Re-introducing Cava! (#WinePW)

Cava has been undergoing a makeover!  It's time to take a new look at Spain's sparkling wine. 


The wines in this post were provided as media samples. No other compensation was received and all opinions are my own. This post also contains affiliate links from which I might gain a commission at no cost to you.


Happy New Year! It seems appropriate to kick off the new year with some bubbly to celebrate.

I spent a lot of time last year reacquainting myself with Cava. The Spanish bubbly has been undergoing some changes, and it’s time to take another look. 

Drinking a bottle of Cava with dinner in Barcelona.

I have excellent memories of drinking glasses of Cava while eating tapas in Barcelona, as well as elsewhere around Spain. Nonetheless, I’m not going to lie, for a long time, Cava seemed to be a bit of a mess to me. Quality was very variable amongst bottles I’d try. Some were lovely, balancing citrus, smoky and toasty notes, in others, the smoky notes would come off as an unpleasant rubbery quality instead. Eventually, broadly speaking, I started to view Cava as cheap fizz – fine for mixing in a cocktail or mindless sipping, but not the bubbly I was going to grab if I was planning to pay attention to the wine at all. There were exceptions of course, but in general, it fell to the bottom of my personal hierarchy of bubbly regions. (I’m not talking about carbonated bubblies here – I’m talking about “should-be” quality sparkling wines.) I don’t think I’m alone here, as it would appear that many consumers had similarly begun to give the category the side-eye. 

As I started to learn a bit more about the D.O., it seemed to me that it was a region that was aware of its problems and its flagging reputation, but that the producers couldn’t agree on a solution. You didn’t have to dig too deeply to see that they were plagued by infighting since quite a few high-quality producers were choosing to leave the D.O. altogether. Raventos i Blanc is one famous example, as they opted to leave and to spearhead the creation of a whole new appellation: Conca del Riu Anoia. Then another group of nine quality-minded producers split off and formed Corpinnat in 2017, an association that adheres to their own stringent regulations and operates as a trademark rather than falling under the jurisdiction of a D.O.  

Basically, a lot of the best Cava wasn’t actually Cava anymore. 

I’m sure that many of the quality producers that were left were forced to do a lot of soul searching. It looks like it has paid off and that the D.O. has indeed figured out a plan and are moving forward with a renewed focus on quality and sustainability that is region-wide. In short, they’ve been giving themselves a makeover. Throughout 2021, I participated in a series of webinars to learn about the new developments in the region and was very impressed by the resolve and determination of the producers to re-establish the credibility of the region and to do it conscientiously and with care for the land. In the process, I also had the chance to taste a lot of Cava in order to reacquaint myself and got to play with many pairings!

Cava Basics

Image borrowed from D.O. Cava. 

Before we get into what’s new let’s look at the nuts and bolts of these wines.

It’s made in the traditional method, i.e. in the same way as Champagne with the second fermentation occurring in the bottle.

  • Where does it come from?  Penedès in Catalonia in northeastern Spain. . . mostly. Things get a little tricky because the region is non-contiguous. Cava production originally grew up around the town of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, and it is still the center of production. However, there are delimited areas all around Spain in Aragon, Navarra, Rioja, and Paìs Vasco, Valencia, and Extremadura that are allowed to produce Cava. Nonetheless, this only accounts for about 10% of production. 
  • The Grapes. One of Cava’s most distinguishing features is the grapes used, as it’s made predominantly with indigenous grapes. The permitted white grapes include Xarel-lo (spelled many ways), Macabeo (aka Macabeu or Viura), Parellada, Malvasia (sometimes called Subirat), as well as Chardonnay. The red grapes, which are used for the rosés, include Trepat, Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre or Mataró), Grenache, and Pinot Noir. Here’s a bit more on the trio that makes up the most classic Cava blend:
    • Xarel-lo – Perhaps the region’s most emblematic variety. It adds acidity, citrus, and apple flavors, and is responsible for Cav’s distinctive earthiness.
    • Macabeo – It's fairly neutral in flavor, but it can also add notes of citrus and stone fruits. Its strengths lie in the fact that it adds body and texture to a blend, and it’s resistant to oxidation, so it allows the wines to age better. It also grows easily in Spain’s climate.
    • Parellada – This grape has green apple, quince, citrus, and floral notes. In addition to fruity character, it also adds structure and body, particularly to the mid-palate. Parellada ess and balance. It also has aging potential.
For more detailed info on the grapes of Cava, see this guide from D.O. Cava.

  • Styles: Cava comes in both white and rosado (rosé) styles. It is also made in the full range of sweetness levels typical of sparkling wines: 
    • Brut Nature: 0-3 grams per liter
    • Extra Brut: 0-6 g/l
    • Brut: 0-12 g/l
    • Extra Seco (Extra Dry): 12-17 g/l
    • Seco (Dry): 17-32 g/l
    • Semi-Seco (Semi-Dry): 32-50 g/l
    • Dolç/dulce (Sweet): 50+ g/l  
  • Aging Requirements: These have changed a bit recently, and we’ll get into additional details on recent changes a bit more further down. Like all traditional method sparkling wines, Cava is aged on its lees (the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation) in order to gain toasty/nutty/bready/pastry notes. Here are the minimum aging requirements by aging category – note that many producers will choose to exceed this: 
    • Cava (Cava de Guarda - basic level) - 9 months
    • Reserva - 18 months (increased from 15 months, starting with the 2020 vintage)
    • Gran Reserva - 30 months 
    • Cava de Paraje Calificado - 36 months. (This is a newer category introduced in 2016. We’ll get into it in a moment.)


A Bit of History 

Cava’s history goes back to 1872 when Josep Raventòs produced the first bottles of sparkling wines using the method he’d seen in Champagne while traveling around Europe promoting the still wine wines of Codorníu Winery. This had a few benefits. The vineyards of the Penedès were being devastated by phylloxera right around the same time, and where the vineyards had previously been dominated by red vines, they were now being replaced by larger numbers of white grapes. This dovetailed nicely with Cava production, as it relies more heavily on white wine grapes. Raventòs didn’t focus on the Champagne grape varieties  – he just imported the method of production and used the grapes of the Penedès.

Raventòs also had the aim of competing with the already fashionable Champagne. (Remember, Champagne as we know it today only came into being in the 19th century, so Cava wasn’t that far behind.) Trade wars with France also helped spur on the development of ‘Catalonian Champagne,’ and it didn’t hurt the Spanish monarchy also supported the endeavors. Altogether, Pendes’ sparkling wines were a pretty immediate success, although it would see some dips during hard times during the early half of the 20th century like the Spanish Civil War.  

The name ‘Cava’ didn’t come into being until 1959. Prior to that, the wines were known under other names like Champán and Xampany, but in 1972 Spain made an agreement with France to no longer use versions of ‘Champagne.’ The word ‘cava’ in Spanish means ‘cellar’ and is a reference to the long aging period the wines go through during and after the second fermentation, waiting around in the cellar until they’re read. Cava became an official appellation in 1986 when Spain entered the EU.

Gyropaletten Champagner.jpg
Image borrowed from Wikipedia.

Cava has also contributed to the greater sparkling wine world. Producers here developed the gyropallet, the machine that riddles bottles in large batches, collecting lees in the neck of the bottles, so that they can be disgorged (removed.) Prior to this, all bottles had to be riddled by hand, one at a time. 

Image borrowed from D.O. Cava. 

One more quick note on the industry here. It’s true that the production in the region is dominated by two major producers – Freixenet and Codorníu – you can probably picture the bottles right away. However, it's worth noting that there are also lots of medium-sized and small producers as well, and it’s well worth exploring and comparing the different styles, not to mention fun!


What’s New in Cava

Image borrowed from D.O. Cava. 

As I mentioned, there have been a lot of changes in Cava recently. Many of the complaints that were leveled by producers that left the appellation had to do with issues of quality standards and sustainability, as well as the fact that wines tended to lack a sense of place. The updates tend to speak to these issues. Even if they were too late to keep the producers from leaving, some of them are pretty impressive and ambitious. 

In addition to tightening up quality standards, a new hierarchy has been created. Starting this year, 2022, all Cava will fall under two overarching tiers: Cava de Guarda and Cava de Guarda Superior, which is then further subdivided. Cava de Guarda is basically your entry-level tier. As discussed above, it’s aged for the least amount of time and is intended to have a bright, fresh profile, ideal for early drinking.

Image borrowed from D.O. Cava. 

Great, but Cava de Guarda Superior is where things start to get interesting. This tier encompasses all Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Cava de Paraje Calificado wines. In addition to updating restrictions on vineyard yields, these wines must all now come from vines that are a minimum of 10 years old, and the wines will all be vintage-dated. Most interestingly, all grapes for Cava de Guarda Superior will be 100% organic. 

This is unique in a few ways. This is the first time I’ve heard of an appellation making the use of organic grapes a requirement in any tier. (Please leave a comment and let me know if you know of others.) It also ties the use of organic grapes to quality, as all of the higher-end wines of the region will be required to use them. It will be interesting to see how this plays out since the two things haven’t always necessarily gone together. (You can have crappy wine made with organic grapes, and good wine made with non-organic grapes.) 

It was pointed out on one of the webinars that this will hopefully have the added benefit of bringing up the sustainability factor of the Cava de Guarda wines as well. While they will not be required to use organic grapes, hopefully, as growers learn new sustainability techniques, they will start to implement them in all of their vineyards. The region already has the highest proportion of organic and biodynamic vineyards in all of Spain. As well, it might be reasonable to assume, that not all of the organic grapes grown in the region will get used for the Cava de Guarda Superior wines, so some of those grapes are likely to get used in the lower tier wines as well. (You can also read more on the region's sustainability efforts here.)

There is also a new focus on giving the wines a sense of place. Introduced in 2016, the Cava de Paraje Calificado designation is still pretty new and serves to designate that the vines the grapes came from are from a small area that is distinguished specific characteristics of location and terroir. As well, the D.O. has also approved the use of subzone labeling – so while the overwhelming amount comes from Penedès, you might soon be able to see if the wine you’re buying comes from one of the other permitted zones. Comparative tastings between Cavas from Penedès, Rioja, Extremadura, etc. might be on the horizon! As well, wineries that estate-produce all of their own wine (rather than buying base wine from another producer for use in their blends, for example – a common practice with larger producers) will also be able to indicate this on the label with the term “Integral Producer.” It’s kind of like a grower Champagne indicator, but for Cava.

Image borrowed from D.O. Cava. 

I think all of this is quite exciting and should serve to help consumers make better buying decisions by making it easier to understand what they’re getting and what wines will best suit their needs. What's even better is that many wines remain extremely accessible in price!


A Few Bottles & Pairings

As I mentioned, I’ve had the chance to drink a lot of Cava this past year and got the chance to play with a lot of pairings. For me, there are a couple of things that set Cavas apart in terms of flavor from other sparkling wines. First, Cava tends to be a little more earthy than other bubblies. I tend to get a smoky factor, particularly in the Reservas and Grand Reservas. Personally, I also often get an umami factor tied in with the minerality of the wines – and this I get across the board, with the entry-level wines, as well as with the higher-end wines. So it makes sense then that I particularly like Cavas with dishes with smoky flavors and a lot of umami notes, in particular savory Asian dishes. (For slightly sweet or spicy Asian dishes, I tend to prefer Prosecco.) Also, fried foods are the friends of all sparkling wines – there’s no exception here. 

This bottle of Segura Viudas Brut Rosé was hit at a dinner party over the summer and worked equally well with cheese and charcuterie (as shown up at the top) as with fried shrimp puffs. 

You’ll see a lot of seafood pairings below, as well as a few chicken dishes, but they’d also definitely work with game birds and pork – in particular the rosados, Reservas, and Gran Reservas. We also can’t forget about cheese and charcuterie – bring on the jamón!

Here are some pairing examples. D.O. Cava also has a lot of good ideas and recipes.  Click on the name links for more info on the wines. 

Vilarnu Reserva Brut Nature Cava  2017 (Organic)

Avg price: $14  | Blend: 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 15% Chardonnay | Aged more than 24 months

This wine had classic Cava nose with brioche, baked apple, pear, lemon, and a touch of smoke.

Similar notes appeared on the palate, but the fruits were more tart, rounded out by the brioche notes and creamy lees on mid-palate, leading into a crisp, stony finish

I paired this with Chilean sea bass with bok choy, in a savory broth and soba noodles. This combo surprised me by just how good it was – far above expectation! It turned out to be one of my favorite combos. The nuttiness of the soba noodles worked particularly well with the toasty notes in the wine, and the food out brought out umami notes in the wine.

Maria Rigol Ordi Mil·lenni Reserva Brut Nature Cava 2017 (Organic)  


SRP: $32, Avg Price: $19 | Blend: 45% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, 10% Parellada, and 15% Chardonnay | Aging 24 to 36 months

This wine is certified organic. All of their wines tend to be long-aged. It showed notes of lemon, peach, and flowers, and stones on the nose. On the palate, similar notes continued with the peachy notes hitting at the front of the palate, leading into the stones and minerality on the finish. It was tart and crisp, balanced with a little texture. 

It paired nicely with cod encrusted with dukkah, roasted broccoli and cauliflower, with a little baba ghanoush.

Canal & Munné Reserva Dionysus Brut Nature Cava (Organic)

Avg Price: $15 | Blend: 60% Xarel-lo, 30% Chardonnay, and 10% Macabeo

This wine showed smoky notes on the nose, along with lemon and apple, just a hint of tar, and white flowers. There was lots of citrus and crisp apple on the palate, as well as an almost saline minerality mixed in with stones and touch of smoky tar on the finish.

We paired this with shrimp in salsa verde on tomato rice – kind of mimicking some of the flavors of paella, but far more simple. The wine spoke nicely with the green notes of the sauce, as well as the richer flavors in the rice.

I also participated in a webinar with Ray Isle of Food & Wine called "Cava in the Kitchen." In it he recommended this wine with Mt. Tam cheese and chicken with mushroom sauce.  

Seguras Viudas Reserva Heredad Brut Cava 2017 


SRP $30  /Avg Price: $26 | Blend: 75% Macabeo 25% Chardonnay | Aged a minimum of 15 months

This cuvée is intended to be “democratic” in taste, to appeal to a wide set of palates. I also love that bottle seems like something out Game of Thrones. 

It had notes of green apple, Meyer lemon, and a touch of smoke balanced with a bit of honeysuckle on the nose. On the palate, the apples were more golden and a touch bruised, with a little mushroom, and a little char.  It also had some beeswax texture on the mid-palate. This is a wine that’s likely to work well with many things as it’s fresh but also has a bit of weight and round texture. It worked with this shrimp pasta dish with a slight smoky red pepper sauce, tomatoes, and olives and also made an appearance at Thanksgiving this year and also worked quite well. 

In the webinar, Ray Isle also suggested this would be good with mushroom pizza


Alta Alealla Mirgin Reserva Brut Nature Rose 2018 (Organic)

Avg Price: $24 | Blend: 100% Monastrell

This wine had a great balance of fruit, toastiness, and minerality. It started with notes of brioche topped with strawberries, cherries and raspberries doused with lemon, with a hint of smoke. The fruit brought a rounded texture up front with a crisp, stony finish. It also showed a hint of tannin. The wine is also organic and vegan to boot

I paired  it with a simple seared salmon with roasted broccolini and potatoes. (I wish I’d done a better job of plating it, but it was all delicious nonetheless.) The wine and the food made a fabulous match.

Ray Isle also recommended this with prosciutto or jamón, or a day by the sea.

Bodegas Langa Reyes d'Aragon El Casto Brut Reserva 

Blend: 75% Macabeo, 25% Chardonnay | Aged 17 months | (I couldn't find a good price marker for this wine, but it appears to range between about $8 and $17.)

This showed notes on the nose of roasted golden apple, as well as crisp green apples slightly charred, peaches, vanilla, honeysuckle. On the palate, there were gold apples and peaches doused with lemon and limejuice. It had a round, creamy texture with notes of buttered biscuits, and touches of smoke and a hint of tar on the finish. Lovely!

I paired this with roasted chicken, cauliflower, potatoes and romesco sauce, with a side of greens. It held up nicely to this richer dish with more robust flavors. (You can find the recipe for the potatoes and romesco sauce in this post.)

Ray Isle also mentioned he liked this one with potato chips. 

Roger Goulart Brut Gran Reserva Cava 2015

Avg Price: $19Blend: 60% Xarel-lo, 20% Macabeo, 20% Parellada | Aged 72 months

The wine showed lots of toasty notes on the nose, along with apples (a mix of  green and gold)and a hint of flint. On the palate, there were yellow peaches as well as apples, toast, a hint of honey, herbal touches along the lines of a hint of fennel, then leesy finish with flinty minerality. (This winery is owned by CVNE, which we had the chance to visit.) 

I paired this with shawarma-spiced chicken loosely based on a recipe from Olive Magazine, with butternut squash roasted alongside, with a side of baba ghanoush and pita bread. I’d made this baba ghanoush very lemony, and it also had a bit of smokiness, and the wine spoke to those elements beautifully. In fact, the wine worked beautifully with everything on the plate and acted as a unifier for the various elements.

Ray Isle also recommended this one with pizza, as well as nuts and aged cheese.


You’ll probably be seeing more Cava here soon. I have a few more samples to explore and a couple of recipes to share to pair with Oriol Rossell Cuvée Especial Brut Cava and Parés Baltà Blanca Cuisine Brut Cava 2012.

In the meantime, I’ll lead you with one last simple pairing I tend to like with Cava in general – popcorn tossed with butter or olive oil, smoked paprika, and a little salt.


Thanks to D.O. Cava and O'Donnell Lane for including me in the webinar series, as well as for the samples.

*****

The Wine Pairing Weekend (#WinePW) blogging group is kicking off the new year with an exploration of bubbles from around the world. Be sure to check out the rest of their posts:

  • Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla sabers open Gelukkige Nuwe Jaar with Pannekoeke + Boschendal Brut Rosé
  • Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm is Celebrating Little Christmas in Michigan with a Local Bubbly
  • Linda from My Full Wine Glass cracks open Cava: Because everybody needs a go-to bubbly
  • Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog pops the cork on Sparkling Wine from Chablis? Oui! Val de Mer Brut Nature Rosé
  • Anna Maria of Unraveling Wine toasts us with 10 Best Greek Sparkling Wines with Pairings 
  • David at Cooking Chat disgorges Baked Fiesta Dip with Mexican Bubbly
  • Robin of Crushed Grape Chronicles riddles with Bubbles by any other name…Sparkling wines from all over the globe
  • Jennifer of Vino Travels charms with Upcoming the Game with Asolo Prosecco
  • Lisa at The Wine Chef adds dosage with Dive Into the OG Bubbly With Blanquette de Limoux 
  • Terri from Our Good Life shares Favorite Bubbles from Around the World
  • Gwendolyn from Wine Predator...Gwendolyn Alley adds the crown with Sparkling Wine Secrets from Around the World
  • Susannah from Avvinare sparkles with Brazilian sparklers come of age
  • Andrea The Quirky Cork celebrates with A Vertical Tasting of Vinkara’s Yaşasın

  • Additional sources used for this post and extra reading: 


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    8 comments

    1. Wow! This is amazingly in-depth. I think your post is more informative than my WSET 3 book! Thank you for putting this together for us this month!

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    2. What an amazing year learning so much about Cava. I was not up to speed on all the developments in the DO! And then look at those beautiful bottles and pairings! Delicious!

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    3. Wow! That's an impressive amount of cava tasting and pairing! So much great information and great pairing ideas here. I'm really happy to see Cava DO invest in itself and the future of sustainable winemaking. Bring it!

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    4. Thanks so much for the deep dive in to the changes afoot with the Cava DO. It's good to see the changes. As much as I enjoy the other "C's", they not as readily available in the market. It's great to see the Cava DO respond to consumer demands for authentic wines. And the Cava Rose are bomb! Cheers Nicole, and Happy New Year to you and Greg!

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    Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!