If I had to choose a culture of the world that truly showcases how to live in the moment, have fun, and enjoy life, I would have to pick the Spaniards. Life is so vibrant in Spain. The country is full of welcoming, friendly, and happy people. The cuisine is absolutely delicious and prepared in a way that’s meant to be shared with the ones you love. And any country that serves free noshes alongside happy hour beverages, creating a space for people to connect over life’s greatest pleasures, is definitely doing everything right in my book. There would be a lot more peace in the world if more countries adopted Spain’s tapas culture, just saying. Well-fed people are happy people.
Along with tapas, paella, sangria, the flamenco, Gaudí, and Chef José Andrés, Spain has also gifted the world with gorgeous Cava. This Spanish sparkling wine should be on every bubbly lovers shopping list, especially if you are a fan of French Champagne. And in stride with the way Spain rolls, Cava is affordable, accessible to all, and inspiringly spirited.
A Brief History of Spanish Sparkling Wine
In Spain, Cava was first produced by an adventurous man named Don José Raventós, the head of bodega Codorníu. Don José regularly traveled Europe selling his still red and white wines. On one of his fateful trips, he visited Champagne and returned to Penedés inspired to create a sparkling wine of his own. Don José produced Spain’s first traditional method sparkling wine in 1872 using imported equipment from Champagne. He soon had other Spanish winemakers following suit.
When phylloxera devastated the rest of Europe, Penedés was no exception. In 1887, many of the vineyards of the region were destroyed, though luckily many Cava firms were able to survive. Replanting of native Spanish varieties on American rootstock allowed Cava to develop a distinctive personality separate from that of Champagne. A style and identity truer to Spain and representative of place.
In 1972, that identity became official with the establishment of Consejo Regulador de los Vinos Espumosos (Regulatory Council of Sparkling Wines). Though Champagne had provided the original inspiration for Spanish sparkling wine, the time had come for the Spaniards to distinguish their bubbles from those of France. This organization determined Spain’s sparkling wines would be called ‘Cava,’ Catalan for ‘cave’ or ‘cellar.’
How is Cava made?
Cava is produced in the traditional method, the same method used by the French to produce Champagne. In France, this is known as the Méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionnelle. For Cava in Spain, this is known as método tradicional or método clásico. In 2015, this winemaking technique was actually awarded UNESCO heritage in Champagne. Truly, this style of winemaking has been a gift the world over. The production steps are as follows:
- Grapes are picked, typically very early in harvest to take advantage of high acidity, and a base wine is produced. The wine is fermented completely dry. Winemakers may choose to blend various base wines to create a blend intended for sparkling wine production. The French call this a cuvée.
- A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the base wine and the wine is bottled. This step is known as tirage. The mixture added at the time of bottling to start the secondary fermentation is called liqeuer de tirage. The bottles are then sealed with a crown cap.
- The second fermentation occurs in bottle, the trademark of the traditional method. CO2 released during fermentation creates the bubbles in sparkling wine we all know and love. The secondary fermentation typically adds around 1.3% more alcohol.
- The sparkling wine is then aged for anywhere from 9 months to 5 years. The spent yeast cells left over after fermentation, known as the lees, continue to work their magic during the aging period. The lees contribute aromas and flavors of toasted bread, cream, brioche, and biscuit, along with texture and weight to the finished wine. To learn more about lees’ role in winemaking, check out this great article on Wine Folly.
- Once the aging process has come to an end, the time has come to get the lees out of the bottle. This process is known as riddling. The horizontal bottles are gradually rotated while being ever so slightly tilted downward. Gravity helps to pull the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle. Traditionally, this process was done by hand and still is in many wine cellars around the world. Today, gyropalettes help to streamline this process.
- Now for the fun part, disgorging. The necks of each bottle are placed into a freezing liquid, which causes the lees to freeze together. The crown cap is then popped off and the pressure in the bottle shoots out the lees. Leaving behind a clear wine.
- The Exposition liqueur is then added to top off the wine from any displacement that occurred during disgorging. This also provides the winemaker with an opportunity to adjust the wine’s sweetness and balance acidity.
Spain produces the second highest volume of sparkling wine made in the traditional method. Second only to France.
Varieties Used in Cava Production
Traditionally, Cava was made with three Spanish varieties: Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo.
- Macabeu – Contributes ripe citrus, stone fruit, and exotic floral aromas. Typically, the base of most blends. Fruity, aromatic, and good acidity. Also the primary grape in white wines of Rioja.
- Parellada – The most refined and delicate of the three varieties. Tends to be grown at higher elevations with cooler temperatures. Contributes notes of citrus, quince, yellow flowers, and nuttiness. Adds texture and weight.
- Xarel-lo – Contributes body, flavor, and structure, along with apple and tart citrus notes. Provides round body, good acidity and personality. This variety is also used to make a bold, still table wine in Penedés.
These three varieties are the most common in Cava production. By law, Cava can be made from one or more of the following nine grape varieties:
- White varieties
- Subirat (from the white Malvasia family)
- Red Varieties
- Garnacha Tinta
- Pinot Noir
Styles of Cava
There are three designations to determine quality levels of Cava.
Cava – Aged for a minimum of 9 months on the lees.
Reserva Cava – Aged for a minimum of 15 months on the lees.
Gran Reserva Cava – Aged for a minimum of 30 months on the lees with the vintage dated on the bottle
Similar to Champagne, Cava can be vintage (produced from a single vintage, dated on the bottle) or non-vintage (produced from a blend of multiple vintages).
Cava is also produced at a variety of sweetness levels.
- Brut Nature – up to 3 grams/liter of sugar
- Extra Brut – up to 6 g/L
- Brut – up to 12 g/L
- Extra Seco – between 12-17 g/L
- Seco – between 17-32 g/L
- Semi-Seco – between 32-50 g/L
- Dolce – 50+ g/L
Extra Seco, Seco, Semi-Seco, and Dolce are not permitted in Gran Riserva designation. Brut Nature and Extra Brut are the more popular styles of Cava, and are, therefore, more widely produced.
D.O. Cava is the only Spanish Denominación de Origen that covers a style, rather than a region. Though legally there are six wine regions permitted to produce Cava, 95% of all Cava production happens in Penedés. San Sadurní d’Anoia is the heart of Cava production in Penedés, located about 43 kilometers (27 miles) south-west of Barcelona.
The region accounts for most of the wine coming from Catalonia with more than 140 producers in Penedés. An overwhelming four fifths of the wine produced in Penedés is white with around 15,200 hectares (37,500 acres) planted to white varieties. The majority of white varieties planted are, you guessed it, Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. About 4,035 hectares (10,000 acres) are planted to red varieties.
Vine growing stretches from the Mediterranean coastline to the highest areas, at an altitude of approximately 800 m. The largest vine growing area is more central and at an altitutde of 200-300m. The Mediterranean climate experiences moderately hot summers (up to 30°C), mild winters, and moderate rainfall annually. Penedés exhibits a variety of soils including clay, sand, and limestone.
Top Cava Producers
Freixenet and Cordoníu are two huge names synonomous with Cava. Freixenet produces around 96 million bottles per year. Cordoníu, the first Spanish sparkling wine producer and creator of Cava, produces around 48 million bottles per year. Freixenet and Cordoníu are the world’s two largest sparkling wine producers. Not only do the two compete in Spain, but they are also competitors in California. Freixenet owns Gloria Ferrer, while Cordoníu owns Artesa winery. Both California wineries are located in Carneros. Sparkling wine producers also owe a huge thanks to Freixenet for creating the worlds first gyropalette.
Other notable producers include Recaredo, Rovellats, Maria Casanovas, Suriol, and Augustí Torelló Mata. Plus, so many more waiting to be discovered!
How to Pair Cava
Cava can be paired with practically anything! The trick to creating a harmonious pairing is to consider the style of Cava at hand. Here are some basic pairing guidelines for this special Spanish sparkling wine.
- Brut Nature and Extra Brut Cava – Pair with fatty, rich foods because the higher acidity in the wine will cut the richness of the dish.
- Rich, creamy cheeses, pasta Bolognese, paellas, risottos, fatty tuna, crab legs in butter, etc.
- Brut, Extra Seco, and Seco Cava – Pair with dishes higher in acidity, dishes with sweet, fresh undertones, or saltier bites. The higher content in sugar will help to balance the acidity of the dish, without being overly sweet. While the underlying sweetness of the wine will complement the sweetness in the dish. A salty dish will allow the sweetness and weight from the sugar to shine. Remember that balance is the key.
- Scallop, octopus, or white fish ceviche, Jamón and sweet peas, citrus marinated olives, etc.
- Semi-Seco and Dolce Cava – Pair with sweeter dishes, pungent cheeses, and desserts. This style of Cava is sweeter and softer, complementing sweet dishes nicely.
- Roquefort, Gorgonzola, etc.
- Reserva and Gran Reserva Cava – Pair with spicy and stronger dishes. These styles of Cava have more intense characteristics and better structure that won’t be overpowered by spicy dishes. The acidity and bubbles will also act as a palate cleanser to the spices and flavors of the dish.
- Southeast Asian cuisine, curries, Indian food, rabbit, foie gras, rich cheeses, etc.
When in doubt, do as the Spanish do and allow traditional Spanish tapas to inspire your pairing. Think stuffed mushrooms, salty olives, croquettes, tortillas española, patatas bravas with garlic aioli, and more. Cava pairs beautifully with all of the above.
I hope this post helped you gain a better understanding of this Spanish Sparkling Wine. Cava truly is a sparkling wine for everyone and every occasion. At a super accessible price point, you could try a new Cava producer every week! And be sure to splurge every once in awhile for a Reserva or Gran Reserva Cava to experience the Champagne of Spain. Cheers!
Karen MacNeil. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman, 2015. Print.
Photo from Gran Tourismo