Time was when cava seemed condemned to live in champagne’s shadow. Frequently described as Spain’s answer to France’s famous bubbly (faint praise can be so damning), cava was perceived — sometimes even marketed — as a cheap alternative to champagne, a sort of generic, wannabe sparkler. But things have changed. Cava — at least as made by small-scale, top-class growers with their sights set on quality — is on a roll.
Cava is made extensively, though not exclusively, in Catalonia in northeast Spain. The center of production is Penedés, the wine-growing region west of Barcelona, whose dusty, sun-baked vineyards are flanked by the dramatic, saw-toothed Montserrat mountain range, soothed by cooling breezes from the Mediterranean — and perpetually threatened by the encroaching industrial sprawl.
Catalonia and Champagne
The process for making cava is the same as for champagne. But there the comparison ends. In Catalonia, the grapes used are three varieties indigenous to the region: Xarel-lo, for body, structure and acidity; Parellada for smoothness; and Macabeo, which gives floral, appley notes and, according to Ramón Jané of the four-man estate Mas Candi in Les Gunyoles d’Avinyonet, “knits the other two together.”
There are also significant differences in the climate between Catalonia and Champagne. As Ton Mata of family-owned, boutique cava producer Recaredo in Sant Sadurní notes, “we are in Region 3 or even 4 according to the Winkler scale” (a method developed in the 1930s by Professor Winkler of UC Davis for classifying the climate in different wine-growing regions of the world). “Champagne is in Region 1. In theory, we should only be making sweet or fortified wines.” In practice, Recaredo and a handful of other ambitious growers (see below) are excelling at elegant, nuanced sparkling wines with distinct Mediterranean accents, and forcing a re-evaluation of cava and all it has to offer.
Look out for these new-wave sparklers at your favorite wine stores or restaurants. Many of the producers listed now export to the U.S., United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Japan. Just don’t expect to find top-notch cava in France.
Family-owned 50-hectare (125-acre) biodynamic estate in Sant Sadurní, Catalonia’s cava capital, making small quantities of elegant Brut Nature cava with exceptionally long aging on the lees. Their top of the range Turó d’en Mota cava, aged 10 years and 3 months before release, comes from 70-year old Xarel-lo vines planted in a 1-hectare (2.5 acre) vineyard in sole ownership.
Founded in 1984 by Maria Casanovas, now run by four of her children, the aim is to produce small quantities (ca. 100,000 bottles p.a. — compared with around 200 million from Freixenet, the Catalan cava giant) of top quality, low-yield, long-aged cava from 6 hectares/15 acres of vines, mainly Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada, but also Pinot Noir. “Poco conocido, pero muy reconocido!” (“little known but highly rated”), including by Robert Parker Jr.
Recently created (2006) partnership of four young viticulture and enology students, each of whom inherited small plots of family vines, which they farm organically and vinify together at the domaine. Keen to preserve the traditional Penedés varieties, they make a crisp, appley Brut Nature cava from Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada.
Family-owned organic estate with 80 hectares (200 acres) of vines, principally the Penedés three plus some Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling. Their Cava Brut Reserva is a fresh, lively, citrus-flavored mouthful.
Top photo: View across to the Sierra de Montserrat from the Recaredo Vineyard. Credit: Sue Style
Sue Style lives in Alsace, France, and travels regularly to Catalonia to explore the region’s food and wines.