When most of us wine drinkers think of bubbly, we probably envision, first and foremost, Champagne. France's famous sparkling wines from the Champagne region—technically, the only ones that are supposed to be called "Champagne"—have become somewhat synonymous with all sparkling wines. I hear folks all the time referring to California "Champagne," for example. Anyway, when the topic of sparkling wine arises, Champagne springs to mind first, followed probably by domestic bubbly like Schramsberg, Korbel, Iron Horse and Domaine Chandon. Next comes Italian Prosecco, followed maybe by Cava from Spain.
It's a shame that Spanish cava is the poor step-child of the bubbles biz, since it can be such a bang for the buck. There are $15 cavas that I would put up against $50 French Champagne in a blind taste test. And recently, the Spanish wine industry stepped up its game by creating a new cava designation there, hoping to do justice to Spain's signature sparkler.
More about that in a skosh. For now, what is cava? Well, during a trip to France in 1872, Don José Raventós of bodega Codorníu became enchanted with Champagne, and he returned to his home in Penedès with Champagne-making equipment and created his country's first méthode champenoise sparkling wine—cava.
Just like Champagne, the Spanish variation ranges from ultra-dry (called brut nature) to sweet. By law, it must be made from one or more of five native grape varieties: xarel-lo, parellada, macabeo, chardonnay and malvasia (which is rarely used). Parellada provides delicacy and nuance; macabeo is fruity and acidic; xarel-lo gives it body and crispness. Adding chardonnay imparts finesse. Quality cava producers to look for include Codorníu, Freixenet, Segura Viudas, Miro, Huguet and Recaredo, as well as a new breed of young winemakers and wineries with terroir-driven wines like Avinyó, Raventós i Blanc and Pere Mata.
Last summer, Spain's Cava Regulatory Board (Consejo Regulador del Cava) announced the designation of a new premium category called Single Estate Cavas. To be classified in the new designation, the wine must meet the following requirements, according to the country's Trade Commission's Wines from Spain newsletter: 1. They must be made with grapes from vines that are at least 10 years old; 2. Are from vineyards that are hand-harvested and have a maximum yield of 8,000 kilograms per hectare; 3. Are estate fermented and vinified with a maximum output of 48 hectoliters per hectare; 4. Are fermented in bottles and aged for at least 36 months; 5. A certification of the base wine must be made for complete traceability from the vine to a store shelf.
The new classification should help consumers identify high-quality cava and enhance the visibility of those wines being made in the traditional méthode champenoise style. In a recent interview with Wines from Spain, president of the Cava Consejo Regulador Pedro Bonet said, "This has been something in the works for quite some time. We proposed creating this new category to do justice to cava. In terms of principal, we were eager to show the world cava's excellence while giving our producers a way to demonstrate the superior quality of their amazing wines."
So far, no producers have been certified by the Cava Board as they are still awaiting definitive ratification from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, but that could be coming in a matter of days, according to Bonet.
In the meantime, I recommend trying these exceptional cavas: Raventós i Blanc L'hereu ($21.99), Poema Brut ($13.95), Freixenet Semi-Seco ($9.99), Sumarroca Brut Reserva ($12.99) and my favorite, Marques de Gelida Brut Exclusive Gran Reserva ($16.99).