Spain’s traditional sparkling wine, called cava, derives its name from the caves in which the wine is aged. It is a traditional method wine, meaning it is produced using the same process employed to produce Champagne, which leads to high-quality bottlings. The grapes grown and used for cava are distinct from those used in Champagne, and range in sweetness, similar to Champagne. What makes this sparkling Spanish wine so special and different, and why are these wines available at a lower price point?
The story of European sparkling wine begins in the Champagne region of France as early as 1715. In 1872, 18th-generation Spanish winemaker Josep Raventós I Fatjó traveled to this storied French wine region to learn and discover its celebrated winemaking process. Upon his return, Fatjó employed the same “Methode Traditionnelle” process at his family winery to produce the first-ever Spanish sparkling wine. By 1888, the Raventós family had transitioned their winery to producing cava with only grape varieties native to the Spanish region of Penedés, where their facility and vineyards are located. This winery, today called Raventós i Blanc, is still owned and operated by the Raventós family and continues to produce quality cava wines with geographical distinction.
Spain remains on the cutting edge of sparkling wine production, employing new and burgeoning technologies to produce a consistent product with less human error and product loss. Spain was the first country to produce sparkling using the gyropalette, a device that concentrates the lees (dead yeast cells) in a more efficient manner than the hand-riddled method often employed in making Champagne.
All wine is a reflection of the land and climate in which it was grown, and quality cava is no different. This expression of a sense of place, called “terroir,” makes a wine distinct and gives it character. The historic Penedés region, where Raventos first produced this sparkling style, is the region of Catalonia. Today, this wine may be produced in an array of Spanish regions to include the neighboring Basque region, as well as Aragon, Extremadura, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, and others.
The choice to employ native grape varieties in cava's white and rosé base wine blends provides distinctive flavor profiles and serves as a cost-saving measure. Using native grapes decreases the number of labor hours trying to stave off disease and ripen the French grapes that are traditionally found in the sparkling wines, though some French grapes are still grown and employed in winemaking in Spain.
White cava comes in an array of sweetness levels and are made with the native Spanish grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. The traditional sparkling wine grape Chardonnay is employed in some blends. Red grapes used in the production of rosé styles of cava are Garnacha, Trepat, and occasionally Pinot Noir and Monastrell.
Like other sparkling wine, cava begins as a still base wine that could be the production of one single grape, but likely a blend (or cuvée) of wine made from several grapes. To make rosé cava, blending of white wine with red wine is not permitted. The red grapes must be crushed, soaked, and then the juice pressed from their skins to create the desired flavor and rosé color. This mix is then fermented as the base wine, in a technique is called “saignée.”
After this primary fermentation, the wine is then transferred to the same bottle in which it will be sold. A mixture of wine, sweet grape juice or sugar, and yeast is added to this bottle to begin the secondary fermentation process. The bottle is then sealed, often with a crown cap (resembling a beer cap), and the yeast and sugar begin to work under pressure in this closed container to produce and dissolve carbon dioxide. This process results in fine effervescence when the bottle is opened. After several weeks, a supply of natural bubbles has been produced, and since the yeast has now consumed all its food source (sugar), the cells begin to die and sink out of the solution.
Cava, like Champagne, requires a certain amount of aging on these dead yeast cells (called “lees”) to produce its signature flavor. This aging on lees is what puts the profile of cava in line with other high-quality sparkling wines like Champagne and prosecco. Lees-aging produces a distinctive toasty, nutty, or even cheesy aroma in wines, which adds depth and character.
Although most cava imported and consumed in the U.S. is of the brut and entry-level variants, there are several additional styles. Every cava produced must be aged a minimum of nine months on lees before disgorging (removing the yeast and corking the bottle). Cava Reserva must spend a minimum of 15 months on lees before release — the same minimum required to produce Champagne. Gran Reserva Cava must be aged at least 30 months and must have a vintage (or year of harvest) denoted. This makes Gran Reserva Cava an easy comparison to most vintage Champagnes for a fraction of the cost.
Cava, like other sparkling wines, comes in an array of dryness levels as well, from the extremely dry brut nature all the way to the unctuously sweet dolce. The vast majority of wine produced and exported for consumption internationally is of the brut variety, though the brut nature category can be found more and more on wine lists and on retail shelves as Spanish cuisine, especially tapas, increases in popularity.
Although cava has been available in the U.S. market for decades, this category has seen increased sales and a larger diversity of styles for purchase, due in large part to sparkling wine's domestic popularity overall. Cava has benefited from being an approachable substitute for Champagne, and a solid step up in quality from entry-level Prosecco, with Gran Reserva bottlings fetching prices as low as $36. Compare this with vintage Champagne fetching an average of about $80 on shelves, and ask yourself: what’s not to love?