The Styles of Cava
Cava is an often under-appreciated style of sparkling wine. This is in part due to the dominance of Prosecco in the UK market, however, it may also be centred on the confusion surrounding the quality of Cava. What makes a Cava great and what really is bottom end, bargain booze?
To truly appreciate this fascinating style of wine you must first understand the basics of Cava. This includes the history, winemaking, ageing, the levels of sweetness and of course the grape varieties that make this sparkling wine.
The History of Cava:
The history of Cava expands much further than most people realise. Winemaking has occurred in the Penedès region for over 300 years. The brilliance of Champagne began to echo around Europe and many winemakers wanted to experiment with this exciting style of sparkling wine.
The name Cava became official in 1972 when the Spanish and French authorities came to an agreement banning the names Champan and Xampany in Spain. When Spain entered the European Union in 1986 the appellation became official. Since then the appellation has benefitted from many innovations including mechanised riddling and fermenting at lower temperatures in order to retain the grapes primary characters.
How is Cava is made?
Cava is made in the same way as the 'king of sparkling wines'- Champagne. Both use the ‘traditional method' which unlike Prosecco means that the wine has its second fermentation, or bubble producing fermentation, inside the bottle.
Like all wines Cava is first fermented in order to produce alcohol, the levels are restricted by the appellation and they must fall between 10.5%abv and 12.8%abv. After this, the still wine is placed inside the bottle from which it will be sold. Then a mixture of sugar and yeasts commonly referred to as ‘Liqueur de Tirage' is added in order to start the second fermentation. This is how Carbon Dioxide is produced, giving the wine its fizz. The wine then sits on the dead yeasts (lees) for a period of time depending on the final style of Cava required. Once this ageing process is through the wine is riddled and disgorged quickly removing the dead yeasts but retaining the CO2. The wine is then topped up with a ‘dosage’, which typically corresponds to the sweetness level of the wine. The Cava is now ready to be sold and will be making its way to British shores.
The Grape varieties of Cava
The laws surrounding this Spanish sparkling wine are pretty specific. Other than the large area of the appellation the wines specifications are all carefully laid out. This includes the alcohol content, pH, pressure and acidity. For example, the grapes selected must be able to high enough in acidity to reach the stated ‘5g/l acidity in tartaric' level, preventing the Cava from seeming flabby and lifeless. Whilst these don't necessarily affect the consumer and their buying decisions it can make a difference in the grapes selected.
There are three traditional Spanish grapes associated with this sparkling wine; Macabeo which makes up 35.4% of plantings, Xarel-lo which covers 25.4% and Parellada in third with 20.0%. Controversially the fourth most planted grape is one we all know well, the international variety; Chardonnay.
The majority of Cava produced is a blend of multiple grapes. Each variety brings a different character to the final wine. Multiple factors are involved when selecting the specific grapes that each winemaker uses. Location is often extremely important in deciding the variety as each prefers certain features such as altitude or more heat.
Macabeo is an early ripener meaning it is one of the first to be picked. It gives crisp, fresh flavours including green apple and lemon, occasionally moving towards warmer stone fruit flavours. It is the most planted variety in the Cava appellation due to its high acidity and ability to produce relatively high yields.
Xarel-lo is the most aromatic of the traditional Cava grapes. Typical flavours include gooseberries and lemons. The grape also adds structure the wine both increasing the body and ability for the wine to age. This is extremely important for the wines of Reserva and Gran Reserva quality which will spend longer periods ageing on their ‘lees’.
Parellada is the last traditional white grape to ripen and be picked. The grape likes a specific location, preferring to be at higher altitudes and nearer water. These cooler locations give the grape a longer time in order to achieve an appropriate level of ripeness and show the grapes aromatics. The grape gives a lovely finesse and floral character to the wine, often expressing aromas of blossom and crisp green apple.
Chardonnay is the most commonly planted international variety. As one of the three permitted grapes in Champagne, it is regarded as one of the best grapes to produce sparkling wine. One of the largest Cava producers Codorniu was the first to commercially use Chardonnay in one of their wines. The controversy surrounding using this international grape was vast, especially from their biggest competitor Freiexnet. However, now the majority of producers are using it in their blends. This had brought both positives and negatives to the Cava image. Positively, Chardonnay adds great structure to the wine and gives it a great ageing ability. However, the use of an international variety retracts from the iconic style of Spanish sparkling wine.
Black varieties are also used in the production of rosé Cava including Pinot Noir, Grenache, Trepat and Monastrell. The production of rosé Cava is on the rise with over 95% falling into the regular Cava category.
Ageing of Cava.
The laws that govern the Cava DO state the minimum time the wine must spend resting on its ‘lees' (dead yeasts) is 9 months. While many producers exceed this limit, no wine, labelled as Cava can spend less. The ‘lees’ arise from the addition of yeasts and sugar in order to create the wines fizz. Once the yeasts have exhausted the sugar they can no longer ferment and die. This contact time results in a change to the wines body, flavour and aroma. The Cava takes on notes of bread, biscuit, brioche and nutty almonds. These flavours are also common in Champagne, due to the production method being the same. Champagne does, however, have a longer minimum ‘lees ageing' period which is 12 months long.
There are three main styles of Cava, which increase in both price and quality.
· Reserva Cava
· Gran Reserva Cava
Regular ‘Cava' legally must spend the minimum 9 months on the lees allowing the winemaker to choose whether to extend this. This is the style most commonly seen in the UK and around the world, making up 88% of all the quality levels produced. Due to only spending a relatively short time in contact with the lees these flavours will be lighter and less obvious. The grapes own flavour characteristics will also be retained. Common flavours include apple, lemon and sometimes stone fruits such as nectarines. This is the cheapest style of Cava and examples can be picked up in the UK for as little as £5.
The higher levels, Reserva and Gran Reserva have spent longer times ageing on the lees, 15 months and 30 months respectively. These longer ageing periods intensify the flavour as well as increasing the wines complexity and richness. The highest level Gran Reserva Cava has further regulations; the wines must be vintage dated, and can only be Brut, Brut Nature or Extra Brut. Considerably lower numbers of these quality styles are produced and even less is exported to the UK, but great value options can still be found if you look for them.
The Sweetness levels of Cava
In a similar way to Champagne, Cava is labelled depending on the wines sweetness levels. It is determined on the level of sugar (dosage) added to the wine after the lees have been disgorged.
The most common sweetness category of Cava is ‘Brut' meaning the wine has under 12 grams of sugar per litre of wine, or under 9 grams per typical 750ml bottle.
A typical teaspoon of sugar weighs approximately 4 grams so you can visualise the amount.
The sweetness levels for Cava are;
Brut Nature 0-3g/l (with no dosage added to the final wine) Equivalent to less than 1 teaspoon of sugar
Extra Brut 0-6gl –Up to 1.5 teaspoons of sugar
Brut 0-12g/l Up to 3 teaspoons of sugar
Extra Seco 12-17g/l between 4 and 5 teaspoons of sugar
Seco 17-32g/l between 5 and 8 teaspoons of sugar
Semi Seco 32-50g/l between 8 and 12.5 teaspoons of sugar
Dulce 50+g/l Over 12.5 teaspoons of sugar
The sweeter styles of Cava used to be more popular than they currently are, with the UK’s palate preferring drier styles of wine it's unlikely they will be making a come back anytime soon.
To find out more about the challenges that Cava producers are facing and what's being done about it please read ‘Cava a diminishing style or a new beginning?’