What is Cava?
Cava lies at the very heart of Catalonian tradition and has become a most important feature of every Spanish family celebration.
Spanish sparkling wine was first made as early as 1851, although the roots of the Cava industry can be traced back to the journeys of Josep Raventós through Europe in the 1860s where he was promoting the still wines of the Codorníu Winery. His visits to the Champagne region sparked an interest in the potential of a Spanish sparkling wine made using the same method.
He created his first sparkling wine in 1872 after the vineyards of Penedès were devastated by the phylloxera disease [You will find the details of Phylloxera in one of our forthcoming features] and as result, the predominantly red grape varieties were being replaced by large numbers of vines producing white grapes. The word Cava means ‘Cave’ in both Catalan and Latin, but means cellar in Spanish as it does in French.
"Over 200 million bottles of Cava are now produced each year in Spain!"
Caves were used in the early days of Cava production for the preservation or aging of the wine and the winemakers of Catalan officially adopted the term in 1970 to distinguish their product from French Champagne.
Later in 1872, when the process of the ‘Champagne Method’ was being developed at the Agricultural Institute of Saint Isidre in Catalonia, three students at the college also entered their samples of sparkling wine into a competition which took place in Barcelona. As a result this formed the real and fundamental beginnings of commercial sparkling wine production in this region.
These students used the three ‘Champagne grapes’, grown in Catalonia, for their wines and all won medals, two being awarded gold and one bronze – [this student added raspberry liqueur into the process] As a result they went on to form separate bases of production and one of these pioneering companies still exists today - Caves Mont-Ferrant.
The most influential of all Cava producers however was ‘Josep Raventos Y Fatjo’ of the famous ‘House of Cordoniu’. He perfected the Champagne process to take place inside the bottle, also making his wine from the three main grape varieties now used today for all Cava - Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo. It is still a mystery as to why the change to these grape varieties took place and why they have remained the platform of all Cava production throughout history, but here is a breakdown of the importance of each:
Xarel-Lo - Provides the ‘backbone of fruit’.
Macabeo – Gives the wine ‘strength and body’.
Parellada – For ‘softness and aroma’.
Maybe this gives us an indication as to why the grape varieties for Cava production changed from the Champagne trio, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay to what they are now, preserving a more individual identity of its own! Also it is the influence of the Mediterranean climate along with these grape varieties that contributes to Cava’s unique style.
Cava has ‘DO’ status [look out for our forthcoming feature on the ‘Quality Control Wine Laws of Europe’] and the word Cava means ‘Cave’ in Latin and Catalan, also ‘Cellar’ in Spanish and French. Caves were used in the foothills of the coastal mountains in the early days of Cava production, for the preservation or ageing of the wine and the winemakers of Catalan officially adopted the term ‘Cava’ in 1970 to distinguish their product from ‘French Champagne’.
"According to Spanish Law Cava can only be produced in 6 wine regions!"
In 1974 the production of Cava began to increase and by 1980 rose so dramatically that in terms of production and popularity, it became the second largest ‘bottle fermented sparkling wine’ in the world. Although Cava is allowed to be produced elsewhere in Spain, 98% is still produced in its original home of Catalonia, with the area of Penedes being responsible for much of this production and still regarded as the ‘birth place’ of all Cava .
In the past, Cava was referred to as ‘Spanish Champagne’, which is now no longer permitted under European Union Law as Champagne has ‘protected status’. However in Spain it can be called ‘Champan’ or ‘Champana’ in Spanish, or Xampany in Catalan.
[NOTE: Today it is defined by law as a ‘Vino Espumoso de Calidad Producido en una Región Determinada’ (VECPRD), which means ‘quality sparkling wine produced in a designated region’]
Besides the white grape varieties mentioned previously, Cava may also contain Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Subirat grapes, with the first Cava to use Chardonnay being produced in 1981. When Chardonnay is used alone it ‘borrowed’ the Champagne term ‘Blanc de Blancs’ [White of Whites] for its style description.
Cava Rosado [Rose]: To make Cava Rosado small quantities of still red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha [Grenache] or Monastrell grapes are added to the wine and the best of these have a delicious ‘crushed raspberry fruit flavour’.
Guide to good traditional Cava
I have been fortunate to experience many of the locally produced Cavas in Catalonia along with some of the major brands and like all wines of a certain famous origin, there are really good authentic examples and some that prove to be quite disappointing. So we at Wines Direct have a guide for you to the main characteristics of a good traditional Cava, and we have based them on a typical and most popular ‘Brut’ [Dry] style:
On the Eye: The colour should have a pale straw appearance with a bright and consistent ‘mousse’ [the collection of rising bubbles].
On the Nose: Vibrant aromas of ripe peaches, toast and fresh lemon with a hint of spice.
On the Palate: Dry with a rich creamy texture and flavours of orange rind and spice, sometimes a hint of almonds and vanilla, showing a long and elegant finish.
Matching Cava with Food:
As Cava has a celebration style reputation then it is ideal, as most sparkling wines are, to drink as an aperitif.
I always think that if you are choosing a certain wine from a particular region to precede a meal, then the food should also follow this style. So think Spanish and try a homemade Paella, traditional or with just chicken and a typical ‘chorizo’ [Spanish sausage of pork with chilli] or simply vegetarian. [See our future recipe section]
"The New Year in Spain is brought in with twelve grapes swallowed in time to the chimes of the clock in the town’s square, 12 grapes in 12 seconds, followed by a glass of Cava!"
Or why not arrange for your friends to bring different brands of Cava and organise a tasting with some homemade Tapas, there are so many variations you can create, just use your imagination! Try this Catalonian regional ‘Tapas’ style dish of Patatas Bravas - a meal on its own - Dice some potatoes into small cubes [1“x 1”] and shallow fry in olive with finely chopped onions, crushed garlic, a little finely chopped chilli and a generous amount of coarsely chopped parsley along with a sprig of fresh thyme - until cooked through. Then season with freshly milled black pepper and sea salt. At the same time mix ½ cup of tomato ketchup with ½ cup of mayonnaise and flavour with a little paprika to your taste. Mix together and serve on its own or in leaves of cos or gem lettuce as ‘cups’.
With Cava as an aperitif or all the way through, a very Spanish experience - Catalan style!