Cava is like that friend you lost touch with years ago, though you can’t quite put your finger on how it happened. It’s only when you see them again that you realise how much you’ve missed them.
Produced mostly in the North East of Spain, around Barcelona, ‘Cava’ means ‘cave’ in Catalan. It’s been called this ever since the French got hot under the collar about the Spanish originally calling their sparkling wine ‘Champaña’.
From the time Spain joined the EU in 1986, Cava has gone from a sparkling wine made anywhere in the country, to a regulated one, only permitted to be produced in certain demarcated Spanish regions.
Unlike Prosecco, a fizz bomb made with quantity over quality in mind, Cava is made in the same painstaking way as Champagne. Whereas Prosecco is made in tanks and sold almost immediately with zero ageing, the bubbles in Cava are produced in the bottle you buy it in. This involves years of ageing and flavour development.
What sets it apart from Champagne are the grapes used in its production, which are local Catalan varieties. Xarel-lo, Parellada, Macabeu and Monastrell are the key grapes, and the rule of thumb goes that if you can pronounce them, you deserve a bottle. In the case of rosé Cava, a small amount of Garnacha is added. It’s argued that these grapes do not have the ageing potential of the Champagne triumvirate of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, hence the approachable price tag.
Unfortunately, a glut of cheap Cavas flooding the market some years ago succeeded in face-planting its brand equity. Years of steadily building up the reputation of this underrated Spanish sparkler have paid off, with top restaurants and wine merchants now starting to stock it again. This is largely thanks to quality producers premiumising the category by bringing out top cuvées, produced with greater ageing and finer quality grapes.
These ‘grower’ Cavas are lovingly hand-crafted by smaller producers, and have a definite food-friendliness about them. It’s no accident this has come at a time when tapas bars are at an all-time popularity-high, with producers like Gramona and Juvé y Camps producing some outstanding fizz.
Look out for the new denomination, ‘Cava de Paraje’, effectively ‘single vineyard’ sparkling, created in June 2016. Rules such as minimum 36 months ageing, limitations on yields and the site being wholly owned by the producer are now in place and are sky-rocketing quality.
Presenter and author Rob Buckhaven is passionate about food and drink. He appears regularly as a wine expert on TV, and as a newspaper and magazine columnist. He is a brand ambassador for Rathfinny Estate and can also be found hosting shows across the country, including the BBC Good Food Show, Taste and Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival. Follow him on Twitter at @robbuckhaven
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