Understanding Cava Wines
While I have tasted many types of sparkling wines over the years, I have always been fascinated with cava wines. There is just something about the affordability, quality, and versatility of cava that makes it a memorable wine and an exceptional value. Although not quite an expert, as a result of a recent trip I now have an exceptional understanding of these special wines. Here’s what I learned:
The best way to really understand a particular wine category or varietal is to jump in and immerse yourself. I did just that on a five-day trip to the Penedés wine region in Spain, which is the heart of cava sparkling wine production. I tasted more than 50 cavas in five days. I sense some eye rolling, a gasp or two, and some disbelief, but it’s true … really. As part of a seven-person writer team, I toured some of the best cava producers Spain has to offer. Lucky me.
Cavas are a seductive player in the fine sparkling wines category. Cava is an officially designated wine that can only be made in Spain. While the denomination (Cava DO) extends across a number of Spanish regions, the Penedés area—about an hour from Barcelona—accounts for more than 95 percent of all cava production. Cava, just like fine Champagne, is made using the método tradicional, or traditional method, which allows the second fermentation in the bottle. But what makes cava unique is the use of mostly local grape varieties. While some Chardonnay grapes are finding their way into cava production, the first three grapes listed are the most dominant.
The cava grape varieties are Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada. Each variety adds its own unique character to the wine. Typically Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja) contributes freshness, fruitiness, and acidity; Xarel-lo brings body, alcohol, and depth of flavor, while Parellada adds delicacy, finesse, and elegance to the blend. After the second fermentation is complete, each bottle contains dead yeast cells known as lees. During this time the lees break down, interacting with the wine to create more complex aromas and flavors. The mandatory lees ageing time for a young cava is nine months, compared to 15 in Champagne. However, many of the local cavas are left on the lees for 15 or more months.
There are hundreds of sparkling wine producers in Spain, and cava is generally easy to find in the United States. Flavors range from Brut (dry) to Secco (sweet). Predominate characteristics are constant fine bubbles, a straw-yellow appearance with golden reflections, aromas of apples, apricot, and juicy peaches, and a rounded, well balanced taste in the mouth that ends with a long, pleasant finish. If you can get all that from one bottle you’re in for a treat that is distinctly its own. Cava is not Champagne. It is not prosecco. It is a category unto itself. In my opinion it is less bubbly than Champagne and generally less sweet than prosecco. It can be served as an aperitif, is terrific with brunch, and plays well with many kinds of foods including shellfish, corndogs, smoked trout, white meats, and pasta.
Cava wines do not age all that well and should be consumed within two years of release. Cava’s strengths lie in its freshness and dynamic bubbles. The standard number of twists needed to loosen the metal cage holding the cork to the cava bottle is six or seven, depending on the hand strength of the twister. Sparkling wine in Spain that is not cava is called vino espumoso. Outside of Spain, Germany consumes the most cava, followed by the United Kingdom.
There are six types of cavas, based on the sugar content: Extra Brut has zero to six grams of sugar per liter and is the driest of the cava; Brut has zero to 15 grams of sugar per liter; Extra Seco has 12 to 20 grams of sugar per liter; Seco has 17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter; Semi-Seco has 33 to 50 grams of sugar per liter; and Dulce has more than 50 grams of sugar per liter and is the sweetest of the cava.
As part of my education, I stayed in local lodging and ate in the countryside. My suggestion for first timers to the area is to hire a local touring company that already knows all the best places to visit and already has the contacts in place. I highly recommend Wine Pleasures; this tour company organizes unique wine events and tours for wine enthusiasts and professionals around the world.
Here’s a look at the wine tasting and tour schedule I followed during my trip:
On the first day, while in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, we had a tasting and dinner at Gramona. A huge favorite of anyone who loves cavas, this winery mixes a more than 125-year-long tradition with the passion to innovate. It is open for tasting and private parties. Try the 2003 Gran Reserva; this cava spends five years aging and is made from 70 percent Xarel-lo and 30 percent Macabeo.
For lunch or dinner try Fonda Neus, a 10-minute walk from Gramona. This family-run hotel is clean, welcoming, and has a large restaurant. The owners will do everything in their power to make your stay a memorable one. Ask to taste the family-made cava; it is superb and one of my favorites.
On Day Two, we had a tasting at MasTinell. Located in the Vilafranca del Penedés area, this is an ultra-modern wine tasting room, hotel, and restaurant. The wines are fabulous. The Cristina Gran Reserva is a stunner.
Next we visited Mascaró. Also found in the Vilafranca del Penedés area, this facility includes elaborate underground caves. The Grand Reservas are aged for a minimum of 30 months. Soft and mellow on the palate, the wines are worth the visit. Try the 2010 Mascaro Cava Reserva.
Lastly, we paid a visit to Llopart. Only the first juice (tear and flower must) are chosen for Llopart’s cava program. Quality and attention to detail is apparent in each sip. Try the 2005 Llopart Ex Vite—a dream on your palate.
On Day Three, we had a tasting at Conca de Barberà Co-op (part of the Castell d’Or Group). I love vintner and grower co-ops, and this one seems to be doing everything perfectly. It was inspiring to tour the property and hear the story of how so many growers and wineries work toward success in a stunning cellar setting, which is the work of Gaudi disciple Cèsar Martinell. I loved the gift shop, too.
I also recommend a visit to the Castell d’Or Group for a tasting. This was worth the trip just to see the robotics being used; I have never seen anything like it in the states. Try the 2009 Cossetánia Gran Reserva.
Pretty much the highlight of the trip was a visit, tasting, and dinner at Bohigas. Our hosts were over-the-top gracious, sharing their wines, food, and facilities. I cannot say enough about this stop. For more than eight centuries the family has tended its vineyards located near the Anoia River. You must try the 2009 Brut Reserva Bohiga.
On the fourth day of the trip we visited Vallformosa. Located in Vilobí del Penedés, Vallformosa is set on one of the best estates in the valley. Its history goes back more than 100 years. Be sure and try the delicate but brightly structured Brut Rose. The winery provides guided vineyard tours, restaurant service, events, and guided tasting sessions.
We also had a visit and tasting at Mata i Coloma. This one-man operation is a burgeoning rock star. I loved the wines; they were such a contrast from the ones at the large facilities we had seen. This facility had more of a warehouse vibe. All of the wines were great, but the 2007 Pere Mata Reserva Familia Cava is a standout.
Lastly on Day Four we had a visit, tasting, and dinner at Clos Lentiscus at Can Ramon. Founded in the 14th century, the winery has survived the many obstacles history has thrown at it. In 2001, it began a very ambitious and sometimes controversial project focusing on making cavas using earth-friendly ancient culture systems without the use of pesticides and herbicides. According to the owner, “We follow the moon to plant and prune to harvest cycles and give the wine respect when bottled.” You have to love a man with a vision, and owner Manel is sticking with his.
Clos Lentiscus is open by appointment only, as are most wineries in the region. Manel is welcoming, laid back, speaks good English, and lives on the estate so he is there more often than not. This visit is not to be done in a hurried fashion, and you have to take a leap of faith to understand what Manel is trying to accomplish. It’s worth your time.
On the final day of our trip, we enjoyed a visit, tasting, and lunch at Finca Valldosera. This winery produces wines and cavas from vineyards focusing on native varieties located in the Garraf Massif area. With close proximity to the sea, the wines differentiate themselves in style and taste with a hint of sea salt on the finish. Not everyone felt that was a true statement, but I got it, so I am sharing it with you. The 2009 Valldosera Brut Nature is a stunner. The two managers are welcoming and enthusiastic. Ask for a jeep tour of the vineyards, which are located around a national park. You’ll get a sense of history, taste, and place as you roll through the countryside.
After that we had a tasting and food pairing at Rovellats Wines and Cavas, which has been making wines and cavas from grapes harvested in its own vineyards for more than three generations. The wines are aged in the cellar right below the Masia del Segle XV (a 15th-century farmhouse). A visit to Rovellats, one of the oldest wineries in the Penedés, involves a complete tour in which you enjoy a historic setting surrounded by Art Nouveau gardens and lush vineyards. You will explore the delights of the estate; the farmhouse, which gives its name to Rovellats; and the Chapel of the Virgin of Montserrat, where you will find a reproduction of identical size and shape to the original. This is premium wine, crafted by passionate owners. It completed the trip for me and is not to be missed.
Tasting more than 50 great cavas in five days was a real eye opener. You might think I’d get tired of the same libation for five days, but it was all good all the time. Give it a try. You can thank me later.