09 Jun Cava: Traditional Method Sparkling Wine from Spain
Cava. Certainly at some point you have had sparkling wine from Spain. Perhaps the first time it was from one of those sleek black bottles from Freixenet.
It’s time to go on another virtual trip traveling in a bottle to Spain, the home of Cava. Eventually we will get to our final destination, the place that this bottle comes from, but first, we have a bit of explaining on Cava to do.
The History of sparkling wine in Spain.
So, the story goes…. Jose Raventos was in France promoting his family’s still wines when he tasted some Champagne. He returned to Spain to their winery Codorniu.
This was all happening around the time of phylloxera. The Catalan vineyards, that were predominantly planted to red grapes, were being pulled up. They replanted with the white grapes, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. In 1872 Codorniu bottled their first traditional method sparkling wine.
The name Cava
When Cava was first produced it went by the name champan or champana. Champagne producers were tightening restrictions on the use of the name “Champagne” worldwide. In Spain, they chose the name “Cava”, which translates to cave or cellar, after the cellaring method used for the second fermentation. The name was first used in 1959 and was acknowledged as the official term for this wine in 1969.
We have become used to and familiar with DOs, DOCs, AOPs, AVAs as being determined by location. But the Cava DO is a little different. It does not have a specific region. Primarily the grapes come from Penedes in the Catalonia region of northeast Spain, but when the DO was formed in 1972. It allowed that all Spanish wines made in this method would fall under the DO Cava. When Spain joined the EU, this changed. In the EU wines are designated by their region of origin. As of 1986, Cava can be made in “Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque Country.” Jancis Robinson the Oxford Companion to Wine Fourth Edition.
The home to Cava – Sant Sadurni d’Anoia
95% of all Cava comes from the Penedes region of Catalonia. Production revolves around the city in which it originated Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, just a 50-minute drive from Barcelona.
The 3 traditional grapes for Cava are:
- Macabeo (Viura) – This late budding variety is a favorite, as you don’t have the worry of frost. It is a light aromatic grape. Macabeo is currently about 1/3 of vineyard planting and ½ of the production.
- Xarel-lo – Makes up about ¼ of vineyard planting and brings acidity.
- Parellada – is the least planted of the 3. It buds early and ripens late, which makes it tough. It is great when grown in cool places with poor soil, which make it highly aromatic. It brings elegance and acid to the wines.
In addition, you may use Chardonnay or the red grapes, garnacha (grenache), monastrell (mourvedre) or Pinot Noir. You can also use trepat, but only in rose.
Types of Cava
There are several quality levels of Cava as well as multiple sweetness levels. Let’s start with the sweetness levels.
Cava Sweetness levels
These go from driest to sweetest
- Brut Nature: 03- grams per liter of sugar
- Extra Brut: 0-6 g/l
- Brut: 0-12 g/l
- Extra Seco (Extra Dry): 12-17 g/l
- Seco (Dry): 17-32 g/l
- Semi-Seco (Semi-Dry): 32-50 g/l
- Dolc/dulce (Sweet): 50+ g/l
Quality Levels of Cava
There are 3 main levels of Cava that you can easily see by a label on the top of the bottles:
- Traditional Cava: This is aged for a minimum of 9 months on the lees (dead yeast). It will have a cream round label with a gold C. These account for about 87% of the wines produced.
- Cava Reserva: This ages for a minimum of 15 months on the lees. It will have a Green round label with a dark green C. They make up about 11% of the wines produced.
- Cava Gran Reserva: At least 30 months on the lees and it must be vintage dated (remember, most Cava is non-vintage) It will have a black round label with gold. Gran Reserva is just under 2% of the wines produced annually.
There is one more level which is called
- Cava de Paraje Calificado – This is their top classification and is about .1% of production. Currently there are 6 companies with a total of 8 Parajes. All of these Paraje are between 1.5 & 6 hectares, so they are small, parcels. This is a way to highlight a site. This has a label that has a gold diamond with a “P” for Paraje.
- This wine must be aged on lees for 36 months
- Grapes must be from a single vineyard
- Wine must be vintage dated
- From vines at least 10 years old
- Wine must be brut, extra brut or brut nature
- They are blind tasted by a judging panel to be approved.
- There are additional maximums for the yield of fruit and wine per hectare.
- Theses wines also are only made in Brut and Brut Nature, with no more than 12 g/l of sugar
Then there is Corpinnat
In 2015 a group of 9 sparkling wine producers, got together to discuss leaving the Cava DO. In 2017 they official form a group they named “Corpinnat” – “born in the heart of Penedes”. The 9 producers account for just 1% of Cava production, but…it’s the good stuff. 30% of the Gran Reserva wines come from these producers. The Cava de Paraje Calificado wines? They accounted for 6 of the 13 wines that had achieved this level.
They set some high standards. All grapes must be organic and hand harvested. Aging requirements are higher and all wine must be vinified on property.
This move was not unprecedented. Raventos was part of the Codorniu company. In 1986 Manuel Raventos founded Raventos i Blanc winery. In 2012 they stopped listing themselves as Cava, instead labeling their sparkling wines Conca del Riu Anoia. They look to create a new DO for high quality sparkling wines.
On to Our wine…
As you can see there is a wide range of Cava to try. We were drinking Cava Reserva, but from a well-known and well thought of producer.
Our Cava came from one of the older wineries in Sant Sadurni. The Mestres family has been a wine producer and grower in Sant Sadurni since 1312. Let that sink in for a minute…1312.
In 1925 they made their first sparkling wine, popping it open for the first time in 1928 to celebrate Christmas. Remember when I said the name “cava” was first used for a sparkling wine in 1959? That would have been the Mestres, they first registered and used the name “Elaborado en Cava” instead of Champana on their bottles.
These days everyone wants their wines dry, including sparkling wines. Traditionally sparkling wines were made a little sweet. Mestres in 1948 made what they say is the first Non-dosage sparkling wine. Joseph Mestres Manobens in 1948 produced a sparkling wine he named “Visol” meaning “Wine on its own”. The base wine quality was such that he did not need to add the Liquor d’expedition. They registered this with the local patent office.
Vineyards and varieties
The Mestres family were historically one of the largest landowners in the region. Today, while some producers have added Chardonnay and other varieties to their Cava production, Mestres stays true to the traditional varieties of Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. Of course, their rose demands red grapes and that blend is Trepat, Monastrell and Garnatxa.
The vineyards were planted in 1954 and have deep roots to protect them from drought. They do not use pesticides or herbicides and work to concentrate fruit through pruning. Fruit is hand harvested in small boxes to protect the fruit from breakage.
90% of their base wine is aged in barrels. They are looking to emphasis the tertiary flavors caused by autolysis.
Autolysis: The dead yeast after secondary fermentation are left in the bottle. Here is where you get all that bottle aging before disgorgement. While the wine sits on the lees the enzymes break down the yeast cells, producing amino acids, releasing proteins and carbohydrates into the wine. Think about that… releasing proteins. This affects the mouthfeel. It makes the wine feel richer and creamier in your mouth and it brings out those lovely tertiary notes we love in good sparkling wine, bread, dough, brioche, toast pastries, nuts, caramel.
Normally the second fermentation in a sparkling wine is done under a crown cap. Like the ones for soda or beer that you need a bottle opener for. This makes it easier for disgorgement later.
Mestres uses a natural cork stopper for the second fermentation, allowing for minimum oxygenation during the aging. They say this prevents oxidation and creates a concentrated cava.
Disgorgement and beyond
After the second fermentation under cork, bottles are manually disgorged and get their final cork stopper. Then they are aged upright for additional aging without the lees.
Mestres 1312 Reserva Brut
This is a blend of 30% Macabeo, 30% Xarel-lo and 40% Parellada. Soils are Calcareous, Slightly sandy and clay. They ferment in small stainless-steel tanks. The second fermentation happens under cork for at least 20 months. Hand riddled, hand disgorged with the disgorgement date printed on the label. This is Brut Nature, so less than 6 grams of sugar per liter.
This wine had great minerality, notes of crisp green apple, citrus, wet stone, chalk and fresh cut green herbs. On the palate I found notes of ginger and lemon zest in addition to unripe stone fruit. This was tart and mouth filling with a long finish.
This was their low-end wine. They were kind enough to send me information on their other wines, which, with as good as this was, I look forward to trying. If you are out looking, watch for Mestres Coquet, Visol, their Rose Elena de Mestres, Clos Nostre Senyor, their estate cava and Mas Via, their vintage Cava.
We paired this with a beef dzik dish, with lime, radish and Yucatan spices.
Where are you traveling in a bottle to? Let us know in the comments!
Sources and Resources
Did this just whet your whistle? Do you want to dig deeper? Here are some great resources!
- The Oxford Companion to Wine 4th edition by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding.
- Codorniu – Cava Origins
- Vilarnau DO Cava
- Wine for Normal People Episode 199: Cava – Spain’s bubbly wine
- The Barcelona Wine Show – CAVA 101! EVERYTHING you need to know about Spain’s Famous Sparkling Wine!
- Decanter – Cava de Paraje Calificado: Cava’s top tier
- Raventos Origins
- Decanter – 9 Spanish Producers to quit Cava DO
- The Growler – Autolysis when yeasts die for the wine drinkers’ pleasure
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.