All About Cava: Getting Fizzy with Spain’s Favourite Sparkling Wine
You might have heard Cava described as “Spanish Champagne”. But it’s so much more than that!
Sure, Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine made in the same way as French Champagne, but that’s only part of the story. It has its own unique flavour and tradition, and it definitely has its own prices.
In fact, one of the first things you notice about Cava is how affordable it is, especially when compared to Champagne! Unfortunately, that puts some people off. They think that means Cava isn’t as tasty, well-made, or as special as other sparkling wines. (Some people even make the terrible error of thinking that Prosecco is a better choice… yeesh!).
But I’m here to tell you that you need to be drinking more Cava. It’s delicious, it’s affordable, and it’s just so darn interesting. Let’s start with e basics! If you want a quick summary of Cava, you can just read the first section. If you have more time, keep reading!
The Quick Sip on Cava
Cava is a Spanish sparkling wine, mainly produced in the Penedès region of Catalonia. While Spaniards are quick to point out how different it is from Champagne, there are a few important things that the two sparklers have in common.
Firstly, Cava is made using the méthode traditionnelle (the traditional or “Champagne” method of producing sparkling wines). This means that the bubbles in your wine come from a second fermentation that takes place inside the bottle, unlike Prosecco.
Cava can also use a couple of Champagne grapes (chardonnay and pinot noir), though most wines are made with local grapes: macabeo, xarel-lo, and parrellada.
What Does Cava Taste Like?
Cava is a light to medium-bodied sparkling wine, with flavours of citrus, baked apple, and stone fruit, with a strong chalky minerality. Through extended lees ageing, it develops a creamy texture, with brioche and roasted almond aromas.
Although less common, you can also find rosé Cava from many producers.
There are a few different sweetness levels, with the same terms used in Champagne. You’ll find they range from Brut Nature (driest) to Dulce (sweetest).
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Keep reading to find out how the bubbles get in your wine, and the best brands to buy. But first, why Cava?
The History of Cava
Most Spanish wine goes back to the Romans. Like most of Europe, you can describe pretty much all Spanish vino with the formula: Romans + Monks = Wine.
But not Cava.
Sparkling wine is a much more recent affair. Catalonia didn’t start making fizzy wine until 1850, and that wasn’t even Cava!
We owe Spain’s best bubbly beverage to the work of just one family. In 1872, a young man named Josep Raventós made the first Cava. He was the 18th generation of a Catalonian wine-making family—so he decided to spice things up a bit.
Young Josep took a trip to the Champagne region of France, and spent some time learning the way of the fizz from the local masters. He came back to Catalonia and put his new skills to work making home-grown bubbly wine.
(The Raventós i Blanc family winery is still up and running, now in its 21st generation!).
But the Spanish like to put their own mark on things. So while the techniques might be French, the grapes are squarely Spanish.
Josep’s home region of Penedès was struck by phylloxera in 1887, meaning a lot of the older vines were being ripped out. The area had mostly been famous for red grapes, but the new trend in Cava convinced many local wineries to replant the local white varieties that the Raventós family were using to make their fizz.
Penedès has been the Cava heartland ever since!
The Land of Cava
When Josep first made his wine, the locals called it champán (or xampán in Catalan). Eventually, France got a bit fed up with this, so the Spanish wine-makers decided on a rebranding.
In 1972, they convinced the government to establish a new Denominación de Origen (D.O.) to control where and how the wine could be made. They needed a new name for it, and they settled on Cava, named after the caves where their wine was kept as it aged.
But unlike most D.O.s, Cava isn’t tied to one place. In fact, Cava is the only D.O. where the brand is tied to how you make the wine, not where you make it.
That’s why wineries in Aragon, La Rioja, Extremadura, Castile and León, Basque Country, Navarre, and Valencia can also call their fizzy wine Cava, as long as its made using the méthode traditionnelle.
The Climate and Soil of Penedès
That being said, almost all Cava (about 95%) comes from Penedès in Catalonia. It’s a good spot for making wines, and not just because it’s only a few miles down the coast from Barcelona.
For obvious reasons, there’s a Mediterranean climate here. That means long warm summers, mild winters, and not a lot of rainfall. Traditionally, the region is broken up into three main regions:
- Baix Penedès: Lowlands near the coast, warmer and less used for Cava grapes.
- Alt Penedès: cool mountainsides getting up to 800m above sea level.
- Medio Penedès: between the Baix and Alt Penedès.
Most Cava production takes place in the town of San Sadurní de Noya, in Alt Penedès.
The soil here is chalky and calcareous, perfect for drainage and also conversely for water retention deep down beneath the surface. If that sounds familiar, you might be onto something. This is the same type of soil you’ll find beneath Champagne!
What Grapes Make Cava Wine?
Cava comes in both white (blanco) and rosé (rosado), so it uses both red and white grapes.
To make standard white Cava, there are three main grapes: macabeo, xarel-lo, and parellada. (You can also use chardonnay, pinot noir, and subirat (a local grape, something like Malvasia)).
Macabeo makes up the biggest part of Cava blends (and about a third of all plantings), and is used for most single-variety bottlings. It’s not because it’s particularly delicious—in fact, it’s pretty neutral with simple citrus and stone fruit flavours. But that makes it a good candidate for lees ageing as it can soak up some interesting secondary flavours (think brioche and almonds).
Most would agree, however, that xarel-lo is the most important grape in Cava. It makes up just over a quarter of plantings, and gives floral and slightly earthy aromas to blends. While it’s acidity isn’t screamingly high, its concentration of antioxidants makes it a good choice for long-ageing Cavas. As it ages, xarel-lo wines develop sexy honey and pastry notes.
Although parellada accounts for 20% of plantings, it’s a bit maligned in the Cava world. It takes a back seat in blends, but still gives nice fresh green apple and blossom aromas. It mainly grows at high altitudes, to help maintain good acidity.
To make Cava rosado, winemakers use a handful of red grapes; trepat garnacha (a.k.a. grenache), pinot noir, and monastrell (a.k.a. mourvedre).
How Do You Make Cava?
Cava is made using the méthode traditionnelle (a.k.a. the “traditional method”). Not only is this the technique used to make Champagne, but it’s also widely regarded as the best way to make quality sparkling wine!
The Traditional Method
First, pick your grapes a little early to make sure they have plenty of acidity, and ferment them into a dry base wine. Then mix the different base wines to create your Cava blend.
Next comes the liqueur de tirage, a solution of yeast, wine, and sugar. It’s added to the base blend before it goes into sealed bottles to start a second fermentation. As the yeast starts eating the sugar it creates a bit of alcohol and even more carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed under a crown cap, the CO2 has nowhere to go and ends up getting dissolved into the wine. That’s where you get your Cava bubbles from!
But that poor yeast. It does it job too well and eventually tires itself out, dies, and decomposes (a process called autolysis). The dead yeast cells float to the bottom of the bottle; winemakers call them lees. The longer the wine sits on these lees, the more flavour they absorb: pastry, toasted almonds, and other lovely warm baking aromas. The wine will also get a richer, creamier texture.
Beauty and the Yeast
Cava needs at least 9 months of lees ageing before release. Cava Reserva needs at least 15 months, and Gran Reserva gets 30 months, minimum.
But most people don’t want a bunch of dead yeast sediment floating in their sparkly wine. So, the lees are removed through a process called riddling. The bottle is slowly turned and angled downwards so that the sediment collects in the neck. If done by hand, this takes 4-6 weeks! Luckily, Cava winemakers invented the gyropalette, a giant riddling-robot that gets the job done in just one week.
To get rid of the sediment, they freeze the neck of the bottle and remove the crown cap. The internal pressure of the wine shoots out the sediment! (This process is called disgorging).
To finish, top up the bottles with a bit more wine and sugar solution (the liqueur d’expedition). The amount of sugar in this liqueur (itself called the dosage) determines how sweet the final wine will be.
Sweetness Levels of Cava
Cava works with the same EU sweetness classifications as most other European sparkling wines. That means what’s true for Champagne is true for Cava.
There are 7 levels of sweetness in Cava:
- Brut Nature: 0-3g of residual sugar (RS) per litre.
- Extra Brut: 3-6g RS.
- Brut: 6-12g RS.
- Extra Seco: 12-17g RS.
- Sec: 17-32g RS.
- Semi-Seco: 32-50g RS.
- Dulce: 50+ RS.
It might seem odd that seco (the Spanish word for “dry”) can still mean a lot residual sugar. It’s a weird legacy of Champagne’s history, with popular styles getting gradually drier over time.
The most popular style of Cava is Brut.
What Food Goes with Cava?
Cava is breakfast in Barcelona.
That’s not exaggeration or analogy, it’s literally a popular breakfast drink! Just think of it like a mimosa, but without all that pesky orange juice. It’s also the preferred Catalan aperitif, so it pairs perfectly with simple tapas dishes, cheese, and charcuterie.
But I will say that my favourite pairing is Brut Cava and jamón ibérico. The combo of bubbles and ham fat is a texture bomb, and they each bring out the nuttiness of the other. It’s a total taste sensation.
What are the best Cava brands to buy?
Despite having fewer acres of vineyard than Champagne, Cava acres are still less expensive pieces of property. That’s a long way of saying that a bottle of Cava is a lot cheaper than a bottle of Champagne.
For $20 you can get an excellent bottle of Cava, and in Spain you get get it for under 10 euros. While the restrictions on grapes and technique mean that quality is pretty well controlled, here are the breands I would recommend seeking out:
- Freixenet: Despite being one of the world’s biggest sparkling wine brands, Freixenet is still a good choice. It’s a Catalan heavyweight, with a good range of quality Cavas at different price ranges.
- Cordiniu: The oldest and 2nd largest fizzy winery, but just like Freixenet, still a quality Catalan producer.
- Segura Viudas (Catalan)
- Recaredo (Catalan)
- Umbretum: This one will be harder to find, but well worth the search. It;’ an Andalusian wine produced in Extremadura (finding a loophole to get the D.O. Cava label!).
- Conde de Haro: A great Cava from Rioja.
Thanks for making it this far! By this point you are officially a Cava expert, all you need now is to apply your knowledge and drink as many bubbles as possible.
Lastly, don’t serve your Cava straight out of the fridge! Learn how to serve your wines properly, from my article on Spanish wine serving temperatures.
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