Cava has a 140 year tradition of being produced in Spain and has a growing worldwide following; it’s much more than just the poor cousin of France’s Champagne and, in many respects, constitutes much better value than the product of their European neighbours to the north. Commonly misconceived as a cheap imitation of Champagne, Cava is a sparkling wine in its own right with its own grape varieties and its own unique history.
Previous to the 1970’s Cava was simply known as Spanish Champagne until the EU passed a ruling that only wine produced in that specific region of France could carry the name Champagne. This ruling put the Spanish producers in a position where they had to find a new name for their product and they came up with “Cava” (the literal translation of which is “Cave” or “Cellar”). The ruling turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Spain’s sparkling wine producers forcing them to disassociate themselves with champagne and forge a new identity for their product, allowing Cava to emerge from the shadow of its French cousin. A downside to the EU legislation was that Spain also had to enforce stricter controls over what could carry the Cava name although, because of this, standards and quality have improved steadily, cementing Cava’s reputation as a viable alternative to Champagne.
The vast majority of Cava produced, comes from Catalonia and, in particular, the Penedés region within it. The capital of Cava production is the village of Sant Sadurni D’Anoia which is said to produce 85% of the total output of the wine. Despite production being dominated by this small region there are still other areas of Spain where Cava is produced and these include La Rioja, Aragón, Navarra, The Basque country, Valencia and Extremadura.
What is it that makes Penedés so good at creating the sparkling wine? There are a number of reasons for this, the most salient being the climate and the topography of the region. Temperatures in the region are mild with averages between 12-14°C and the regions grapes thrive at varying altitudes. Rainfall is mainly limited to storms in the autumn and spring but vital moisture is also provided by the summer dew. Winds in the region are not too strong and not too cold and therefore not damaging to the grapes. The region has also invested heavily in technology and using advanced automated techniques and the continuing success of Cava worldwide means the big “bodegas” (wine houses) such as Freixenet are able to continue to put money back into the production of Cava, ensuring its worldwide position.
To go back to Cava’s routes we must backtrack to the 1870’s when a group of Catalan wine producers known as the “Seven Creek Sages” got together to discuss how to produce a sparkling wine to rival that of France’s Champagne. They invested heavily in equipment, vineyards and additional staff and in 1872 Josep Raventos produced 3,000 bottles of Cava as we know it today. The emphasis was placed on using grapes native to Spain to give the Spanish version of champagne its own character. These are still used today and the three main grapes that formulate Cava are Macabeu, Xarel-lo (also known as Pansá Blanca) and Parellada. Since 1986 Cava producers have also been allowed to integrate the Chardonnay grape in their DO (domain d’origen) and it has been steadily planted in the last 20 years.
Today Cava is enjoyed the world over and, as it uses exactly the same production method as champagne, is comparable in flavour to its French rival. Taken as an aperitif, served with a meal or used for a toast; it’s a versatile wine that further strengthens Spain’s position as one of the world’s great wine producers.