Tasting and Tapas: D.O. Cava

November 24, 2020

To kick off our chat with Raúl, he explained to us the basic differences between cava and champagne. First and foremost, champagne comes from the Champagne region in France while cava is produced in Spain, principally in the Penedés region in Cataluña. Cava is mainly made with 3 grape varieties from Spain: Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Champagne uses principally chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. In Champagne, harvesting is all done by hand and the whole grape cluster, including the stem, is used for fermentation. Producers of cava are allowed to harvest the grapes mechanically, which results in taking only the grape. In other words, some cavas are produced with both the grapes and stems and some with only the grapes, whereas champagne is exclusively fermented with both grapes and stems included. Another difference is the fact that wines from different years are combined to make champagne (unless it is a specific vintage) and only wine from a single year is used to create a particular cava. Finally, the climate in Champagne and Penedés is quite different, Champagne being quite cold with extreme winters and a lot of rain and Penedés being characterized by warmer winters and mild summers. Raúl tells us that the weather factors in when tasting these two sparkling wines, as warmer regions generally produce more flavorful grapes.

Next, Raúl told us about the traditional method of making cava and champagne. As many might already be aware, wine is made through fermentation, where yeast consumes sugar, converting it into alcohol, which also creates CO2 as a byproduct. As standard wine is created in large, open tanks, the CO2 evaporates. In cava and champagne, the wine is taken through a second fermentation process, with the wine getting bottled with more yeast and sugar added. The bottle is then capped and stored for at least 9 months, in which time the yeast consumes the sugar until the yeast has died. The dead yeast becomes a thick substance called lees that must be removed. The removal process involves putting the bottles on a rack tilted sideways and turning and tilting the bottle slightly more and more each day for three weeks until the lees arrive at the neck of the bottle. At this time, the neck is frozen and then the cap is removed. The CO2 pushes the frozen part with the lees out of the bottle, expelling the lees. Once it is taken out, some wine and sugar is added back into the bottle before being corked. The amount of sugar added back into the bottle determines what type of champagne or cava we have.  In Brut Nature and Extra Brut, the cava types we will be tasting this Saturday, no sugar at all is added to the expedition liquor. 

After laying out the basics, Raúl took us on a walk through the tumultuous history of DO Cava and where it stands today. In 1868, cava was brought by two winemakers, Frances Gil and Domenec Soberano, to the Exposition Universelle in Paris and was put on the world’s radar. The men were calling their Spanish champagne “Champagne de Reus” and were experiencing a considerable amount of success, mainly due to the fact that vines in France had recently been infected by phylloxera, halting champagne and wine production almost completely.  In 1887, phylloxera also made its way to the Penedés region, prompting a change in style of the Champagne de Reus.  Until that time they had been, like their French counterparts, using the grape varieties of chardonnay and pinot noir but, being forced to pull out their infected vines, they then switched to growing local grapes. 

The first of cava’s controversies arose in 1972 when the French, after stewing for over 100 years, became outraged by the use of the name “champagne” for the Spanish sparkling wine. The name “cava” (or cave) was then taken and made an appellation in this same year.  The choice to use a name that is not a specific region created quite a problem for cava makers in Penedes, as people from other regions in Spain such as Badajoz, Valencia, Girona, and La Rioja, making sparkling wine in the same style, also took on the cava name. The Penedés region cava producers took their case to court in 2000, pleading for exclusive use of the cava name, but ended up losing, making it legal to call your sparkling wine cava in Spain, no matter what region you are in, as long as you began production before 1972.

This court decision led to the second cava controversy. Seeing the importance of their product’s connection to its region, the top cava making families in Penedés decided to leave the appellation and create their own, separate association. They named their new association Corpinnat, or heart of Penedés in Catalan (cor=heart and pinnat= Penedes), now overtly tying themselves to the Penedés region. They also created stricter regulations for their product such as the mandatory storage of bottles for 18 instead of 9 months before release and the use of 100% organic grapes. The 10 wineries that currently make up  this association, formed just recently in January of 2019, are Gramona, Llopart, Nadal, Recaredo, Sabaté i Coca, Torelló, Júlia Bernet, Can Descregut, Más candi, and Can Feixes. If you have joined us on our cava day trip in Barcelona (https://spain.insiderstravel.io/montserrat-cava-country/) then you might already be familiar with the exceptional Llopart winery, where we have a very special visit and meal afterwards.  Raúl tells us that he believes corpinnat is where the highest quality sparkling wines in Spain are being produced.

I think we can really see, through this story, as well as the stories of Alejandro Fernández and Emilio Moro in Ribera del Duero and Alvaro Palacios and René Barbier in Priorat, that a high level of success in the wine business comes from taking risks and breaking with established norms.  Raúl stressed to us that the easy option in cava country is to remain under the cava appellation, where you are recognized and represented around the world. Cava, in fact, is exported in a greater quantity globally than champagne. However, those who dare to leave the cozy cava nest for the uncharted waters of Corpinnat stand to gain much more, according to Raúl. 

by Meg Emmitt

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