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Regional Profile – D.O. Cava

CavaThe other night, I was helping a friend out at her restaurant where they were hosting a large office party. To start off, the evening, everyone had a choice of either a Cosmopolitan or a glass of Cava. For the first half hour, people milled about drinking their beverage of choice and losing their glasses only to request a new glass. As the night progressed, I heard something that gave me pause,”Have you seen where my glass of Champagne has gone?” One gentleman mentioned to another, “Champagne? Didn’t they mean to say Cava?” Most likely they didn’t know the difference, and for that reason, I will try to provide some motivation as to why you should ask for Cava and not Champagne.

Cava is Spain’s sparkling wine, the name coming from the word for cave, which describes the vast network of caverns that house and age this noble beverage. It was in 1872 that Josep Ravento’s first started experimenting with producing wine in a way that was being done in Champagne France. As far as what Cava has in common with champagne, well, it sparkles and is made in the traditional method known as Methode Champenoise.

Beyond the basic process of making sparkling wine, the two styles differ drastically. D.O. Cava (referring to a quality wine region) happens to be tied to a specific practice of winemaking, rather than a region where wine is made. Champagne can only be made in the French region of Champagne and in the traditional method, whereas in Spain, you can make wine anywhere that has proven to produce good sparkling wine, as long as you adhere to the rules of the D.O.. For this reason, many people often get confused and assume that all Cava comes from its traditional home of the Penedes in Catalonia.

Today, there are over 8 regions that have Cava D.O. status, although almost 95% of production sources from the Penedes region. The regions include:

  • Aragon
  • Basque Country
  • Castile y León
  • Catalunya
  • Extremadura
  • Navarra
  • Rioja
  • Valencia

It’s important to point out that these are the areas that are allowed to call themselves “Cava”, but there are also many other areas in Spain that make great sparkling wine that cannot be called Cava. In fact, even within the above regions, you’ll find wines that are referred to as sparkling wine. Why? Mainly because the rules to make Cava are viewed by some as outdated and antiquated. Therefore winemakers choose to experiment and sell wine as a basic sparkling wine if they believe a rule broken can yield better results.

So what rules must they follow to be allowed to make this sparkling wine with the name “Cava”? Here are the basics:

  • Must be made in the traditional method
  • Must age on lees in the bottle in which it will be sold for a minimum of 9 months, 15 months for Reservas and 24 months for Gran Reservas.

These are the main rules and are followed by other minor rules, the process and the types of grapes that can be cultivated. To know Cava you need to know the big three grapes: Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada, which are to Cava what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are to Champagne. They give Cava the flavors and structure that make it unique and sets it apart from the crowd. Following these, you have Chardonnay, Subirat Parent or Malvasia Riojana. These are all white, and while you can use red grapes, they can only be used in the production of Rosé Cavas, and not in white wines like you have in Champagne. These grapes include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Garnatxa, Monastrell, and Trepat.

However, there are basically three grapes you need to knowclick here for more information on these grapes:

  • Macabeo: Compact bunch and smooth skin. It produces a wine with a delicate aroma. In spite of its sensitivity to botrytis, it is resistant to spring frosts and its cultivation has been increased.
  • Xarel.lo: Good acidity and consistency. This grape is number one in personality. Individual grapes are characteristically thick skinned making this grape resistant to pests and rot.
  • Parellada: The least important of the three, its greenish grapes produce a floral aroma that is subtle. Parellada is harvested late and its acidity helps to counteract and balance Xarel.lo’s strength. It grows in the mountainous zones between 300 and 600 m. of altitude.

So what is Cava like? Well it’s clearly unique. Often said to have a more acidic edge to it, the newer wines I´ve tasted show more of the lush creaminess that you find in the wines of Champagne. For me, it usually shows flavors of citrus, green apples, raw nuts at times, and in the best of them notes of cream, honey and flowers. Styles range from: Extra Brut, Brut, Dry (sec), Semi-dry and Sweet.

For the most part, there are a few brands that you can find just about anywhere and you probably have even tried them without knowing it. Freixenet and Codorniu are two of the oldest and popular Cava produces, and both offer Cavas that at the entry level have a great quality to price ratio. For around 10 euros or less you can find these wines in almost any wine shop in the world. Both offer great simplicity and are easy to drink. In a world saturated in high priced champagnes these little “sparklers” often do the trick and with less pain in the old pocket book.

When you find you like it or if you just want to start at a higher price point you’ll be rewarded by trying the higher priced Cava. Cava does take a lot of time to produce, so sadly, you often have to spend significantly more to get a truly good Cava, more so than with many other wines. Names to look for include: Raventos i Blanc, Albet i Noya and Mestres.

Basically, Cava is a great alternative to Champagne. Not that I don’t love Champagne, but you need variety to make life more fun. Next time you are at a party and drinking a sparkling wine of one sort or another, why not mention to your host how much you are enjoying the Cava and see if you can impart your newly found cava knowledge!

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

  • John Barrass

    Grape varieties for Cava in the Penedès have long been a battlefield. Xarel.lo flowering sometimes fails, and that year's Cava blend can be very sour – a good argument for the better producers to start labelling by vintage, an initiative which the sector as a whole has resisted. The consequence is often too much added sweet liqueur at the bottling stage and an almighty hangover. Codorniu has made efforts to raise quality by promising farmers a guaranteed price if they replant with Chardonnay. Compare Codorniu's majority-Chardonnay "Ana" brand with a ten-euro traditional M-X-P blend, and it's smoother, fruitier and less cardboardy. Codorniu's old enemy is the commercial giant Freixenet, who have a reputation for under-ageing their Cava for faster cash-flow (and avoiding the fines for so doing). Freixenet has attempted to block initiatives to use different grape varieties in Cava, prompting the Regulatory Council to dictate, for instance, Pinot Noir use only in rosé Cava: a nonsense except that it is Freixenet's competitors who want to forge ahead with experimenting. One unfortunate result is that UK buyers tutored in cheap Freixenet resist paying good money for decent Cava.

  • http://www.spainmedia.com/index.php?author=2 John Barrass

    Grape varieties for Cava in the Penedès have long been a battlefield. Xarel.lo flowering sometimes fails, and that year’s Cava blend can be very sour – a good argument for the better producers to start labelling by vintage, an initiative which the sector as a whole has resisted. The consequence is often too much added sweet liqueur at the bottling stage and an almighty hangover.
    Codorniu has made efforts to raise quality by promising farmers a guaranteed price if they replant with Chardonnay. Compare Codorniu’s majority-Chardonnay “Ana” brand with a ten-euro traditional M-X-P blend, and it’s smoother, fruitier and less cardboardy. Codorniu’s old enemy is the commercial giant Freixenet, who have a reputation for under-ageing their Cava for faster cash-flow (and avoiding the fines for so doing). Freixenet has attempted to block initiatives to use different grape varieties in Cava, prompting the Regulatory Council to dictate, for instance, Pinot Noir use only in rosé Cava: a nonsense except that it is Freixenet’s competitors who want to forge ahead with experimenting. One unfortunate result is that UK buyers tutored in cheap Freixenet resist paying good money for decent Cava.

  • Steven Tolliver

    One interesting footnote is that Spanish production of tradition method sparkling wines was triggered by the Phyloxera plague of the late nineteenth century. The Champagne region was decimated and French negotiants went south in search of a replacement product, which they actually labeled as Champagne. With the advent of European Union regulations, the Spanish product could no longer legally be called Champagne, hence the creation of the name Cava, but like anywhere else many people not in the trade still use Champagne as a catch-all term for bubbly. Question: Isn't the Jerez D.O. also akin to the Cava D.O. in that it limits wineries to production of a particular category of wines, in this case Generosos, or fortified wines?

  • Ryan

    Yes and no, there is a requirement for the production methods(solera style aging), but unlike Cava they also have a set physical area they must remain within. Hypotheticaly, anyone can argue that Cava can be made in their region. If the Consejo agrees they can be awarded DO status. In Jerez there is a concept of terroir that indicates that the soil(albariza) and the climate are unique to the DO. Thanks for the history on Cava, I read that once before, I just wonder if they'll ever call a sparkler Cava as a default?

  • Steven Tolliver

    One interesting footnote is that Spanish production of tradition method sparkling wines was triggered by the Phyloxera plague of the late nineteenth century. The Champagne region was decimated and French negotiants went south in search of a replacement product, which they actually labeled as Champagne. With the advent of European Union regulations, the Spanish product could no longer legally be called Champagne, hence the creation of the name Cava, but like anywhere else many people not in the trade still use Champagne as a catch-all term for bubbly.

    Question: Isn’t the Jerez D.O. also akin to the Cava D.O. in that it limits wineries to production of a particular category of wines, in this case Generosos, or fortified wines?

  • http://www.catavino.net Ryan

    Yes and no, there is a requirement for the production methods(solera style aging), but unlike Cava they also have a set physical area they must remain within. Hypotheticaly, anyone can argue that Cava can be made in their region. If the Consejo agrees they can be awarded DO status. In Jerez there is a concept of terroir that indicates that the soil(albariza) and the climate are unique to the DO.

    Thanks for the history on Cava, I read that once before, I just wonder if they’ll ever call a sparkler Cava as a default?

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