What do you reach for when you feel like drinking bubbles? Champagne is probably on your wish list, but it is an expensive choice, even when on offer. Prosecco has stormed up the popularity stakes and we now drink four times more of this Italian fizz than Champagne. But what of Cava? This Spanish sparkling wine has been lurking on UK supermarket shelves for decades and sells a respectable 30 million bottles a year, but the image of Cava has never quite hit the right note.
It used to be the cheap choice, the one you might buy when you planned to douse it in orange juice or add a dash of cassis to make a Kir, but things have changed. Cava producers have upped their game in recent years and the flavours are cleaner and there is more complexity.
Cava translates as “cellar” which is not an inspiring name for a wine. But 30 years ago when Spain joined the EU it had to come up with a word to replace the “champaña” it had been using before.
The grape varieties used for Cava are distinctly Spanish. There are three key grapes – light, aromatic Macabeo, earthy Xarel-lo and the clean, fresh Parellada. Chardonnay is also permitted and occasionally plays a bit part in a blend. Red grapes are also permitted – Pinot Noir, Garnacha and Monastrell as well as local grape Trapet can be used for white Cava, but more usually for rosé. Cava is always produced in the traditional manner, with a second fermentation in bottle and a minimum ageing period of at least nine months, although some producers keep their top wines on their lees for 10 years. This is the expensive way to make sparkling wine since all those bottles have to be stored underground in huge cellars or warehouses while the wine gathers flavour from the yeast in the bottles.
The home of Cava is Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, just south of Barcelona. This town and surrounding villages within the Penedès region are dotted with small producers, many of them making regular still wines with Cava as part of the portfolio. The two big producers are Codorníu and Freixenet, both family owned, although Codorníu has a 350-year head start on its rival. Unusually the area of production for Cava is not completely concentrated in one region. Penedès area produces 97 per cent of all Cava but when the legislation was introduced there were already some places outside the area making sparkling wine and using the name Cava. Rather than forbid them to continue, the rules became slightly flexible so now a small amount of Cava can come from wineries in Navarra, Rioja, Valencia and Aragon.
What marks the Penedès region out is the change in altitude as the land rises away from the coastal plain and up into the hills. This gives a variation in daytime and night-time temperatures, allowing different flavours to develop in the grapes as they ripen. Soil is also a major factor with areas of chalk, clay and limestone adding their own particular characteristics to the wine. It is this aspect of winemaking that was explained to me when I visited the region. “We have been working with earlier harvesting to capture more freshness, and we have done a complete evaluation of all our vineyards to find the best plots,” said Arthur O’Connor who heads up winemaking within the whole Codorníu group. This is in advance of the new legislation which will allow single-estate Cava wines.
Even small producers are heading down the experimental route. Many are trialling biodynamics, organics and longer ageing on lees. The aim is definitely to push quality forward.