Cava: So Much More Than 'Spanish Champagne'

Bright and bubbly, versatile and refreshing, Cava is the sparkling wine which ought to be on everyone’s radar. Cava is more than just ‘Spanish Champagne.’ While it’s true that Cava is made in the same method as the famed French bubbly, Cava deserves recognition in its own right. If the numbers are any indication, this certainly seems to be the case—growing numbers of wine lovers are discovering why Cava is such a fantastic sparkling wine. Here’s why you should join the ranks of newly converted Cava fans.

The History of Cava

Wine has always been made in Penedès, but the roots of Cava as we know it lie in the mid-19th-century. It all started with a certain calamitous pest. The phylloxera louse is infamous for the destruction it wrought in European vineyards during the 1800s. It invaded the continent through France and from there, spread to nearly every corner of Europe planted to the grapevine. Yet for all the devastation to Europe’s wine industry, the aftermath saw some good. 

Spain’s wine industry wasn’t spared from the insatiable pest. However, by the time phylloxera invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the late 1870s, the solution to the problem was widely known. Spanish winemakers knew to graft vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. In Penedès, as vintners considered how to replant their vineyards, they saw a clear opportunity. Winemakers in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia decided to make the jump into sparkling wine production and replanted their vineyards with the appropriate grapes. 





Let’s back up a moment. How was traditional method sparkling wine introduced to the region in the first place? Cava lovers the world over owe a debt of gratitude to Josep Raventós of Codorniu. He had travelled to Champagne where he noted how winemakers put the sparkle in their sparkling wines. He brought the knowledge back with him to Spain. In 1872, Raventós created the first Cava, using the same Champagne method he learned in the eponymous French region.

In the years that followed, Cava came to rival Champagne on the world stage. There were setbacks. War and dictatorship caused the Spanish wine industry to stagnate. Since the end of Franco’s regime, Spain’s wine industry has blossomed, and its wines are amongst the best you’ll find in the world. Cava is once again giving Champagne a run for its money.

In addition to making their phenomenal bubbly, Catalan winemakers were also the first to use the gyropalette. These machines made hand riddling bottles obsolete. They are able to riddle just over 500 bottles at once. Instead of taking months, a gyropalette can riddle bottles to draw the sediment into the neck of the bottle in about a week. Talk about efficiency!



Cava’s Regions

Cava is a bit unusual compared to other appellations. It’s spread out over several Spanish regions which include Catalonia, Aragon, Rioja, Navarra, Extremadura, Valencia, and Pais Vasco. That said, the grand majority (upwards of 90 percent) of all Cava you’ll encounter comes out of Catalonia, specifically around Penedès. The best examples are made from grapes grown in Alt Penedès. Sant Sadurni d’Anoia remains the heart of Cava production and this is where many of the major houses operate.

Cava Versus Champagne: Side by Side

As we touched upon, Cava and Champagne are both made in the traditional method, but Cava has some significant differences to its French cousin. Let’s start with the similarities. 

Cava is usually produced in dry styles, but like Champagne, it can range from bone dry to fully sweet. The sweetness levels follow the same scale adopted across the EU. 

Brut Nature – 0-3 g/l of residual sugar

Extra Brut – 0-6 g/l of residual sugar

Brut – 0-12 g/l of residual sugar

Extra Seco/Extra Dry – 12-17 g/l of residual sugar

Seco/Dry – 17-32 g/l of residual sugar

Semi-Seco/Semi-Dry – 32-50 g/l of residual sugar

Dulce/Sweet – over 50 g/l of residual sugar

However, while they’re both scintillatingly sparkling, Cava has an undeniably different flavor profile compared to Champagne. Why? The terroir plays a role, of course. Penedès is in Catalonia along the Balearic Sea. It has a Mediterranean climate, warm and mild, although there are dozens of microclimates throughout the region.

The best Cava grapes grow in Alt Penedès, a mountainous subregion more inland from the sea. The soils here are poor but well-draining. Vines can dig deep, establish strong roots, and produce high-quality fruit. It also rains more inland and has a large diurnal shift in temperature. Grapes soak up the sun and develop sugars and flavors during the day, but cool nights allow them to preserve the high acidity necessary for great sparkling wine. 

The other factor for Cava’s unique flavors? The grapes!

The Grapes of Cava

There are three traditional grapes used in Cava. Macabeu possesses good levels of acidity with bright citrus notes and floral aromas that can become richer if left hanging on the vine. Parellada boasts more delicate apple and lemon flavors and excellent acidity. The final grape in the Cava trinity is Xarel-lo, an aromatic variety with generous fruit.

Today, the classic Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir pop up in these sparkling blends. You may have noticed both white and rosado Cava lining your local wine store’s shelves. Pink Cavas will see the addition of Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, and the local Trepat. This native grape is occasionally the sole grape used in a Cava rosado and shows gorgeous floral aromas of violets and ripe berries ranging from red to black.

Aging Regulations

You won’t be surprised to see that Cava aging regulations have a great deal in common with those of Champagne. All Cava ages on the lees for at least nine months. To qualify as Reserva, the wine must rest 15 months on the lees and 30 months to earn Gran Reserva designation.Cava may be released as a single vintage or as a non-vintage style.

Our Top Cava Picks

One of the major reasons so many folks are ditching Champagne in favor of Cava is the fact that Cava is incredibly affordable given the high quality. Cava is fairly unique in the world of traditional method sparkling wines. It is one of the few which doesn’t solely rely on the Champagne varieties. Cava, at its best, is a blend of the local grapes which are so perfectly suited to the terroir of the region. This unequivocally delicious wine offers you the chance to satisfy your Champagne tastes on a Cava budget. Now that is something we can all get behind. Here are some bottles to try: 

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Gran Juve Y Camps Gran Reserva Brut 201– honeysuckle, trees blossoms, stone fruit, and spices notes complement the rich, creamy finish of this top Cava. Made from a blend of Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Chardonnay, and Parellada and aged 42 month sur lie. $39

Ramon Raventos Brut NV– zesty lemon peel and crisp green apple with a hint of ripe pear and toast. $13

Vilarnau Cava Rosado Bruy NV– juicy red berries including raspberry, cherry, and strawberry with a vibrant acidity and long finish. 90/10 Trepat and Pinot Noir. $12

Gramona Imperial Gran Reserva Cava Brut– ripe peach and apple with a compelling aroma of wild fennel followed by freshly baked biscuits and a hint of lemon peel and toast. Produced from organic Xarel-lo, Macabeu, and Chardonnay. $26

Anna de Codorniu Brut Rosé– ripe berries such as raspberry, strawberry, red cherry and a touch of citrus. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. $12

Freixenet Elyssia Gran Cuvee Brut– heady honeysuckle aromas intermingle with tropical pineapple and ripe peach. Blend of Chardonnay, Paralleda, Macabeo, and Pinot Noir. $17

Segura Viudas Aria Estate Brut NV– a dry Cava full of ripe fruits such as pineapple, apple, and lemon, followed by a bready aromas, a touch of honey, hay, and almond. Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo, aged 24 months. $11

Pere Ventura Tresor Brut Rosé NV– delicate aroma of rose petals, raspberry, strawberry, violets, and cherries. 100 percent Trepat. $12

Llopart Leopardi Gran Reserva Brut– an elegant Cava with notes of citrus, tree blossoms, honeysuckle, dried orange peel, almonds, and spice. Aged 48 months in bottle. Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Chardonnay blend. $37

Camille grew up not far from the heart of California’s wine country. She started off in the wine world as a sommelier before deciding to combine her passion for the written word with her love of fermented grape juice. She now lives in the UK where she continues to consult, teach, and write about wine and spirits.