Cava. Don’t call it champagne. Champagne refers to the region of France where sparkling wine is produced. Therefore, it is more accurate to say that Cava is sparkling wine made in the traditional French method. In the same way that the use of the namesake “champagne” is restricted to a particular region of France, “cava” is restricted to production in the Catalonia, Castile y Leon, Valencia, Extremadura, Navarra, Rioja, and Basque regions. A four-pointed star is printed on the base of the cork of a true cava wine. (Be on the lookout for it next time you’re shopping for wine!)
Cava originated in the 1800s at the Codorníu Winery, located in the Catalonia region of Spain. At that time, red wine vines were destroyed by a parasite and replaced with white-grape producing vines. Josep Raventos is attributed with creating cava, after observing the success of the French Champagne region and wanting to do something similar.
95% of cava produced is from Catalonia. The town of Sant Sadurní is home to some of the largest producers of cava in Catalonia. Annual production is in the 18 million case range (where a case contains 12 bottles). In 2010, sales of cava increased 10%, primarily due to the price point being much more affordable than French and California sparkling wine counterparts.
The primary grape varieties include Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo. Macabeo provides the sweetness and aroma that is so characteristic of cava. Parallada gives cava its “fresh,” crisp taste, and Xarel·lo provides body.
But how does the wine get its bubbles? After the bottle is filled with blended wine, a mixture of yeast and sugar, called liquor de tirajo, is added. A temporary stopper is added to the bottle and the bottles are stored in a cool cellar. The yeast causes fermentation to take place. I’ll spare you the high-school chemistry details of what the fermentation process looks like, but yeast will convert sugar to carbon dioxide. In fact, cava undergoes a second fermentation while in the cellar and lasts for 9 months. Throughout the 9 months, the bottles are stored horizontally and rotated by hand. Rotating the bottles allows the yeast to collect at the neck of the bottle, allowing for easy removal once the cava is ready (i.e., all of the unused yeast is at the neck of the bottle).
During that time period, the cava is also aged. As I discussed in a previous post, there are various aging periods for wine; cava is no exception. Joven is aged for 9 to 15 months, Reserva is aged for 15 to 30 months, and Gran Reserva is aged for over 30 months.
No two types of cava are alike; similar to champagne, taste and body will differ depending on the sugar content. Therefore, cava is categorized by “grade.”
Brut Nature: Contains 0 – 3 grams of sugar per liter (no additional sugar is added). Brut Nature and Extra Brut are the “driest” cava wines.
Extra Brut: Contains 0 – 6 grams per liter.
Brut: Contains 0 – 15 grams of sugar per liter.
Extra Dry: 12 -17 grams of sugar per liter.
Dry: 17 – 32 grams per liter.
Semi: 32 – 50 grams per liter.
Dulce: More than 50 grams of sugar per liter.
As for pairings: I’ve noticed that most people in the United States will drink cava with a meal, whereas when I spent time in Spain, cava is typically served after dinner and majority is consumed around Christmastime. It is very normal to have turron with cava – in fact, for the Feast of Three Kings, children will traditionally present a bottle of cava and turron to the Three Kings. (Makes me which I could be one of the kings and drink lots of cava!)
Aside from turron, I like to pair cava with fatty or fried foods, due to its mild acidity. Croquetas, salmon, and goat cheese (Garrotxa is my favorite!) pair very nicely with a dry cava, as do spicy foods. Interestingly enough, the heat of the spice will not amplify the heat from the alcohol.