Last Updated on January 29, 2022
Forget what you think you know about Cava and enjoy the journey.
I’m old enough to remember ‘Spanish Champagne’ – what we now know as Cava. In common with many sparkling wines, thanks to extensive lobbying by the Comité de Champagne, the use of the term ‘Champagne’ is prohibited, along with the phrase ‘Méthode Champenoise’ for anything except French Champagne.
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The origin of Cava
For Spanish sparkling wines that ruling has proved challenging – Cava is made in the same way as Champagne and originated from the mid-18th century when the Spanish winemaker Josep Raventós travelled to the Champagne region of France. His own family (the owners of the Codorníu winery) had been making wine in the Penedès region of Catalonia, just outside of Barcelona from the 15th century and, while he was travelling in Champagne, ostensibly to sell the family wines, he learnt about the winemaking techniques there. Returning home to Spain he tried using local grapes processed in the same way he’d seen done in Champagne to produce his own sparkling wine, which he called ‘champán (or in Catalan, ‘xampany’).
So successful was his experiment that other local winemakers followed suit – using three grapes from the Penedès; parellada, xarel-lo, and macabeo, to make a wine they decided to call Cava (which means cellar in Catalan!). Spanish Cava is still made in the same way as Champagne. The grapes are crushed to extract juice which is fermented in wood or steel. The still wines that result are blended and bottled with yeast, a dosage of sugar or sweet grape juice for the second fermentation. In the bottle, the yeast feeds on the sugar and produces carbon dioxide which makes the wine fizzy. The bottles are ‘riddled’ – turned gently over the course of several months – to get the yeast to gather at the top of the bottle. Then, that yeast is removed through disgorgement, resulting in a sparkling wine that can be corked. Very early on in the history of Cava, Spanish producers invented the ‘giropalatte’, a piece of mechanical equipment which allowed the riddling process to be done automatically. That meant Cava could be produced in much larger quantities.
Regulation and Classification of Cava today
Cava has its own regulator – and Cava DO (denominacion de origen) is the official classification of Cava. Until fairly recently Cava could be made anywhere in Spain (though 95% or more of the production is in the Penedès). In the recent past, there have been some challenges to the Cava Consejo Regulador in the form of new cava classifications – the Clàssic Penedès denomination within the Penedès D.O and Corpinnat, a regional organisation started by six of the most prestigious cava producers in the Penedès area with very strict conditions regarding vineyards, grape varieties and qualities, elaboration and ageing.
To counter that, the Cava Consejo Regulador introduced more rigorous regulation in 2020, with four specific geographic zones according to the major regions within the Cava D.O. These geographic identifications can be in labels so that going forward, consumers will be able to know where the cava was made. These four zones are: Comtat de Barcelona (Earldom of Barcelona) which includes the Penedès and other areas in the province of Barcelona, the Valle del Ebro (Ebro river valley) which takes in the thirteen producers in the Rioja, Navarra and Aragón regions, Vinos de Almendralejo (Almendralejo Wines) and the Levante Zone in Valencia.
Similarly, the regulator has extended the ‘quality’ categories for Cava. There are now four categories, though since these have been introduced fairly recently you may not see them on labels in the short term.
- Cava de Guarda is Cava that has minimum in-bottle ageing of 9 months.
- Cava de Guarda Superior has a minimum of more than 18 months on lees and the grapes used need to come from specific vineyards and be organically grown.
- Cava Gran Reserva has a minimum of more than 30 months on lees and the grapes need to come from specific vineyards and be organically grown.
- Finally, Cava de Paraje Calificado requires 36 months of ageing in bottle with grapes from specially selected places – small areas with top quality location and terroir.
- Brut Nature – 0-3 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra Brut – 0-6 grams of sugar per litre
- Brut – up to 12 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra Seco – 12-17 grams per litre
- Seco – 17-32 grams per litre
- Semi Seco – 32-50 grams per litre
- Dulce more than 50 grams per litre
Grapes used for Cava
Cava Tasting and Food Pairing
While we’ve tried plenty of Cava wines in the past, this section concentrates on wines we’ve used to explore the range of options available on the market in the UK. We’ve visited a couple of Cava wineries in the Penedès and if you are interested in learning more about the region do check out our features about Calçotades and Cava at Vilarnau and about Cava Tasting in the Penedès.
Codorníu is one of the largest Cava producers and, with a historical connection to the invention of the first Cava, we have included two of their labels here.
Of course, we’ve tasted more but our first review is a personal favourite of mine both as an aperitif and as something to enjoy with charcuterie and fish dishes. Anna de Codorníu is named after the last family member to have the Codorníu surname, way back in 1659 she married Miquel Raventos. Codorníu was the first cava to introduce the Chardonnay variety. Anna de Codorníu is a blend of 70% Chardonnay, and 30% classic Cava grapes – Macabeo, Zarel.lo and Parellada. Codorníu produces both a Brut Nature with between 0 and 3g/l of sugar and a Brut Cava and on this occasion, we enjoyed the Brut. It’s aged for 9 months in the bottle but the high percentage of Chardonnay makes this a delicate, fresh and light Cava which is very easy to drink. We tried it both as an aperitif and with our meal of charcuterie and cheese fondue.
Anna de Codorníu retails for between£10 and £12 and is widely available. It’s the kind of Cava you could easily serve with fish and shellfish but which also makes a great aperitif.
Our second bottle of Codorníu was the Rosado 2014 Non-Vintage – a pink cava made with Monastrell and Garnache grapes. We enjoyed ours with dessert – for me, this berry-rich wine is a great aperitif. Codorníu recommends pairing it with tapas or fried fish and I can see that this more robust mouthful would work well in that context. Codorníu Rosado retails for under £10 and if you prefer the classic Champagne grapes in your cava, there’s also a slightly more expensive Anna de Codorníu brut rose, which is sold at between £10 and £12.
Roger Goulart Gran Reserva Brut 2015 from Sant Esteve Sesrovires, Alt Penedès region was our next tasting. A bottle will set you back somewhere from £15 up to just over £20 and for that you get a Gran Reserva Brut Cava that as my fellow drinkers noted was very close to a glass of French champagne.
We opened ours just before Christmas pairing it with a selection of fish canapes. Fresh, smooth and creamy with no yeasty tasty and fine effervescence, it’s made from a classic cava blend of grapes, 60% Xarello, 20% Macabeo, 20% Parellada and is a delicate straw colour in the glass. This Cava is aged in the bottle on lees for 5 years, in large underground cellars some 30 metres underground.
Our final bottle of Cava, Blanca Cusiné, is a blend of 81% classic Xarello cava grape with two of the Champagne grapes – 9% chardonnay and 10% pinot noir. An organic and biodynamic wine, it’s brut nature, with no added sugar. But despite that, it was soft with a delicate rounded mousse, dried fruit notes and a toasty finish.
Like Roger Goulart, Blanca Cusiné benefits from long ageing in the bottle on lees. The pinot noir is vinified like a blanc de noir – and the end result is a very refined mouthful.
I’m impressed by how well a good quality Cava stands up against other sparkling wines. And, at how these wines seem to have improved over the last twenty years or so. I can’t decide whether that’s simply because I didn’t pick the right Cava – or whether there’s been a real evolution in the skill of Cava winemakers. More research is definitely needed and I can’t see myself doing anything but enjoying that! In particular, long ageing on lees makes a Cava that is a genuine challenger for champagne.
The growing use of blends beyond the classic cava grapes also makes wines that are really very special. From our tasting, even the Anna de Codorníu with a price tag of around £12 was a refined Cava that worked brilliantly as both aperitif and for food pairing. I know from an event that Codorníu also have their own Gran Reserva.