Maybe you’re familiar with the term “Cava”, or maybe you’re not. But y’know that iconic black and gold bottle of bubbly that you’ve seen at every New Years Party? Surely you’ve had a glass of it at some point right? Well, that’s Cava. So what is Cava exactly? And what makes it different from Champagne or Prosecco?
Class is in session – so get your glasses out (whether they’re reading glasses or wine glasses) because we’re about to teach you everything you need to know about Spain’s spectacular sparkling wine – Cava!
What is Cava?
Cava is a traditional method Spanish sparkling wine produced mainly in the Penedès region of Catalonia. It is most often made using a blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo grapes. It can be either white or rosé. But of course it’s a whole lot more complicated than that!
How is Cava Made?
Cava is made using the “Traditional Method” (also known as the “Méthode Champenoise” or “Méthode Classique”). This is exactly same way that Champagne is made in France. We’ve illustrated the steps of Cava production in this handy infographic below:
- Step 1: The grapes are harvested early to maintain high acid levels and sorted to ensure only the highest quality fruit is used to produce Cava.
- Step 2: Each grape varietal is gently pressed to produce a clear juice.
- Step 3: These clear juices are fermented in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels, resulting in still (dry) base wines.
- Step 4: The base wines are blended together in different amounts (in a process called “assemblage“) to create the final blend (or cuvée).
- Step 5: The blended wine is bottled and a mixture of sugar and yeast is added to each bottle to ignite the secondary fermentation in the bottle. It is sealed with a crown cap (similar to what you see on a beer bottle).
- Step 6: The bottles are placed on their sides in a cellar and the secondary fermentation takes place. The CO² (carbon dioxide) produced during the secondary fermentation (from the conversion of sugar to alcohol) remains trapped inside the bottle and yay… we’ve got bubbles!
- Step 7: The bottles rest “sur lie” (meaning, resting with the dead yeast cells inside each bottle) which adds complexity (mainly the toasty/brioche notes associated with traditional method sparkling wines). This process lasts anywhere from 9 months to several years depending upon quality and aging requirements where the wine is being produced.
- Step 8: The dead yeast cells are collected in the neck of the bottle (through a process called “riddling“) and removed from the bottle (through a process called “disgorgement“). Traditionally riddling was carried out by hand using riddling racks, but nowadays it is almost always done by machine for efficiency (though several high end Cavas are still riddled by hand). During this process the bottles are gradually rotated and angled upward over the course of 6 to 8 weeks until all the dead yeast cells are collected at the bottom, in the neck of the bottle. From there the wine (and dead yeast cells) in the neck of the bottle are frozen in a bath of freezing brine. The cap on the bottle is removed, and the frozen sediment shoots right out!
- Step 9: But now you’re left with a bottle missing a couple inches of wine! This is where the “dosage” comes in. The “dosage” is a mixture of still wine and sugar that is quickly added in after the sediment is disgorged and before the cork is put in place. The added sugar determines the desired sweetness of the wine (brut nature, brut, seco, dulce, etc!)
- Step 10: The cork is put in place, the bottles run through a high-tech labeling machine, and voila! Before being shipped off for sale, most traditional method sparkling wines will rest for an additional six months or so to ensure the dosage is fully integrated.
If you happened to read our “Prosecco 101” post you’ll notice that the process to make Cava (or other traditional method sparkling wines) is a lot more time consuming than the Charmat method used to produce Prosecco. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that one method is better than the other – it just means that both methods produce very different styles of wine! Traditional method sparkling wines are richer and more complex than Charmat method sparkling wines. With zesty citrus flavours, often a toastiness/nuttiness and a distinct minerality. The bubbles are also much more fine, and contribute to a smoother and more creamy mouth feel. Unlike most Charmat method sparkling wines, many traditional method sparkling wines have aging potential and can develop some very interesting tertiary flavours and aromas with age.
Where is Cava Made?
Most Cava is made in Catalonia (the north-east of Spain) with 95% of total production being produced in the Penedès region (about 45 minutes inland from Barcelona). Cava holds “Denominación de Origen” (DO) status in Spain, meaning it must be produced following specific guidelines (and within a specific geographic border) to bear the name “Cava” on the label. Fun fact: Originally Cava was known as “Spanish Champagne”, but in 1970 winemakers adopted the term “Cava” (which means “cave” or “cellar” in Spanish) to differentiate themselves from French Champagne. Today almost 250 million bottles of Cava are produced every year.
What Does Cava Taste Like?
Cava is a light to medium bodied, typically dry, sparkling wine – with zesty citrus flavours, a distinct minerality and racy acidity. Cavas aged longer on the lees often develop a beautiful baked apple note and a pronounced nuttiness. The bubbles are very fine and produce a lovely mousse which contributes to a smooth and creamy mouth feel. Dominant flavours typically include lemon/lime, quince, almond, and tart apple. Secondary flavours often include brioche, fig, and a chalky minerality.
The most common style of Cava is Brut (meaning dry), although there are even dryer styles with zero sugar added in the dosage, as well as sweeter dessert Cavas.
There are 7 different sweetness levels:
- Brut Nature: 0-3 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Extra Brut: 3-6 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Brut: 6-12 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Extra-Seco: 12-17 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Seco: 17-32 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Semi-Seco: 32-50 grams of residual sugar per litre.
- Dulce: 50+ grams of residual sugar per litre.
What Food Should I Pair Cava With?
Oh, you mean other than a second glass?! Of course the obvious answer here is tapas! You can never go wrong when pairing a wine with the cuisine from the same area. Cava is an extremely versatile wine to pair with food. The racy acidity and the fine bubbles make for an excellent palate cleanser between bites, so we love to pair our Cava with some Spanish charcuterie and cheese. Cava with some deliciously nutty jamón ibérico and manchego cheese = #foodgasm!
Cava also pairs exceptionally well with BBQ, chinese style stir-fry or noodle dishes, fried fish, salmon and sushi. And if you are able to get your hands on a sweet Cava, pair it with a deliciously creamy crema catalana!
How is Cava Different from Champagne?
Well actually, Cava is probably one of the most Champagne-like sparkling wine out there. It’s produced using the same traditional method – however – the climate, terroir and grapes used in Cava production are very different from Champagne. The bubbles, sweetness level, and mouthfeel are all quite similar, but the aromas and flavour profiles will differ due to the different climates, soils, and grapes used in the assemblage. Another big difference? The price point. You can score a spectacular bottle of Cava for around $20… about 1/3 of what you’d pay for a decent Champagne. This is partly due to the fact that the Spanish have pioneered and implemented advanced mechanization to produce, store and bottle their Cava. They even invented the “gyropalette” which is a large machine that automatically riddles thousands of bottles in order to remove the lees after the second fermentation. More Cava in less time? Now there’s innovation we can get behind! 😍
Still Thirsty for More?
Now it’s time for your homework… get out there and experience the beauty of Cava for yourself!
Article in collaboration with Wines from Spain. 🙌🇪🇸💖🍾