Have a pop at champagne’s poor Spanish relation

Search out good cava.

“Take what you want,” says the Arab proverb, “and pay for it.” This seems obvious to the point of cliché, except for the hallowed tradition of trying to ignore the payment bit. Tax cheats want smooth roads and rubbish collection organised by celestial beings who scorn remuneration; not a few women hunt for ways to pack half a century of experience inside the springy epidermis of a 25-year-old.

There is something wrong with our ability to calculate cause and consequence, although there is, to be fair, also a profound flaw in a universe where it’s easier to fiddle your taxes than keep your youthful complexion. Still, the most important outcome of this defect in our species, if you don’t count war, is crap, cheap wine.

There is a lesson here, if we could but see it. If you buy something at half price, or you buy one and get one free, and the one in question is horrible, you have not got a bargain. You are not taking what you want – but you are paying for what you get. This is a terrible deal. So why do we persist?

Partly, through ignorance. It is one of my biggest gripes with this country (and, trust me, I have plenty) that we don’t know how to drink. It is perfectly acceptable among most twentysomething Brits to down six pints of rotgut in the pub with no dinner but if I had a pound for every time someone interpreted my interest in wine as snobbery or alcoholism or both, I’d be able to buy up all those substandard pubs and close them down. Well, I’m sorry but I win this one. The only kind of bargain I like is something that’s worth paying for – which is not at all to say I want to spend a fortune on my evening beverage.

Which brings me to cava. No – put down that £6 supermarket bottle and listen. Cava has sold itself as cheap bubbles for the celebrating classes with great success: nearly 36 million bottles arrived on our doorstep last year and I’ve yet to meet anyone who has never heard of the stuff. I’ve also met very few people who think it tastes nice but that’s because they’re drinking the wrong cava.

Most cava comes from Penedès, near the little town Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, just outside Barcelona, and contains some combination of Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeu grapes, although Chardonnay and PinotNoir, two of the varieties allowed in champagne, also show up, and there is Monastrell and Trepat in the rosés. But definitions are loose, production standards low and the priority seems to be keeping it cheap rather than making it good. Several of the best producers are so irritated by this image problem that they’ve stopped labelling their wines as cava at all. Pepe Raventós, who makes the superb Raventós i Blanc fizz, has come up with an alternative name and a strict set of rules for his little patch. He wants the designation Conca del Riu Anoia; I wish him luck getting the English to ask for that.

The man more likely to get this country clamouring for cava is Richard Bigg, owner of London’s four Camino restaurants and Pepito, a sherry utopia whose only flaw is its extreme titchiness. He has now opened Copa de Cava, a bar dedicated to Spanish fizz, beneath Camino San Pablo, near St Paul’s. In a vaulted cellar, delightfully decorated with pig haunches, sit cavas ranging from £4.75 a glass to £95 a bottle.

Here, you can try the toasty complexity of Gramona’s superb 2007 brut; a 100 per cent Pinot Noir by Juvé y Camps that pings sour cherries at you; or a delicately drinkable Raventós i Blanc rosat, made from the three traditional cava grapes, plus Monastrell. House fizz is Vilarnau brut, a decent, lemony starter cava. These producers vinify carefully, age judiciously and sell at a price that can keep them in jamón. The results are splendid and, like champagne (which is made using the same process), include differing styles as well as prices. If you want to stick to your tongue-scorcher, fine: you’re paying for it, after all. But drinking bad booze is too high a price for me.

Bubbling under: forget the supermarkets and search out good suppliers of cava. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.