you go onto dinner. It’s very much associated with this lifestyle you have in this part of Italy.

Overseas, Prosecco has become a hugely popular wine. It’s the first step on the ladder to other sparkling wines. If you look at the last 10 years and how many drinkers would be swapping their everyday bottle of still wine for a sparkling wine of the same price, it’s fantastic. It has that sense of occasion, the pop of the cork, the theatre. We can be quite dismissive of Prosecco because of the quality ceiling, but in terms of what it’s done for the sparkling wine category and Italy in general, it’s an amazing achievement.

Moving onto Spanish sparkling wine, can you tell us a little more about Cava?

In Catalonia, they have more of a challenge when it comes to producing sparkling wine. Cava is very expensive to make: it requires the same time and effort as making Champagne, but in the past, it’s been sold very cheaply. This is the problem with large retailers. They’re selling Cava, which takes three or four years to make, for the same price as Prosecco, which takes 60 days to make. It’s been a challenge to secure its premium status in the UK, but the quality can be very high.

The grapes here are mixed. There are many local grapes around Catalonia, but you can also use Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And Cava production isn’t limited to Catalonia – you can make Cava anywhere in Spain – but generally, it tends to be made mostly around the hills outside Barcelona.

This is important, with Barcelona being such a huge gastronomic hub. The eating culture here is incredible. It seems as if the imbibers of Catalonia needed a drink for sharing which wasn’t Sherry or a still white wine, to have with tapas before they start eating dinner. Cava was created to whet the appetites and thirst of these drinkers and diners in the plazas of Barcelona – a way to start the evening before moving onto the more serious whites and reds of the nearby regions.

The soils in the area aren’t as chalk-rich as in Champagne; they’re darker, richer, more basalt, which is great for quality, but they don’t have quite the same precision as some of the sparkling wines you’d find elsewhere. But some styles are very, very good.

With the rise of British viticulture, we no longer have to look very far to find excellent sparkling wines. Can you tell us about the English sparkling wine scene?

You can trace viticulture in England back to the Romans. It’s almost seen as a novelty industry now, but it’s far from the truth: we’ve got a long relationship with winemaking in England that has never really come to fruition before. Now, we’re enjoying the heyday of English and British wine.

There are a few reasons why we’ve emulated our Champenois friends across the channel. One: although we’re a tiny country, we’re the world’s largest export market for Champagne – we love it here, so why not create our own? Up until a few years ago, it was said that London drank more Champagne than the entirety of the United States.

Another reason is because of the chalk. It’s the same band of Jurassic sea basin that stretches from Champagne, under the channel, then touches the south-east of England. A lot of the greatest English vineyards are planted on the same chalk. The vineyards of Hambledon – where our Own Selection English sparkling wine comes from – are planted on the same chalk we’d find in the Côte de Blancs. The chalk gives the wine all the same benefits of longevity, hydration, salinity and minerality.

This is an incredible moment for British winemaking. Over the last 10 years, the vineyard area has grown by 150%. We’ve got hundreds of different wineries across the UK now, and they’re only just beginning to realise the potential of their quality and just how great the terroir here is. It’s so exciting to be on the brink of this change. The UK is one of the new frontiers of quality wine in the world – and it’s happening right on our doorstep.