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Tiny bubbles in a tall flute are one of my favorite things. Sparkling wines have an amazing history and the process fascinates me. In this 5-part series of articles, I explore some of my favorite sparkling wines from around the world.
In this article—part 3 of 5—we turn to Spain and the lovely Cavas that originate in the Catalunya (Catalonia in English) region. If you want more background on how sparkling wines are made, be sure to read about the background in the first article in this series. Always remember—now is the best time for a glass of bubbly.
The Sparkling Wine Series on Wander
In this article, we talk about the sparkling wines of Spain. Be sure to check out the other articles in the sparkling wine series:
- Understanding Sparkling Wine
- French Sparkling Wines (including Champagne)
- Italian Sparkling Wines
- American Sparkling Wines
The Cava History
Spain's Cava region is in Catalunya, or what we call Catalonia in English. This is a beautiful area that I was able to visit a few years ago. The region, Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, is the birthplace of Cava. In the 1860s, Don José Raventós, head of what was then a still-wine maker Codorníu, traveled throughout France's Champagne region and fell in love with the region's sparkling wine.
Don José Raventós brought the concept back to Spain. He produced the first sparkling wine in 1872. At the time, it was called Champán or xampany (the x is pronounced with an sh sound). It became cava officially because of the French claim to champagne. Cava is the Catalan word for cave.
One of the best places to explore the history of Cava is at the museum in Sadurní d'Anoia. Situated in what was once a distillery, CIC Fassina illustrates the importance of the cava industry to the area. The museum offers English-language brochures and signage and takes about an hour to explore.
A focus in the museum is on a bug called phylloxera. The Cava industry nearly died before it could begin when a bug called the phylloxera almost killed off all of the grapevines. The region is so aware of how phylloxera almost destroyed the industry that they even have an annual Phylloxera Festival. During the festival, locals dress up in phylloxera costumes and take to the streets in celebration.
Thanks to the help of a hardy grape variety imported from the U.S., the Spanish wine industry survived. I discovered some beautiful sparkling wines during my time in Catalunya. Here are a few of my favorite sparkling wines from Spain, known as Cava.
Making Cava in Spain
Just as champagne is carefully regulated in France, so too is Cava in Spain. There are only eight regions in Spain that can create sparkling wine and call it Cava. The grapes used for Cava must come from specific provinces, but more than 97% of the grapes come from the Penedès region of Catalunya around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia.
Cava is made using the méthode Champenoise, which is known as Método Tradicional in Spain. While the method is the same, the grapes are different and the land where they grow the grapes is different from that of Champagne.
The Cava Grapes
Cava uses different grapes than champagne. The three most common for white and rosé Cava are Xarel.lo (pronounced sharellō), Macabeo, and Parellada. Xarel.lo brings a full-bodied taste to Cava, while Macabeo is a bit fruity, and Parellada is a delicate finesse. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are allowed in Cava, but used infrequently. Some Cava makers add Malvasia grapes, which are called Subirat in Spain.
There can be a red Cava, designated as Rosado Cava. Those sparkling wines usually have Granache, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, and/or Trepat, a local grape, as the base.
How Does Cava Compare with Champagne?
There are four different designations of Cava and the difference has to do with several things, most notably the time it ages in the bottle during the second fermentation.
- Traditional Cava must age a minimum of nine months on the lees. This is a very fresh, fruity wine with a lot of green apple hints.
- Cava Reserva used to need a minimum of 15 months to age in the bottle, but that is going up to 18 months beginning with the 2020 vintage.
- Cava Gran Reserva must age for 30 months in the bottle. These wines are much more complex than the first two.
- Cava de Paraje Calificado. is the newest designation, established in 2017. These are Cavas from a single vineyard. This designation requires organic farming and the vines must be more than 10 years old. Brut has a limit of 12 grams of sugar per liter for the dosage, and the dosage must be dated. The wine must age for at least 36 months in the bottle.
This difference in aging, combined with the different grapes, makes a distinct difference between Cava and Champagne. In my opinion, most Cavas are not as complex or as earthy as champagne. They have a bit fewer bubbles, with a very fruity taste. I do recommend a rosé Cava if you want a more full-bodied sparkling wine.
My Favorite Cavas
During my time in Catalunya, I had a chance to visit several wineries. Here are a few of my favorite wineries and which wines I suggest from each one.
Freixenet is a fairly popular Cava in most of the world. The original winery is in Catalunya and I was able to visit it during my trip. Established in 1923, it has a bit of a Gatsby feel.
I wasn't sure about Freixenet. I'm not generally a fan of the Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry that is most common in the U.S. It sells for about $10 per bottle, and I find it a bit flat. However, as we descended the stairs into the caves below the winery, I did find myself eager to try their other offerings.
Once down about 60 feet underground, I found myself surrounded by barrels filled with wines—from barrels for the first fermentation to bottles during the second fermentation, and in boxes ready to go out into the world.
I did discover a Freixenet Cava I enjoyed—the 2006 Freixenet Casa Sala. This is one of the vintage Cavas the winery makes and each bottle of this is turned by hand daily during the riddling stage. It is aged for seven years, making it more well-rounded than most Cavas. It had a lovely aroma of peaches, toning down some of the green apples I find in most Cavas. This one was a blend of Xarel.lo and Parallada grapes.
Codorníu, the Cathedral of Cava
My favorite winery during my visit was Codorníu, fondly called the Cathedral of Cava. The winery dates to 1551. About 100 years later, Anna Codorníu married Miquel Raventós, joining two wine families. Years later, it was one of Anna Codorníu and Miquel Raventós ancestors who traveled to France and brought sparkling wines back to the region. Codorníu Winery created that first Champaña in Spain, which gave birth to today's Cava industry.
The winery began construction on its current building in 1885. It is a gorgeous structure of timber and wood that definitely resembles a cathedral. It is now the tasting room for the winery.
I felt the magic as I wandered the winery and its grounds. There are beautiful buildings, tall spires, wisteria hanging from the arbors.
In 1897, Codorníu became “Purveyor to the Spanish Royal Family” and it warranted a visit from King Juan Carlos I, who made it a National Monument of Historic and Artistic Interest. The family's mansion is now a private tasting room, which is a favored spot for weddings.
If you have a chance to explore the Catalunya region of Spain, located about an hour north of Barcelona, Codorníu Winery is a must-see.
I enjoyed all of the Cavas at Codorníu, but my favorite was the Reina María Cristina Blac de Noirs 2013 Reserva. This is a sparkling white made from Pinot Noir, giving it a full-bodied feel not found in all Cavas. This is very light-colored and aged for 15 months in the cellars. It has fine bubbles and is quite floral, reminding me of a summer day with roses and strawberries.
Other Cavas I Recommend
There are some beautiful Cavas and I was pleasantly surprised once I knew what to look for in sparkling wines from Spain. Here are some of my favorites:
- Anna Codorníu Brut Rosé. Also from the house of Codorníu, this is a Cava I usually keep on hand at home. It is a gorgeous pink color and honors the last winemaker in the line with the last name Codorníu. The blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay gives it those tastes of strawberries and cherries, but with a bit of a nuttiness and a hint of apple. It is a smooth sparkling wine with fine bubbles. This retails for less than $15 per bottle.
- Codorníu Anna de Codorníu Cava Blanc de Blancs. Another from the house of Codorníu, this is a white sparkler. It is a blend of Chardonnay, Parellada, Macabeo, and Xarel.lo. The Blanc de Blancs is a lovely straw color with the aroma of yeast and toast. With fresh peaches on the palate, along with a touch of citrus, this is nice with food pairings. At about $15 per bottle, this is another great sparkling wine.
- Basca Cava NV. This is a fun Cava that is traditional and has the classic Cava taste. It is a blend of Macabeo, Xarel.lo, and Parellada. It is a zesty wine with a lemony aroma and taste. Fun, lively bubbles. $17 per bottle
- Llopart Reserva Brut Rosé Cava 2016. I also had a chance to visit Llopart during my visit and this is another major winery in the area. It has been making wines for more than 125 years and it shows. This wine is aged at least 18 months. It is a blend of Monastrell, Garnacha, and Pinot Noir, making it a bit more complex than some of the other Cavas. It has a lovely floral aroma, but with a hint of spice. Llopart is also an organic grower. $24
I encourage you to explore the sparkling wines of the world. The Cavas of Spain are definitely among some of my favorite sparkling wines. Be sure to check out the next article in my series, where we travel to Italy to explore some of the great Italian sparkling wines. If you want more information about wines, be sure to check out these wine articles on Wander. We also have more great information about traveling in Spain.