Tis the season for all things sparkling! Whether you’re hosting a holiday soiree for friends, family, employees, or simply ringing in the new year as a party of 1, sparkling wine is the perfect accompaniment. And you don’t have to break the bank on pricey Champagne or – worse – settle for mass produced $4.99 bubbles from the local grocery store. Cava is the underdog you might not have heard of, but for the sake of your budget and your taste buds, its time to get acquainted.
Cava in its simplest definition is sparkling wine from Spain produced in the traditional method (or “methode traditionale”.) Due to it’s close proximity to France and the use of this method of production, it is strikingly similar to Champagne in taste and aroma but comes with a much more affordable price tag.
Cava was first produced in Spain in 1872 by a man named Josep Raventos. During a visit to the Champagne region of France, he familiarized himself with their methods of producing beautiful sparkling wines. This was also the time when phylloxera was decimating grape vines around the world. (Phylloxera was a louse invasion that almost singlehandedly destroyed grape vines around the world during the 1800s.) Seeing an opportunity to fill the gaps in the market and make some money, Josep figured he could use the native grapes growing in his hometown that weren’t being affected by the disease and apply the same techniques to create sparkling wine that was as good, if not better, than what was coming out of Champagne…and he wasn’t wrong.
While there are a coupe of different regions for Cava in Spain, the vast majority (95%) comes from the Penedes region in Catalonia. Located near Barcelona in the Northeast of Spain, specifically the village of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is responsible for practically every Cava you will find on the shelf. Contrary to champagne who uses Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, the native grapes primarily grown in this region that are authorized for use in Cava wines are Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. Additionally, in 1986, the use of Chardonnay was permitted due to its easy growing capacity, intense aroma and versatility. There are also some red grapes authorized for use in Cava wines; Red Garnacha (grenache), Trepat, Monastrell, and Pinot Noir can all be added to create beautiful rose bubbles.
So what exactly is that secret traditional method that Josep Raventos adopted from France? Basically, instead of fermenting wine in a giant tank and adding CO2 to create carbonation, the traditional method is a 2-step process that requires 2 fermentations and months of hand-turning the bottles. It is the oldest, costliest and most laborious production method for sparkling wine; however, it is also the most appreciated and is thought to produce the highest quality juice on the market.
First, grapes must be picked fairly early in the season to reserve their acidity. The various varietals are then fermented in separate tanks to create various base wines, and then those base wines are blended to create the perfect cuvee and then bottled. Once bottled, yeast and sugars are added and the bottles are capped with a metal enclosure like you would find on a standard beer bottle. The trapped yeasts inside will begin a secondary fermentation which creates CO2 and ultimately bubbles. As the yeasts die they remain as solids inside the bottle and become what is known as “lees.” The wine will age in the bottle on the lees for various amounts of time to develop texture and flavor, and as the bottles are aging, a riddler is assigned to rotate the bottles by hand in the racks every single day, until eventually they’re completely upside down and the lees have fallen to the neck. At that point, the bottles are placed neckdown into a freezing liquid which causes the lees to freeze into a solid mass, the metal cap is removed and the pressure from the CO2 shoots the solid lees out of the bottle in a process known as “disgorgement.” Finally, to refill what was lost during disgorgement, a mix of wine and sugar is added back to the bottle and the bottles are corked, wired and labeled.
In spite of using different grapes, because both Champagne and Cava employee the traditional method of aging on the lees, both wines take on the same fine, feathery bubbles and adapt flavors and aromas of creamy brioche, stewed fruits and butter. Cava has aging standards which denote the various classifications, but basically, the younger the wine, the lighter, crisper and more fruity it will taste. Alternatively, the longer it ages on the lees, it will take on more of those rich yeasty flavors like biscuit, butter, mushroom, dried figs and apricots, and even nuts. Basic Cava must age a minimum of 9 months, Reserva a minimum of 18 months, Gran Reserva will spend at least 30 months on the lees and a new designation called Paraje Calificado (or qualified location) must spend at least 36 months aging.
In addition to levels of aging, there are also various terms for levels of sweetness. The majority of what is on the market here will be labeled Brut Nature which is the driest, Extra Brut, then Brut which can have up to 12g of sugar per liter.
We all know Champagne can be some of the most expensive wines in the world. However, you can find incredibly beautiful, vintage Gran Reserva Cavas for around $30. The average bottle of good quality cava will run you $15-$25. But please, don’t reach for the first label you spot on your big box store shelf. Sadly, the Cava region has been overpowered by a handful of large, powerful brands (like Freixenet) who mass produce low quality juices and distribute around the world. This would not be an exemplary bottle of fine Cava. Visit your closest specialty wine store and seek out bottles from low yield productions and small, family owned wineries. These people typically employee all organic farming practices and create outstanding wines made from love and tradition.
I hope this gives you some inspiration for the holidays! Bubbles can pair with practically any food, and of course are a staple on their own for toasts and celebrations. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can explore some exciting new flavors for the season. Cheers!