Sitting quietly and studiously in the corner is its elder brother Champagne – mature, bookish, often aloof – while the younger sister Prosecco – loud, brash, in-your-face – runs amok, seemingly everywhere at once. In the public’s eyes it is these two categories that command most attention, with the unfortunate result that Cava, the historic Spanish sparkler is often overlooked, or, worse, ignored.
I like to imagine that Cava would often skulk away to hang out with his other offbeat friends – Crémant, Franciacorta, and MCC (not to forget his far-flung cousins in places like Chile and Australia) – to listen to some indie rock and moan about not how they’re never understood.
Which is all a shame really. Cava has far more flavour and fizz than Prosecco, and can be much better value than Champagne, with top examples of the former often surpassing cheaper versions of the latter albeit at a lower price.
So why don’t we drink more of it?
The UK press like to talk about how their market across the water was (and still is) awash with cheap, underwhelming bottles of fizz that only barely accorded the term ‘Cava’, which has done much to damage the wine’s image in the minds of the average consumer.
In Ireland, however, I feel the reason is that Frizzante Prosecco has stolen the march: its low fizz means that it’s actually classed as a still wine, and therefore is subject to half the duty of fully-sparkling wines such as Cava and Champagne (and hence why Frizzante Prosecco corks don’t ‘pop’).
So we’ve ended up choosing Prosecco for everyday, cheap bubbles, and Champagne for pricier, special occasions. Cava, therefore, is often seen as the misfit in between: too expensive for weekday sipping (thanks to punitive Irish tax rules) and not quite posh enough for the big events.
The reality – as often in wine – is much further than the truth, however.
Cava Cava Chameleon or… what is Cava?
At its most simple it’s Spanish sparkling wine made in the ‘traditional method’, meaning that a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, giving it full-on bubbles and a distinct richness.
Interestingly, wines that can call themselves “Cava” can come from a number of non-contiguous regions in Spain, namely Valencia, Aragón, Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque country. However 95% of it comes from the Catalan region around Barcelona, and the Penedès in particular, which is where you’ll find most of the famous names such as Freixenet.
Also of interest is that total production of Cava per year is roughly a third of that of Champagne, perhaps a surprising statistic given its perception as voluminous, cheap and cheerful.
The term Cava – which means ‘cellar’ in Catalan – was adopted by the Spanish in 1970 when they agreed to abandon the use of the potentially misleading term Champaña, and the style was brought to Spain by José Raventós of the family firm Codorníu, who made the first bottles of traditional method sparkling wine in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia after a visit to France in 1872.
Though the ‘traditional method’ process of making sparkling wine must be followed, beyond that Cava producers have less rigorous restrictions on what must be done to earn the title. Apart from the requirement that certain grapes be used (see below) and that the wine must spend at least nine months on its lees before disgorgement, rules aren’t so strict thereafter.
That has left the door open for a large degree of industrialisation and mechanisation, which good for keeping costs down, but bad when over-used to create a bland, mass-produced,‘commodity wine’ designed to hit a price point. Which is exactly what happened to the category, and thus its current conundrum.
The Three Cava Musketeers
Whereas most other ‘traditional method’ sparkling wines the world over tend to emulate Champagne in having Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir in their blends, Cava is most often a blend of three grapes native to the region: Macabeo, Xarel·lo and Parellada.
The light, aromatic Macabeo (also known as Viura in Rioja) comprises about half of the blend for a typical Cava, while Parellada provides green apple and blossom flavours, with Xarel·logrape rounding off the blend with an earthy bottom note that has been one of Cava’s distinguishing features.
Interestingly, Cava was given an unusual boost in its early days in Catalonia in that many vineyards that made hearty (if rustic) red wine to slake the thirst of the nearby Barcelonés succumbed to the Phylloxera louse, and when replanted then one or more of these white varieties were chosen instead of the ill-fitting red varieties of old.
That said, obviously a range of red varieties are still allowed – otherwise no Rosado would be made! – and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been officially authorized for Cava since 1986, though for the large part Cava producers stick to the tried and trusted trio.
Again it was via the enterprise and lobbying of the Codorníus that Chardonnay and Pinot were allowed into the Cava fold, and as such the famous Anna De Codorníu is the archetypical 100% Chardonnay Cava (and indeed it was the first), but sadly is unavailable here. Try and grab it in Duty Free next time you’re in Spain.
As mentioned above, Cava has suffered historically from something of an image problem, thanks in no small part to unscrupulous, large-scale producers who produce a low-quality product from poor vineyard sites yet charge multiples of its worth simply because of the Cava name.
But the perceived mass-market image of the appellation has led to a growing disenchantment among better quality producers. They have been hamstrung by the over-generic “Cava” designation, which can serve to mask regional variations, meaning their vastly superior artisan bottlings are lumped in with cheap-and-cheerful plonk.
So by 2014 a number of Penedès-based Cava producers – including Raventòs i Blanc, Albet i Noya, Mas Comptal, Loxarel, Colet, and Mas Bertran- had left the appellation altogether and joined the generic Penedès DO, therefore shedding the Cava name and trusting the market to recognise their offerings as distinctly different and superior.
By doing so they were effectively replicating the “Super Tuscan” movement in Italy in the 1970’s onwards, where high-quality producers in Chianti consciously rebelled against the region’s archaic laws to produce wines that they felt suited the terroir of the region, rather than abiding to outdated ‘cookie-cutter’ regulations.
The Cava rebels’ protest worked: a new classification for single-vineyard Cava, Cava del Paraje Calificado (meaning “Qualified Single Estate Cava”), was agreed in 2014/15 and introduced proper in 2016. The designation sets out rigorous standards for qualification: all wines shall be aged to at least at Gran Reserva level (36 months), must come from an identified vineyard, be traceable, and adhere to rigorous growing conditions such as lower yields and sourcing from older vines. However given its recent introduction and the lengthy ageing required, it will be some time until the name appears on labels and bottles appear on shelves.
A step in the right direction? Definitely. But while you wait for the fruits of the Cava quality revolution to fully kick in, below is one reliable stalwart and three excellent premium Cavas to whet your appetite…
Three to Try
The Old Reliable: Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut
€19.99 – widely available
One of the most popular and widely available Cavas out there, and for good reason.
Freixenet’s ‘black bottle’ Cordon Negro offers all the pleasures of Cava in one package: toasty richness, earthiness, and lots of bubbles (begone, insipid flat Prosecco!).
Clean & Crisp: Juvé y Camps Reserva de Familia Brut Nature
€25.99 – Celtic Whiskey Shop
A ‘brut nature’ style, so expect a bone-dry wine with razor-sharp acidity.
Some savoury characteristics open out into notes of honey, toasted brioche, and dried fruits in a linear and precise take on the Cava style.
Cookies & Cream: Llopart Reserva Brut
€30 – Redmond’s of Ranelagh and The Corkscrew
Brand new to this country via Winemason wine importers, this is a superbly creamy Cava thanks to 18 months on the lees.
But it’s still clean, precise and poised – a vibrant and elegant Cava. Superb, and a welcome addition to these shores.
Rich & Regal: Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva Brut
€30 – Tesco
Just look at that bottle: elegant curves are accentuated by pewter embellishments in packaging that punches well above its weight.
Lucky, then, that the juice is top-notch too – given its Reserva status it too shows some of the honeyed characteristics, albeit in a richer more opulent style than the Llopart. The ideal gifting bubbly.