Time for Bubbly

With Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations fast approaching, the season for sparkling wine is here. In Catalunya, bubbly means cava. But, what is cava, and what makes it different from its look-alike, champagne?

Cava is a Catalan word meaning ‘cave’ or ‘cellar”‘and was adopted as a substitute term for xampany (or champagne), which regional producers had used as a generic term of reference until Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1986. Champagne is protected by the EU as a location-based designation, but curiously cava does not pertain to any specific region. While 70 percent of production is centred around the Penedès village of San Sadurni d’Anoia, the areas where cava can be produced include parts of the Valencia area and the Rioja.

The first production of what was then called ‘xampany’ was in 1872, when Josep Raventós of the Codorniu winery applied the production methods that were developed in France. The Phylloxera plague had wiped out French sparkling wine production and Catalan bubbly filled the gap by selling to French wine merchants. Ironically, xampany was marketed as champagne by its importers. Over the next few years, Catalunya was in turn devastated by Phylloxera. The disaster was only overcome by the introduction of disease-resistant rootstocks imported from the Americas. Given the earlier market success of the local sparkling wines, the vines grafted onto these new roots were predominantly white grape varieties, leading to the successful re-establishment of an industry and market that continues today. Of the approximately 200 million bottles of cava that are produced annually, Catalunya consumes roughly 50 million, the rest of Spain another 50 million, and the remaining 100 million bottles are exported.

The process of making cava is identical to that of champagne; the differences between the two result mainly from the grape varieties used. Champagne is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meuniere grapes, whereas cavas are principally made from Xarello, Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay grapes, either in a blend or cuvée, or from a single grape type. Generally, these grapes give cava a noticeably softer, less acidic edge than champagne, making it much easier to enjoy (in moderation, of course!).

The production process is called the Traditional Method, and consists of two fermentations. In the first, white wine is created from the juice of pressed grapes. In the second fermentation, the wine with additional yeast and sugar is put in a bottle with a temporary seal. The yeast creates carbon dioxide and because the bottle is sealed, it is forced into the wine. When the bottle is opened, the CO2 is released as bubbles. The first fermentation occurs over a matter of several days, and the second takes place during concurrent aging in the bottle, which for cava is a minimum of nine months and can last up to four or five years for premium cavas.

There are several additional key stages of the Traditional Method. During riddling, the bottles are rotated and gradually tilted downward over the course of several weeks, so the bottle’s neck is pointing toward the floor, allowing the sediment from the spent yeast to collect in the neck. At the disgorging stage, the necks of the bottles, still pointing down, are chilled, thereby freezing and trapping the yeast sediment. The bottle is then opened and the frozen sediment is ejected, leaving only clean cava. Dosage follows this “disgorging”, and at this stage the bottles are topped up with a “liquor”, or white wine of variable sweetness, determining the dryness of cava. The bottles are then sealed with a cork and wire cage, labeled, and are ready to be sold, chilled and enjoyed.

Cavas are categorised according to their levels of dryness (which is the opposite of sweetness). These categories correspond to the level of sugar that remains in the liquid (either from the original grapes or added sugars). In the sweeter styles, there is a wide range of allowable sugars, so that one producer’s seco could be as sweet as another’s semi-seco.

Brut Nature calls for a maximum residual sugar of up to three grammes per litre. This style is bone-dry, having had no sugar added to it, and is most popular with cava enthusiasts here. Extra Brut has up to six grammes of residual sugar per litre. This had been a largely forgotten classification, but in the past year several new cavas of this type have been released, reviving this niche product. Brut has up to 15 grammes of residual sugar per litre, and is the most popular, accounting for about 40 percent of cavas sold in Catalunya. Seco has from 17 to 35 grammes of residual sugar, and is most appropriate for making sparkling wine cocktails, and semi-seco with 33 to 50 grammes of residual sugar is the traditional style to be served with desserts, so that the sugar levels are complementary.

One main, identifiable dividing line in cava today is the use of Chardonnay. Use of Chardonnay brings a fresher, fruitier aroma and taste to cava, as well as a more golden colour and slightly more body. More traditional cavas (those using Xarello, Macabeo, Parellada) can exhibit a more pungent nose or a lighter body, depending on amount of aging and the style the producer is looking to make. Chardonnay is now much in demand, not only with consumers, but also with wineries, and the available supplies of Chardonnay are less than the other cava grape varieties. Consequently, the purchase price from the growers for Chardonnay is double that of other varieties. Fortunately, this difference is not directly apparent in the selling price at the store, but the label of cava made with Chardonnay will usually trumpet this.

Serving cava is simple. It should be chilled to about eight degrees Celsius. This can be done in the refrigerator overnight, or, more quickly, by putting the bottle in an ice bucket, sink, or other large container, and adding an equal amount of ice and water until the bottle is nearly submerged. The bottle should be chilled in 20 minutes. For glasses, the correct glass is a tapered glass, called a flute, rather than the wide-mouthed glass known as the pompadour. The flute glass concentrates the bubbles and aromas, so the flavour is more present, but unfortunately the flute is not well-suited for pouring out cascades of bubbly into tiered stacks of glasses.

If (amazingly) the party finishes and there are unfinished bottles, there is no end to the debate on how to store an opened bottle. Local custom is to put a small spoon in the bottle (with the handle inside the bottle), and put it in the fridge. Overblown theories on this method attest that the spoon and the CO2 gas released by the cava form an ionic barrier that inhibits the further loss of gas from the cava. This, unfortunately, does not happen, and only the lower temperature of the fridge causes the gas trapped in the cava to be released more slowly. Alternatively, a stopper can be used (but not the original cork, as this will expand too widely after it has been removed). The best way to store an opened bottle of cava is to get a special stopper that will lock onto the bottle mouth, but even this will not stop the cava from eventually going flat.

The product assortment of cava is vast, but also concentrated. Of the 271 producers on register at the Regulatory Council of Cava, two makers alone account for 75 percent of production. These are Freixenet and Codorniu, who release cavas in a wide assortment of names and styles. Of the rest, some 60 producers are described as medium-sized and the remaining 209 are artesanal. This means that there should never be a shortage of new (and older) cavas to discover and enjoy. Salut!

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