Cava, the number one sparkling wine from Spain

Cava is the number one sparkling wine from Spain. It produces around 250 million bottles per year and is said to be the second-largest bottle-fermented appellation in the world.

Location, climate & soils

Unlike Champagne and Franciacorta, Cava DO does not refer to just one geographical location. Basically, it’s more a wine production style than a geographical area and is controlled by the Consejo Regulador del Cava (CRC).

Most Cava (95%) come from Catalonia, from Sant Sadurni d’Anoia in Penedès to be exact, but its officially delimited area of production covers 159 municipalities in ten provinces (including Rioja, Alvasa, Navarra, Valencia and Badajoz). In total, there are over 30.000 hectares of vineyards registered.

Overall, the climate is warm and Mediterranean. The best vineyards are located on the distinctive limestone soils of the Penedès hills. The majority is located in the central areas, at around 200 – 300 m above sea level. The highest, however, are at an altitude of 800 m.

Viticulture

  • Many vineyards are planted in bush trained vines, but when they are replaced, they have to be replanted on trellis systems.
  • Irrigation is permitted though heavily regulated.
  • There has been lots of research done into rootstocks and their resistance to drought, active lime and nematodes.
  • Harvest from mid August to end October, mostly done by hand (but mechanical harvesting is also allowed)

Grape varieties

The three classic varieties for cava are macabeo, xarel.lo and parellada. Macabeo gives fruit, xarel.lo the strength and body and parellada softness and aromatics. Chardonnay is also allowed.

To a lesser extend, red grapes are used. Not all of them can be used for white cava – blanc de noirs style, though. The total plantings of red grapes is less than 10%.

Styles

There are six styles of cava: non-vintage, vintage, reserva, gran reserva, rosado and the recently introduced Cava del Paraje Calificado.

  • Non-vintage or vintage has to age for a minimum period of 9 months.
  • Reserva has to be cellared for 15 months.
  • Gran reserva needs to be aged 30 months.
  • Rosado must be made by the saignée method (blending is not allowed)
  • Cava del Paraje Calificado must be made from grapes coming from a single vineyard and has to be aged for at least 36 months.

According to Tom Stevenson in his book ‘Champange & sparkling wine’, there remains a large gap between what is exported and what stays in Spain with regard to dosage. There’s only 1% brut nature and extra brut exported, but in Spain 28% is consumed very dry. Interestingly, the role of the dosage is not to balance the acidity (as in Champagne), but to smooth the back palate bitterness.

Challenges

Cava has no Grands Crus or Premiers Crus, no sub-regions, no recognised system of Cuvées de Prestige, no marketing expression for the creative tension between big houses and small grower-producers.  There is just – Cava. Cava fights back (Decanter)

DO Cava is not unified at all. There are huge differences in quality. It’s practically impossible for a consumer to know the difference by just looking at the bottle. Almost 250 million bottles of Cava are produced annually of which the majority is produced by three massive players: Freixenet, Codorníu, and García Carrión. Simply put, the majority of the cava is boring. Not because of the grapes, the climate or the soil, no, because the focus lies on cost efficiency instead of character and personality.

As Agustí Torello puts it, “There are two leagues of Cava: excellent and poor quality.” And there are indeed excellent Cavas out there, especially in the higher end. Recaredo, Juvé y Camps, Mestres and Gramona all come to mind. But the vast, vast proportion of the overall production is simply blended wine sourced from any number of vineyards, villages, or even other parts of Spain, including seven regions outside of Catalonia. An Introduction to Classic Penedes (GuildSomm)

This is not the first break with the Cava DO that has taken place, with Raventos i Blanc having left in 2012. As wine writer Miquel Hudin has noted here, subsequent attempts to mollify smaller, quality-focused producers with the introduction of ‘Classic Penedès’ in 2013 and then the pyramidal ‘Paraje’ structure in 2017, have failed to satisfy those still bent on a proper delimitation on what Catalonian Cava should be (Cava is technically a method of production not a reference to an area even if 95% of Cava is produced in and around Penedès).Nine Producers break with DO Cava (TheDrinksBusiness)

2013 – DO Clàssic Penedes

Started by Albet i Noya, Sergi Colet of Colet and Agustí Torelló (Guildsomm). The rules are much stricter than the rules for DO Cava.

  • Grapes must come from organic vineyards (first sparkling wine classification to demand that)
  • Clàssic producers cannot buy in their grape. Nor can outsource the production (fermentation, disgorgement etc must happen within their own estate).
  • Minimal 15 months on lees, making every wine a Reserva in terms of DO Cava.
  • Every wine is sold as a vintage. Non-vintage is not allowed.
  • Date of disgorgement must be on the label.
  • Macabeu, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Subirat Parent, Malvasia de Sitges, Chardonnay, Muscat d’Alexandria, Red Grenache, Carignan, Sumoll, and Pinot Noir. However, smaller proportions of Chenin Blanc, Gewüztraminer, and Riesling are also permitted. 

2017: Cava Paraje Calificado (CPC)

Smaller producers have been looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the big players. As a response to these calls for differentiation, in 2017 the Cava Regulatory Board created a new category for single vineyard sparkling wines: Cava Paraje Calificado (CPC). To me, it feels ‘too little too late’.

2017: Quality label “Corpinnat”

Started by Gramona, Recaredo, Torelló, Llopart, Nadal, Sabaté i Coca, Mas Candí, Huget-Can Feixes and Júlia Vernet (Decanter). The name Corpinnat is old Catalan and means something like ‘in the heart of Penedès’.

  • Organic vineyards, harvested by hand (75% of the vineyards should be owned by the winery)
  • Within the Corpinnat territory
  • Vinified within the estate (not by third parties)
  • Aged for 18 months minimum
  • 90% indigenous grapes

These regulations effectively rule out the big three, as they rely too much on chardonnay and/or are not organic.

Obviously, given how much production is focused upon the largest producers in Cava, it was decided, after many meetings throughout May and June 2018 that Corpinnat could not co-exist with Cava and the name was not to be allowed on labels as it would “confuse customers”. – Corpinnat and the death of fine cava (Hudin)

DO Cava went even further and stated that corpinnat could not be used in combination with DO Cava. Minor detail: the president of Codorníu (big cava player) is also head of the DO Cava. No wonder they forbid the use of Coprinnat. Luckily, DO Penedes – including DO Classic Penedes – allows the use of the name ‘corpinnat’ in combination with DO Penedes.

Sources & suggested reading:

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