Time was when cava seemed condemned to live in champagne’s shadow. Frequently described as Spain’s answer to France’s famous bubbly (faint praise can be so damning), cava was perceived – and frequently marketed — as a cheap alternative to champagne, a sort of generic, wannabe sparkler. But things have changed. Cava – at least as made by small-scale, top-class growers with their sights set on quality – is on a roll. This week came the news of the first wave of 12 premium cavas (“Cava de Paraje Calificado”) to be announced – see the full list below.
Cava is made extensively (though not exclusively) in Catalunya in northeastern Spain. The centre of production is Penedès, the wine-growing region which lies a mere 30 minutes west of Barcelona, whose dusty, sun-baked vineyards are flanked by the dramatic, saw-toothed Montserrat mountain range, soothed by cooling breezes from the Mediterranean – and perpetually threatened by the encroaching industrial sprawl.
The process for making cava is the same as for champagne. But there the comparison ends. In Catalunya, the grapes used are three varieties indigenous to the region: Xarel.lo, for body, structure and acidity; Parellada for smoothness; and Macabeo, which gives floral, appley notes and which, according to Ramón Jané of the four-man estate Mas Candí in Les Gunyoles d’Avinyonet (their bottle, memorably captured by ©Oliver Style, is featured at the top of this post), “knits the other two together”.
There are also, of course, significant differences in the climate between Catalunya (bordering the Mediterranean) and Champagne (in freezing northern France). As Ton Mata of family-owned, boutique cava producer Recaredo in Sant Sadurní notes, “we are in Region 3 or even 4 according to the Winkler scale” (a method developed in the 1930s by Professor Winkler of UC Davis for classifying the climate in different wine-growing regions of the world). “Champagne is in Region 1. In theory, in Region 3 or 4, we should be making only sweet or fortified wines”. In practice, Recaredo and a handful of other ambitious growers (see below) are excelling at elegant, nuanced sparkling wines with distinct Mediterranean accents, and forcing a re-evaluation of cava and all it has to offer. Not surprisingly, two of Recaredo’s cavas feature on the newly minted list of Cavas de Paraje Calificado: Turo d’en Mota and Serral del Vell.
Look out for these new-wave sparklers at your favourite wine shop or restaurant. Many of the producers listed now export to the US, UK, Scandinavia and Japan. Just don’t expect to find top-notch cava in France (bah humbug).
Recaredo, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, www.recaredo.com
Family-owned 50-hectare (125-acre) biodynamic estate in Sant Sadurní, Catalunya’s cava capital, making small quantities of elegant Brut Nature cava with exceptionally long ageing on the lees. Their top-of-the-range Turó d’en Mota (now a Cava de Paraje Calificado), aged 10 years and 3 months before release, comes from 70-year old Xarel.lo vines planted in a 1-hectare (2.5 acre) vineyard in sole ownership.
Maria Casanovas, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, www.mariacasanovas.com/mceng.html
Founded in 1984 by Maria Casanovas, now run by four of her children, the aim is to produce small quantities (ca. 100,000 bottles p.a. – compared with around 200 million from Freixenet, the Catalan cava giant) of top quality, low-yield, long-aged cava from 6 hectares/15 acres of vines, mainly Xarel.lo, Macabeo and Parellada, but also Pinot Noir. “Poco conocido, pero muy reconocido!” (“not well known but highly rated”), including by Parker.
Mas Candi, Les Gunyoles d’Avinonyet, www.mascandi.com
Partnership created in 2006 by four young viticulture and enology students, each of whom inherited small plots of family vines, which they farm organically and vinify together at the domaine. Keen to preserve the traditional Penedès varieties, they make a crisp, appley Brut Nature cava from Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada.
Albet i Noya, Sant Pau d’Ordal, www.albetinoya.com
Family-owned, organic estate with 80 hectares (200 acres) of vines, principally the Penedès three, plus some Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling. Their Cava Brut Reserva is a fresh, lively, citrus-flavored mouthful.
CAVAS DE PARAJE CALIFICADO
Note that to qualify as a Cava de Paraje Calificado, the wine must be made from vines which are at least 10 years old (in practice, they are generally far older than this) with a maximum yield of 8,000kg per hectare, all hand-harvested. They must be made on the domaine with a maximum extraction yield of 48hl/ha, specification of the base wine, a minimum of 36 months in bottle and total traceability from vineyard to market.
Finca Vinyes de Can Martí (Torelló)
Finca Turó d’en Mota (Recaredo)
Finca Serral del Vell (Recaredo)
Finca Vallcirera (Alta Alella)
Finca La Capella (Juvé & Camps)
Finca Can Sala (Freixenet)
Finca La Pleta (Cordorniù)
Finca El Tros Nou (Cordorniù)
Finca La Fideuera (Cordorniù)
Finca Can Prats (Vins el Cep)
Finca Font de Jui (Gramona)
Finca Terroja (Castellroig)
[This article is an updated version of one published originally on Zester]