Is Cava a Catalan wine?

This question, coming from a Swiss friend of mine some years ago, is entirely appropriate. The official answer is “not always”. The Cava DO growing area is scattered all over Spain as well as in Catalonia, usually overlapping other DOs.

However, over 95 % of Cava is produced in Catalonia, and most prestigious brands are Catalan. And a last detail: only in Catalonia it is widely regarded as a wine fit not only for celebrations but also for drinking with a full meal or standalone.

Cava is a sparkling wine made with the traditional method (aka Champenoise) of double fermentation, the second one in the final bottle, using approved grape varieties grown in the Cava DO land. When the DO Cava was created, the de facto situation was officially recognized, granting Cava status to most quality sparkling wine produced in Spain at that moment, taking as the defining factor the use of traditional method.

How is Cava elaborated?

The traditional method starts with a dry base wine produced from approved grapes in a normal way, this being the first fermentation. This wine is filled into the Cava bottles (tiratge), together with a portion of tiratge liquor, containing must or sugar and yeast. The bottle is then closed with a crown cap or, in the more traditional houses, a Cava cork.

The yeast eats up the sugar in the second fermentation, generating the carbon dioxide that remains in the bottle. After second fermentation, bottles are left to age at least 9 months, with their necks down. They are then gradually moved (riddling) into an almost vertical position so as to deposit the lees in the neck next to the cap.

The last phase (degorjat) is freezing the neck and opening the bottle. The pressure of the carbonic (usually 6 bar) expels the frozen lees and the bottle is refilled with the expedition liquor, one of the best kept secrets of any Cava producer. It can contain sugar and other ingredients mixed with the wine itself. The final cork is then inserted and secured with a capsule and a wire cage.

Some selected wineries execute manually the degorjat, without freezing and with the aid of highly skilled personnel.

Lesser, easier methods used for the production of sparkling wine elsewhere include second fermentation in large tanks or simple carbonic injection into the still wine, the same process used for soft drinks.
What kinds of Cava can we find?

First of all, colour. Most Cava is white, but rosé is becoming increasingly fashionable, with some remarkable wines.

The amount of sugar present in the final wine is used to categorize Cava as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Semi-Sec and Dolç. Most prestige Cavas are Brut Nature or Extra Brut, and there are cheap sweeter Cavas of disappointing quality, but in principle sugar content is not a direct factor in Cava quality.

Another classification is according to aging, calculated as time between tiratge and degorjat. Standard Cava needs a minimum of 9 months; Reserva implies 15 months, and Gran Reserva 30 months. Gran Reserva Cava must come from a single vintage; standard and Reserva can be produced from wines of different vintages.

With such a geographical definition it is easy to understand that Cava is anything but uniform. The method may be the same, the grape varieties, to a certain extent, are also common, but the diversity of climates and soils is considerable.

On top of that, there are other variables, not mutually exclusive, that come into play to differentiate Cava producers. Let us examine the two main ones: 

  • Big vs. small: in the Cava world there are two giants, Codorniu and Freixenet, which dominate the market in terms of quantity. A handful of other companies aim to join them at the top, but usually through mass production of lower quality Cava. On the other hand, most high quality Cava comes from the smaller wineries.  
  • Innovative vs. traditional grape varieties: some producers use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while others stick staunchly to Parellada, Xarel•lo and Macabeu, the trinity of Cava varieties, on the grounds that the use of the Champagne varieties detract from Cava personality. Some other local varieties, like Trepat, are now finding their way to Cava bottles.

Which are the best producers?

Codorniu and Freixenet, the two giants, have interesting wines hidden among their vast medium quality range. However, best quality can be found in smaller wineries. This would be my personal selection of Catalan Cava producers:

When to drink Cava?

The first idea that comes to mind is a celebration with Cava. However, Cava is much more versatile than that. Not only can we drink Cava (perhaps a Brut or Extra Brut Reserva) with many fish-based foods; a Brut Nature or Extra Brut Gran Reserva will be excellent with red meat and fowls, respectively, and a quality sweet Cava is perfect for dessert as well. And in a hot summer day, a light, fruity, crisp Brut can be delicious and refreshing.

  • Drink Cava within the first year after degorjat. Some quality Cavas will show the date in the label
  • Check the cork. It should lose its mushroom appearance and revert to its original cylindrical shape minutes after opening (otherwise degorjat was too long ago, see picture below), and show a four pointed star in the face in contact with the wine
  • Use long, thin glasses, not short, wide ones
  • Experiment with different foods and Cava types

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