When it comes to bubbles, the French have Champagne and Crémant, the Italians have Prosecco and Franciacorta — and Asti Spumante and Lambrusco. The Germans have Sekt. And it's simply "sparkling wine" in places such as the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South America. But in Spain, the keyword is Cava. Cava holds a unique place in the sparkling wine category. It's made in the same way as Champagne, using secondary fermentation in the battle to produce its bubbly texture. And it also undergoes specific aging requirements, yielding wines that take on the yeasty, bread-dough qualities similar to Champagne. But it's also distinctly Spanish in that it relies primarily on three native varieties: Xarello, Parellada, and Macabeo. And in terms of price, it's significantly less expensive than its French counterparts.
Yet, in the States, it's not as readily known as Champagne and Prosecco. It's a shame because so much of it is really very good. After a recent visit to the Penedès region of northeast Spain near and around Barcelona, I found a deeper appreciation for this style of wine and a few key takeaways that will perhaps deepen your appreciation.
1) The Native Grapes and Beyond
The three main grapes for Cava have traditionally been Xarello, Parrella da, and Macabeo. Xarello, in particular, is a key player offering motes of lime and wild fennel and body to the structure of the wines. Macabeo, also known as Viura in other parts of Spain, produces light, floral wine that is smooth, elegant, and well-balanced. With moderate sugars and acidity, this grape is also valued for its good aging capacity. Parellada produces wines with medium acidity balanced with fruitiness, elegance, and excellent aging potential. Though Parellada is a lesser grape for many producers, some, such as Familia Ferrer, believe the variety is a crucial element to Cava, even weighting the blend for some of its limited releases with more than 50 percent of this variety.
But the holy trinity of Cava isn't the only card these wines have to offer. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir both play a significant hand in the region, Chardonnay for its structure and Pinot Noir for complexity and color with rosé. One other native grape, Trepat, also plays a role. Fruity and floral, this red grape is found in many rosé Cavas. Though it has started to see a decline in plantings across the board, many producers feel its history in the region is worth preserving.
2) A Consistent Growing Environment
Ask anyone what Champagne's greatest challenge is, and you'll often hear about the cool climate and unpredictable weather as a common response. When vintages are too cold or hail and freeze damage a harvest, getting grapes to an appropriate ripeness is a perpetual concern. But in the sunny, hilly climes of the Cava D.O., ripening is rarely, if ever, a concern. This warmer combination of Mediterranean and Continental climates offers wines with a wide range of complexity in aromas and texture that are enhanced by the maturation process.
To further highlight the unique growing environments in the region, specific zones and sub-zones have been defined, including Comtats de Barcelona (subzones include Valls d'Anoia-Foix, Serra de Mar, Conca del Gaià, Serra de Prades, and Pla de Ponent), the Ebro Valley (subzones include Alta Ebro and Valle del Cierzo), Viñedos de Almendralejo, and the Levante Zone.
3) New Regulations Mean Raising the Bar
As of January of this year, Cava is now under a few new regulatory guidelines that introduce new premium tiers of aged wines and highlight the region in which the wine was made. Cavas aged more than nine months will now be called Cava de Guarda, while those aged more than 18 months will be called Cava de Guarda Superior. The Cavas de Guarda Superior must be made with grapes from vineyards registered in the Regulatory Board's specific Register of Guarda Superior and must meet a few requirements. All vines must be at least ten years old and must be 100% organic by 2025. Yields may only be a maximum of 4.9 tons per acre, and all bottles must be labeled with the vintage. For long aging of Cavas de Guarda Superior, Cavas Reserva must be aged for a minimum of 18 months, Gran Reserva must age for a minimum of 30 months, and Cavas de Paraje Calificado, which comes from a special plot, must be aged for a minimum of 36 months.
The hope is that these new guidelines with give consumers a guarantee of quality and provenance and guide them up the ladder to more premium wines and differentiate Cava from its competitors. The new regulations mark the most significant update of the regulatory board's rules since the Cava DO was created more than 30 years ago.
4) New Regulations Also Spotlight A Commitment to Sustainability
These new regulations also usher in a commitment to organic farming practices, particularly for Guarda Superior Cavas. The production of these Cavas will be 100% organic from 2025 onwards. Beyond organic farming, many producers are taking additional steps to ensure the region's future for generations to come. Currently, Alta Alella is investigating the resistance of different clones of Xarello, Macabeo, Parellada, Tempranillo, and Garnacha to diseases such as downy and powdery mildew. Resistant strains could reduce the use of copper and sulfur in the vineyard. Less tractor usage for spraying against mildew would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create less soil compaction and waste.
Other wineries such as Parés Baltà, which also cultivates their vineyards organically, keep bees that contribute to pollination during flowering. They also conduct an annual green harvest, removing selected bunches of grapes before they ripen to aerate the vines and enhance the concentration of the remaining fruit.
Sumarroca has committed to sustainability through the Voluntary Agreements for the Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions program through the Catalonian Government. The program offers tools and support to producers who voluntarily commit to reducing their emissions. Within the first year, Sumarroca reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from electricity consumption by 24% and continues to reduce waste through sustainable measures.
As these developments indicate, Cava is on the move — and in promising directions.