Everybody knows the adage, “all that glitters is not gold,” but it’s equally important to remember that all that sparkles isn’t Champagne.
Just as Champagne can only be made in the Champagne AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) of France, Cava also has Denominación de Origen (DO) status, meaning that it can be produced only in specific regions of Spain using approved grape varieties. Although Cava can come from eight places in Spain, almost 95 percent of the sparkling wine is produced in Penedès, a region of Catalonia.
Consequently, it’s not surprising that Cava has long served as a symbol of the strongly independent Catalan culture.
“This Mediterranean region has [had] its own identity and winemaking tradition for more than 2,700 years,” says Pere Ventura, owner of the Cava house that bears his name. “We don’t only drink Cava, we celebrate it. Cava has always been present at festive occasions in Catalonia and accompanies our gastronomy.”
Blending For The Best
In recent years, however, sales of Cava have declined outside of Catalonia because of the rest of Spain’s boycott of the wine during the region’s growing separatist movement. How have the proud Catalans responded? By buying more of their local product.
Cava can be made from a single grape variety, but it’s generally a blend of different types. The most commonly used grapes are local ones: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Each variety has a specific aroma and unique taste. Combined, they give Cava a definitive taste profile.
“Cava—and especially aged Cavas—are complex and intense wines, with distinctive aromas of apple skin fused with dry Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary and fennel,” says Jaume Gaspà, president of the Sommeliers of Lleida. “Also present are salty reminders of the Spanish seaside, such as anchovies and other briny products, wrapped in dry, creamy textures, with a mineral base that suggests chalk or limestone.”
The geographical diversity of the Penedès region allows the different varieties of grapes used for Cava to flourish.
“Macabao prefers soils that are rich in clay,” says Gaspà. “It’s usually grown in inland valleys, and it provides volume and density. Parellada is the most fragrant grape, and it comes from vineyards situated in higher and cooler altitudes with lighter, more calcareous soils. This lends the Cava more floral sensations.”
“Xarel-lo, usually grown on the coast, provides herbaceous and stone-fruit notes, and lends structure,” says Gaspà. “It also provides Cava with the capacity to age, allowing it to evolve properly over time.” Other grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Malvasía and Garnacha can also be used.
Agustí Torelló Mata 2008 Gran Reserva Barrica Brut Nature; $37, 93 points. This is superb Cava, no ifs, ands or buts. Soft, yeasty, complex aromas of bready apple and spice feed into a round, yeasty palate. Bready flavors of pear, papaya and mango end with stony minerality
and a closing note of lime. Wine Symphony, Inc. —M.S.
Mestres 2007 Visol Gran Reserva Brut Nature; $39, 91 points. Briny notes of pickled cabbage and cider seem alarming at first but prove to be misleading. This is quite elegant, lifted and clean on the palate, while mature flavors of sourdough bread, apple, pear and dry spices finish smooth and long. Drink now. Think Global. —M.S.
Covides NV Gran Gesta Reserva Especial; $40, 90 points. Corn chip and lightly oxidized stone-fruit and apple aromas come prior to a crisp, whole palate. Direct flavors of apple, herbs and white pepper don’t mess around, while this tastes of citrus peel and related pith on a finish that’s tight as a drum. The Artisan Collection. —M.S.
Cava starts out as a basic still wine made from the first fermentation of any or all of these grapes. The second fermentation is what makes it sparkle.
“Like in Champagne, we make our sparkling wine with the método tradicional (similar to méthode Champenoise), which requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle,” says Ventura. “During the 19th century, Catalan grape growers and winemakers followed in the footsteps of their neighbors in France and produced the sparkling wine we know today as Cava. In fact, my own family was involved in the first Cava making, with my great-grandfather Manuel Montserrat Font crafting the first bottles in 1872.”
A New Classification
The name Cava comes from the cave or wine cellar where it’s made. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Consejo Regulador de los Vinos Espumosos formally enacted regulations for making Cava. Today, annual production of Cava exceeds 18 million cases, making Spain the second-largest producer of sparkling wine in the world, trailing only France.
The Cava Consejo Regulador also recently adopted a new classification, Cava de Paraje Calificado (Qualified Single Estate Cava), that identifies Cava from a single estate. Not only does the designation require stricter quality control, but the resulting hyperlocal offerings will also explore the unique nuances and taste possibilities that typify Catalonia’s singular sparkling wine. Labels bearing the classification are expected to be available later this year.
While Cava uses the same process as Champagne, the Spanish sparklers differ because of the grapes used and the soil and climate in which they grow.
“Champagne is characterized by chalky soils, while the defining characteristic of Cava are our Mediterranean influences and breezes,” says Bruno Colomer, head of enology at Codorníu. “Another primary difference [is] the grapes. In Champagne, they rely on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, while Cava reflects the personality of the indigenous varieties as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”
For many years, most Cava available in the U.S. has been nonvintage. However, it’s now possible to find more vintage-dated Cava, as wineries are attempting to make more distinguished selections that reflect particular vintage characteristics.
The seven types of Cava are differentiated by the amount of sugar they contain. The driest is brut nature, followed by (in ascending sugar order) extra brut, brut, extra seco, seco, semiseco and dulce. Cava can also be qualified by the time it spends aging—joven is aged for 9–15 months, while reserva is aged 15–30 months, and gran reserva ages for more than 30 months.
Llopart 2010 Gran Reserva Brut Nature; $35, 90 points. In a small field of excellent Cavas, this bready, leesy, semi-rich bottling stands out for its totality and comfort on the palate. Along the road are aromas of burnt banana and toasted bread along with flavors of arugula, lime and dried apple. An elegant finish with stone-fruit and green-herb notes is sophisticated. Fine Estates From Spain. —M.S.
Freixenet 2006 Casa Sala Brut Nature; $60, 90 points. Apple, quince, apricot and bready aromas are elegant and mature. This well-aged Brut Nature feels solid and citrusy, while flavors of tangerine, white peach, apricot and sea brine finish comfortably and long, with a lasting taste of dried apricot. Drink through 2018. Freixenet USA. —M.S.
Alta Alella 2013 Privat Reserva Brut Nature Rosé; $21, 89 points. Raspberry and lettuce aromas are fresh but a touch grassy. This rosé has a fresh, clean feel and dry flavors of citrus fruits and nectarine. Dryness is a repeated theme on the finish, which is long, pure and focused. Avant Garde Wine & Spirits. —M.S.
Bohigas NV Brut Reserva; $17, 89 points. Dusty, leesy aromas of apple and vanilla are sturdy. This brut Cava is fresh and modestly elegant on the palate, with lime, apple and tarragon flavors. A dry, confident finish offers apple and citrus flavors and a sense of ease. Polaner Selections. —M.S.
In the Penedès region, the town of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is known as the “Capital of Cava.” Only 40 minutes from central Barcelona, Sant Sadurni is a popular day trip for city dwellers and tourists alike. The drive is scenic, featuring vineyards, pine forests, and oak and olive trees.
Spaniards enjoy Cava with tapas, seafood and shellfish as well as with meats and casseroles. In New York City, University Club Sommelier Yannick Benjamin agrees about its versatility, but leans toward a classic pairing.
“Cava has this perfect saltiness that makes it a great pairing with fresh oysters or, my favorite, langoustines,” he says.
Carrie Lynn Strong, wine director at New York City’s Aureole, loves to pair Cava with Thai cuisine. “There are so many layers of floral, earthy flavors and fragrances in Thai food,” she says. “Lemongrass, coconut, Thai basil, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, mace—even the spicy flavors enhance the flavors of Cava rather than overpowering it.”
Castellroig NV Brut; $18, 89 points. Mineral, citrus and dusty aromas are textbook for brut Cava. A round, full palate shows good grip and acidity, while flavors of lemon-lime and nectarine finish with notes of lime and green banana. Nothing about this is overwhelming, but the sum of its parts add up. Regal Wine Imports, Inc. —M.S.
Juvé y Camps 2012 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva; $30, 89 points. Aromas of freshly baked bread, toast and melon are soft and welcoming. This Pinot Noir-led Cava feels plump, with moderate acidity. Flavors of melon, quince and pear finish mild, with only a bit of kick. Winebow. —M.S.
Paul Cheneau NV Blanc de Blancs Brut Reserva; $18, 88 points. Cidery aromas vie with bready notes to give the bouquet complexity. This feels zesty, juicy and citric, with a lean, racy body. Apple cider, green herb, lime and scallion flavors finish with a lasting taste of lime. Pasternak Wine Imports. —M.S.
Segura Viudas NV Brut Rosé; $10, 87 points. Raspberry and red-plum aromas are light and a touch smoky. On the palate this is fresh, juicy and driven by good acidity. Bright stone-fruit flavors blend with pie-cherry notes in front of a lasting, citrusy finish. Freixenet USA. Best Buy. —M.S.
Vicente Gandia NV Hoya de Cadenas Brut Organic; $11, 86 points. Dusty lemon-lime aromas are modest yet clean. This is a highly regular bubbly with a medium-level bead and yeasty, leesy flavors of melon and mild citrus fruits. Vicente Gandia USA. Best Buy. —M.S.