Champagne was the first sparkling wine and it is arguably the most famous in the world. However, only wines made in the Champagne region of France may be called Champagne nowadays. Spain produces many fine sparkling wines, called cava after the cellars in which the wine is produced. Many Spaniards may call this wine champán colloquially, but they are not allowed to officially label the wines this way — despite the fact that these wines are made in the “méthode champenoise” or “Champagne method,” which is the same method that is used to make Champagne.
The History of Cava
Josep Raventós Fatjó of the Codorníu estate is said to have been the first to produce wine made in this method in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, (Cataluña,) Spain in 1872. He was so happy with the wine he made, that he ordered a cool cellar or cava dug in order to produce more sparkling wine. In a few short years, the family introduced their first bottles of cava to the public. It was an instant success, particularly with high society. Soon, sparkling wines from the Codorníu estate were being sent to the Spanish royal family. Today, thousands of visitors tour the Codorníu winery and cellars in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia in Cataluña.
Besides Codorníu, there are hundreds of cava wine producers in the area south of Barcelona called Penedés. The other major sparkling wine producer which comes to mind immediately is Freixenet, pronounced “fresh-eh-net.” It's famous for its “cordon negro” product, a cava in a matte black bottle with gold writing.
How Cava Is Produced
High-quality sparkling wines, including cava and French champagne, contain bubbles of carbon dioxide. How do the bubbles get there?
- First, the grapes are harvested and a white wine is produced. Several types of wine may be blended. Three grape varieties native to Spain are Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada.
- Tirajo is the second step - The bottle is filled with the blended wine, then a syrupy mixture of yeast and sugars is added, called licor de tirajo. The yeast will cause the secondary fermentation to occur in the bottle. At this stage, the bottled wine is then transferred to the cellar with a temporary stopper.
- The Second Fermentation is next – The yeasts convert the sugar to carbon dioxide. This second fermentation and bottle aging occurs in the bottle and lasts for nine months at a temperature between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
During the second fermentation/aging, the bottles are turned occasionally. This process is called remuage and in some wineries, this is still done by hand. This turning of the bottles causes the residue from the yeast to collect in the neck of the wine bottle. The neck of the bottle is then frozen, which forces the sediment out and the bottle is re-corked immediately.
Grades or Qualities of Cava
In 1991 EU (European Union) legal specifications were implemented to make sure that there was a consistent quality standard for Cava and at the same time, the EU recognized the origin of cava. However, there are very few producers of cava outside Cataluña. A star with four-points is printed on the base of the cork of any true cava. The six official types are as follows, depending on the sugar content:
- Extra Brut – 0-6 grams of sugar per liter, the driest of the cava
- Brut – 0-15 grams of sugar per liter
- Extra Seco – 12-20 grams of sugar per liter
- Seco – 17-35 grams of sugar per liter
- Semi-Seco – 33-50 grams of sugar per liter
- Dulce – More than 50 grams of sugar per liter, the sweetest of the cava
Fortunately for those of us living in the USA, it is easy to find in almost any large grocery store. Prices of high-quality Spanish cava are very favorable, in comparison to French Champagne or California sparkling wine!
In general, the more expensive, the drier the cava. The less expensive cava is much sweeter. If you read the label on the less expensive bottles, you'll see that it is probably Semi-Seco.
Three brands of Spanish cava that you are likely to see in the store are:
- Codorníu – As we mentioned, the oldest and largest cava producer, with a variety of products available. If you are looking for something special, the company recently released a new product Gran Reserva Gran Codorníu, which according to the legal definition of a Gran Reserva has spent 30 months in the bottle.
- Freixenet – Again, a large cava producer, with a variety of products available. Although you may see their Carta Nevada Semi-Seco product in stores, in a clear glass bottle, the most popular (and higher quality) is the dramatic-looking Cordon Negro, which is a Brut cava and comes in a black bottle, with gold lettering on a black label. Also sold in a black bottle, but with silver accents is the Gran Cordon Negro, a Brut cava and a bit better quality.
- Segura Viudas – This is a relative new-comer. The winery was established in 1950 and sold their first wines publicly in 1959. They produce a variety of sparkling wines, their premier product being Reserva Heredad, which is sold in a bottle with a highly decorative metal ring around the bottom of the bottle and a metal crest on the side. This is a good quality cava and a nice holiday gift, as well.
Spanish drink lots of cava during the holidays, especially at Christmas Eve Dinner, La Noche Buena and New Year’s Eve, La Noche Vieja. It is generally drunk after dinner and paired with Spanish sweets, such as turrón.
We recommend that you put the bottle of cava in the freezer or an ice chest filled with ice and bring out each bottle only when you are ready to drink it. (If you put bottles in the freezer, make sure not to forget about them or they will explode and you will have a sticky mess to clean up!) Cava should be served very cold to really enjoy it – about 46 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Serve in chilled flute champagne glasses so that the bubbles last longer since they must travel farther before they break the surface. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least a half-hour before you will use them. Chilled glasses help to keep the cava cold.
As you are sipping your Spanish Cava this Holiday season, make a toast as the Spanish do with a resounding… ¡Próspero Año Nuevo!, to a Prosperous New Year!