Today I’ll be taking you through the (mostly) Catalonian region of Cava, one of the world’s most successful producers of sparkling wines. This is a region with an interesting history full of colourful characters, innovative inventions and constant evolution- so let’s learn some more about Cava!
Cava is a fairly large region located in the north-east corner of Spain, 95% of which exists in the province of Catalonia/Cataluna (spelling and pronunciation depends on whether you live there or not), with the remainder in neighbouring Aragon. The majority of vineyards are found due east of the regional capital, Barcelona, in an area which has been producing wine for millennia. Historically though, this was rich, robust reds, but then came the fateful decades in the late 19th century. In many of my previous pieces, this is where I describe the arrival of the tiny but mighty bug Phylloxera from the New World and its wanton destruction of European vineyards. But every now and then I come across a good story- a silver lining to Phylloxera’s dark cloud, and this is region is one of those examples! The tiny pest arrived in Catalonia in the early 1880s, and of course decimated everything in its path, leaving only those vines that would take to being grafted to American rootstock as a cure. As it turned out, almost all the red varietals native to this region basically withered and died when grafted over to foreign rootstock, however the native white varieties did quite well- no more rich, robust reds from this region then! This was the end of winemaking as all who lived there understood it; however one man had a different idea, and decided to run with using white grapes, but in a way never before seen in Spain…
Josep Raventós was a young, energetic winemaker whose family had been making wines in the small Catalonian town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia since 1551. Josep took a fateful trip to the Champagne region of France in 1872, and returned home around the same time as Phylloxera arrived, which spelled the end of winemaking as his parents knew it. Josep was fascinated by the Champagne Traditional Method of putting bubbles in wine, and when it was discovered the region could only produce white wines, he decided to take a massive risk, and attempt to replicate the production of sparkling wine in Spain for the first time. A lot of trial and error followed until the right varieties and blends were established, and it was found these wines were a perfect match for the seafood pulled from the Mediterranean and served in wine bars and restaurants throughout Barcelona.
Josep established Spain’s first Champaña house; Cordoniu, which today is the largest Cava producer on earth, and is still family owned. Success was assured in 1889 with the arrival of another person willing to take a risk on sparkling Spanish wines, Pedro Ferrer, who established Freixenet, along with its distinctive black bottle, which many of you have most likely tasted at some point. Between these two, they grew the reputation and success of their wines and the region of production grew from the original town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia to across the province, and today 1.2 million hectolitres of Cava is produced. In the 1970s the CIVC, the Champagne authority, decided Champaña sounded too much like their brand, and clamped down on its use, backed by international copyright laws. The name Cava , which is the Catalonian word for cave or cellar was chosen as a replacement, and in 1970 the official Cava DO (Denominación de Origen) title was introduced, to cover exclusively sparkling white and rosé wines.
So what is in Cava? Well, the temperature difference between north-east Spain and far north France are quite large, so winemakers here can’t just use Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay like in Champagne. Instead, several local varieties are utilised, which give Cava its unique flavour and set it aside from all other sparkling wines. Below is the list of varieties that make Cava;
Macabeo (which is known as Viura in Rioja) comprises about half of most Cavas. It is a light, relatively flavourless white grape which flowers late to avoid the spring frosts in cooler, higher sites. It has faint floral aromatics, a lemony flavour with a slightly bitter finish that tastes like almond skin. This is the workhorse of the industry, much like Chardonnay is to Champagne, and takes on autolytic characters from time on lees nicely.
Xarel-lo (pronounced ‘Cherello’) is indigenous to Catalonia and makes up about 30% of most Cava blends. It brings the distinctive earthy, almost mushroomy character to the wines, as well as melon, pear and floral notes.
Parellada (double L makes a Y sound in Spanish) makes up the smallest percentage in the blend, and while low in body, brings the all-important acidity to the final wine. This is usually grown high up on the hill slopes to retain this freshness.
More recent additions to the region are Burgundian natives Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though these usually ripen too quickly in this warmer climate and are only used in smaller percentages. Rosé Cava can also be made using red grapes Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre).
When you see Cava on the shelf, you’ll note in most cases it is a few notches cheaper than Champagne. This is deceptive, as the same Traditional Method of in-bottle fermentation is used to put the bubbles in Cava- so how do they make it cheaper? Well the answer is technology. It was this region that created the Gyropalette, which carries out the all-important ageing in bottle process completely mechanically. Bottles are loaded into the gyropallette and it mechanically settles the sediment into the neck, rather than it needing to be done by hand in a riddling rack- see here for a video. Additionally, the rules here for ageing are slightly more relaxed; wines must be aged a minimum 9 months on lees compared to Champagne’s 18 months (for NV), and grapes can be pressed harder here than legally allowed in Champagne, which allows for more bottles to be made from the same amount of grapes, though the juice is thicker and more coloured, which translates into weightier, dark golden Cava.
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