Wine 101: Summer Sparkling: Cava

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This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by La Marca Prosecco, America’s most loved sparkling wine from Italy. La Marca Prosecco offers a taste of what Italians call “La Dolce Vita,” which means the good life or the sweet life or both. I mean, when you think about it, every day is ripe for lively bubblies. Am I right? To try the La Marca Prosecco and the other bubbly we talk about, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Cava, Spain’s own designated sparkling wine. Inspired by Champagne from France, Cava is a relatively new category that’s taken nearly two centuries to perfect, market, and classify. Tune in to learn more about the wine’s history and what it takes to make Cava.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. How many times do you hit the lock button on a car fob when you’re walking into a store after you’ve left the car in the parking lot? Five for me.

OK, wine lovers. I’m excited. When am I not excited? I’m talking about wine. This is always exciting to me. But what’s really fun is that in this episode, and the next couple of episodes, we’re going to talk about sparkling wine. But we’re not going to talk about how sparkling wine is made because you already know how that’s done. You listened to all the episodes of all the seasons of the ongoing “Wine 101” podcast and you know all the stuff about winemaking. We did a little overview on Champagne. At some point, we have to dive deeper into that. We did a nice, thorough episode on Prosecco, but there’s a couple other sparklers out there you’re going to see on the American market from abroad that are prevalent. So we should talk about them.

Today, we’re going to talk about a Spanish sparkling wine called Cava. I don’t know where you are in the realm of Cava, wine lover: “I see it on shelves and it’s affordable and I buy it and I know nothing about it,” or “I see it on shelves and I don’t buy it because I don’t know anything about it.” I don’t know about the rest of the country. I had a retail shop in New York for a long time and Cava needs a little bit more understanding. I feel like we need to understand that sparkling wine is so ubiquitous on our shelves because it’s great stuff and it’s just sitting there waiting for us. And some of you are just drinking it going, “Oh, this is great. Is this Cava? It’s Spanish, that’s all I know.” So let’s drill down. I gotta stop saying drill. What am I saying? We’re going deeper. Are we drilling down? We’ll talk more in depth. Let’s talk more in depth about Cava. Let’s start to understand this so when you’re out there buying it, you know what you’re drinking.

In the 1970s in Spain, there was a very popular wine going around, specifically in the province of Catalonia. Specifically in the southern coastal area of that province called the Penedès, which is a low-lying, hilly area that was once a county just outside of Barcelona, which is just to the north. This wine was a sparkling white wine. And interestingly enough, it was made in the same way that the sparkling wines of Champagne were being made, called the traditional method. We all know that from the sparkling wine episode in Season 1 of “Wine 101.” The difference was, these sparkling white wines were being made from native grapes in this area, not the varieties that are known in Champagne. But because of the general similarities to Champagne, the wine drinkers of this region — the Penedès, Catalonia — began calling this wine Champaña, which is just a Spanish way of saying Champagne. They had another, more casual way of saying it, I’m not really sure. As this wine became more and more popular, the people of Champagne got a little concerned because of the misleading labeling of Champaña versus Champagne. There was eventually an agreement that the sparkling wines of Spain would no longer be called Spanish Champagne or Champaña, and would call their sparkling wine the word they use for wine cellar, which is “Cava.” The sparkling Spanish wine, Cava, was born, even though it was already being made for quite some time. And I’ve always wondered how these things work where a region is like, “Look, you’ve got to stop doing this because this is our region and you’re calling it our region and you’re using it for your marketing purposes.” This happened in California with the word Chablis. I found this thing called the Madrid system, and it’s part of the Madrid Agreement from 1891. It is an agreement between countries that certain trademarks will stay protected. And I believe this was used to fix this whole situation. But the thing is, it makes sense that, for the longest time, this was called Champaña because of the origin of the sparkling wine. Because Cava is not ancient. It’s fairly new in the entire world of wine. And it all starts as one of the oldest family businesses in Catalonia.

In 1872, a man by the name of Jose Raventós made his way to France. He was the current head of the family firm Cordiníu, which is located in the Penedès in a little town called Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly or not. But this family firm had wines and for a long time wines were mostly meant for local consumption. But Jose wanted to sell their wines to the rest of Europe, so he decided to go on a tour of France and he ended up in Champagne, which is interesting because the wines he was selling were mostly red wines. At that time in the Penedès, I don’t know that it was primarily red wine, but a lot of red wine and white wine was being made. Now, I’m not sure what’s going on in Jose’s brain at this point, but he’s in France trying to sell his family’s Spanish wine. He ends up in Champagne drinking that wine, and he has an epiphany. At some point he’s like, “Wait a second, this is a great wine. I wonder if we could do this back in the Penedès in our home land. So as Jose has this revelation and starts making his way back to France, it’s at this time generally that phylloxera takes hold of Spain. Obviously, Penedès is affected and it’s decimated. There are a lot of vines that die because of phylloxera in the Penedès. Now, I’m sure it’s more complicated than this, but what happens is Jose comes back to the Penedès, phylloxera takes hold, phylloxera decimates. They uproot all the vines, and when they replant, they don’t replant the varieties — especially the reds — that were there before. They end up planting three native white varieties: Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo. And all this coinciding with each other, those three grapes will become the three grapes that make up the sparkling wine of Spain that will eventually be called Cava. So even though Cava is a fairly new word, the first sparkling wine, the first Cava, was really made in the Penedès by Jose Raventós in the 19th century for the family firm, Codorníu. And then in 1889, Jose Ferrer established probably one of the most well-known Cavas on our market from back in the day.

So that’s Cava. It’s a Spanish sparkling wine made using the traditional method. And in 1986, when Spain was brought into the E.U., the idea of Cava had to be addressed because it was being made all throughout the northeastern part of Spain. And it had a bit of a history. First it was Champaña or sparkling Spanish Champagne or Spanish Champaña. But unlike Champagne, it wasn’t made in a specific region. It was being made all over the place. So the E.U. is like, “We got to rein this in.” And in doing so, it created one of the most unique wine appellations in Spain, if not the world. Because Cava is not one region. It is a wine made with specific rules or parameters within a list of provinces throughout Catalonia. Does that make sense?

So the production of Cava is restricted to a list of municipalities in the regions of Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque Country. So if you want to put Cava on your label, it has to be within those regions. Now, 95 percent of this is actually made in Catalonia, specifically in the Penedès area, where it all began. And to call it Cava, there’s a list of rules that you have to adhere to to have this on your label. It has to have nine months on the lees before you disgorge it. It has to have a certain atmosphere of pressure, which I think is four atmospheres. There’s a maximum yield. There’s a minimum and maximum alcohol, which I think maxes out at 12 or 13 percent alcohol.

And just like Champagne has three varieties they use in their blends — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier — the wines of Cava use their three varieties, the varieties that were planted post-phylloxera. You have the light, aromatic Macabeo. In Rioja, they call it Viura. And this takes up a significant amount of the Cava blend because it gives it that vibrancy. Then, you have Xarel-lo. It’s the second most important variety in the blend because of its earthiness. Macabeo can give you that aromatic, but Xarel-lo comes in with the depth. It’s awesome. And sometimes it plays with the aromatics of the Macabeo and brings us a very cool, awesome, earthy note to the wine. Then the third grape is Paralleda. This grape is mainly used for body and it still is used today for body.

But in 1986, when Spain was brought into the E.U., it went ahead and said, “You know what? Along with these three varieties you can use, you can also use Chardonnay.” And everyone’s like, “Thank you so much.” Chardonnay brings a beautiful body and roundness to Cava. It doesn’t take away from the inherent qualities of the other varieties. It just adds to the depth and roundness of a Cava. It’s pretty cool. Not all Cavas have Chardonnay in them, but they’re allowed. Also, there are some red varieties that are allowed in Cava: Garnacha, Monastrell — also known as Mourvèdre — Pinot Noir, and a native great called Trepat. Trepat is awesome. If you can find it as a red wine or as a rosé, it’s really cool. And in Cava, it’s only permitted in the rosés. Like I said, they’re made the same way they’re made in Champagne. Not like Prosecco, which goes through the Charmat method. This is actually traditional second fermentation in-bottle, and you’ll notice there’s a lot of Cava out there.

The thing is, the Spanish invented something called the gyropalette. This is a machine that can take, I think, up to 150 bottles of wine and mechanically time its riddling. If you don’t know about riddling, this is in the sparkling wine episode that I did in Season1. But riddling was usually done by humans and by hand, and it took a long time. This gyropalette cuts that time in half, if not less, and allows more bottles to be put out into the market sooner. And you know that the winemakers of Champagne love this technology. So it’s just kind of interesting how the Spanish took the traditional method from what they saw in Champagne and created their own sparkling wine. And in doing so, they became innovative and created their own riddling system mechanically. The Champagne region then started buying them for their wine. It’s a little symbiotic circle there of wine.

The thing about the price of Cava on our market, you’re going to see a significant amount of Cava that is extremely well priced and very affordable. And I believe a lot of that is in competition with some of the oldest winemaking families in the region. But as these regions have evolved, the multiple regions that can make Cava, new generations of smaller winemakers producing more concentrated, almost high-end Cava that’s a little bit more expensive is coming on to our market.

If you go around out there and you look at Cava, you’re going to see that price range between $12 and $20. If you see a Cava that’s maybe $30 or more, definitely grab it and try it because they are taking those varieties they can use and they are building something beautiful for you in a smaller production to give you a sense of what this region can really do. One of the reasons why I’m saying that is, number one, I’ve tried some of them. They’re pretty stunning. But also in 2014, a new classification of Cava was put into place, and it’s a single-vineyard Cava. It’s called Cava de Paraje Calificado. It’s Cava from a classified plot of land, a single vineyard. Single-vineyard wines are often a little more expensive because it’s smaller production and there’s more concentration of flavor because it’s a smaller plot of land to harvest from. So if you’re out there, and you see Cava de Paraje, grab it. You’ll be enjoying something that’s kind of brand new in the Cava realm.

All right, wine lovers. So that’s basically Cava in a nutshell. Go out there and try this stuff. They’re all over the place. They’re going to have the three main varieties in them, usually, and some Chardonnay. But there are some Cavas out there that get very fun and experimental with other varieties that are allowed in the blend. It’s a really cool category out there. Enjoy Cava, especially now that you know all about it.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.