Cava

Cava has a long tradition that dates back to 19th century. During Phylloxera, France was the first to feel the results severly. Therefore the French looked for base wines and found Spain, Penedes mostly. 

Cava is not a region, not a vineyard, it is a style. A producer can choose to declare the wines as Cava or as Penedes. 

  • Meaning Cava – Cava means cellar in Catalan
  • Name Cava – Name taken in 1970 to stop confusion with the name Champaña
  • Regions – 98% comes from Catalonia. 2% comes from outside Catalonia
  • Most important town – Sant Sadurní d’Anoia – 75% comes from here. The producers Freixenet and Codorniu are based in this town. 

Viticulture & vinification

  • Density – min 1500, max 3500 vines per Ha
  • Harvest – machine picked allowed, hand harvest is common
  • Altitude – very important to balance the Mediterranean climate.
  • Chaptalization – nope
  • Max yield – 48 hl/ha
  • Aging – 9m sur lie (+ 3m after disgorgement)
  • Alcohol in finished wine – 10.8% – 12.8%
  • Pressure – min 3.5. Normal is 6 bar
  • Acidity – medium +, they do this with planting at higher altitude with Macabeo and Parralleda or pick earlier.
  • MLF – avoided to retain the acidity.
  • Reserve wines – not as important as Champagne because it is not as hard to ripen your grapes as in Champagne. 

Grape varieties

Macabeo

  • Synonym – Viura
  • Plantings – 11.100Ha
  • Viticulture – Ripens early
  • Style – Clean bright acidity with green apple, pear, melon and peach
  • Altitude – High altitude

Xarel-lo

  • Plantings – 7.770Ha
  • Viticulture – Later ripening, picked in the middle of the three important grapes, planted in the lower altitude vineyards.
  • Style – Fresh green fruits, greengage, gooseberry and citrus notes. Brings strength and body and is top quality. If overripe, produces rubber (found in old-fashioned Cava).
  • Altitude – High altitude

Parrellada

  • Plantings – 7.100Ha
  • Viticulture – Indigenous variety that ripens last. Plantings are taken over by Xarel-lo and plantings are now on the highest vineyards, 700-800 meter. Likes to be near water to keep the roots cool. Prone to rot.
  • Style – Lower acidity and lower alcohol with more floral and brings softness.

Chardonnay

  • Plantings – 2.900Ha
  • Viticulture – Ripens early, likes chalk and needs cool well drained soils.
  • Style – Body and finesse with peach, apricot, pineapple, mango and kiwi. Relatively high alcohol with 11%.

Trepat

  • Plantings – 990Ha
  • Viticulture – On the cool hills around Barcelona
  • Style – only for Rosé. Good acidity with redcurrant, strawberry and raspberry flavours

Garnacha Tinta

  • Plantings – 984Ha
  • Viticulture – Middle and lower Penedes
  • Style – Low acidity, strawberry, pomegranate and lower colour

Pinot noir

  • Plantings – 840Ha.
  • Viticulture – Middle till late ripening.
  • Style – Fruity with good acidity. 

There has been some discussion about the use of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Cava. A lot of research has been done to determine which clones and rootstocks to use. Now, it is possible to make a high quality cava from these ‘new’ varieties. However, both grapes are often used in blends with the classic grapes. Nevertheless, some Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir is available.

Outside of Catalunya: no Parrallada and Xarel-Lo, always Macabeo.

Legislation

  • Cava – 9 months sur lie (+3 months after disgorgement)
  • Reserva – 18 months sur lie (+3 months after disgorgement) – revised in 2020, used to be 15 months.
  • Gran Reserva – 30 months sur lie (+3 months after disgorgement)
  • Rosado – Saignée, Trepat with other
  • Cava del Paraje – single vineyards, 36 months (+3 months after disgorgement), introduced in 2017

According to Tom Stevenson in his book ‘Champange & sparkling wine’, there remains a large gap between what is exported and what stays in Spain regarding 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.

Market & trade structure

Consejo Regulador del Cava controls the whole cava production. In 2018, the area produced a total of 244 million bottles. Around two thirds of the production is exported each year.

Producers

Codorniu and Freixenet together are responsible for 60% of the cava sales.

  • Codorniú
    Strong on the Spanish market. Established in Sant Sadurni in 1551. In 1872, Codorniú decided to make sparkling wine like Champagne and therefore claims to have founded the Cava industry. Uses almost always Chardonnay with Parralleda, Macabeo, Xarel-lo and PN. Anna de Codorníu was launched in 1984 with only Chardonnay. Cava represents half of the turnover of Codorníu. They also owns Raimat, a research center, Artesa (Carneros), Bilbaines (Rioja), Scala Dei (Priorat), Septima (Argentina) and Legaris (Ribeira).
  • Freixenet
    Founded start of 20th century and largest producer of traditional method sparkling and biggest exporter of Cava. Still family-owned. Most famous is the medium-dry Carta Nevada (developed in 1951) and the Cordon Negro in the black bottle. Also owns Solar Viejo in Rioja, Morlanda in Priorat, Garbo in Montsant, Valdubon in Ribeira and Vionta in Rias Baixas.

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)

Quality differences

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 are allowed. 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.

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