The Low-Down on Cava

Cava is sweeping the international wine scene. Here’s why.


There are dozens of sparkling wines made around the world – Champagne (probably the most well-known) and another 20 or so similar wines made in France; Cava made in Spain; Portuguese Espumante; Spumante and four more Italian sparklers; Sekt made in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic; Russian Sovetskoye ShampanskoyeCap Classique from South Africa, and still others from the UK, Chile and several states in the USA. Some are exceptional and others very good, while still others can be compared with gasified dishwasher water.
Spanish Cava is considered to be within the exceptional and very good quality sparkling wines. It is also unique in that it is produced not in just one specific geographic area but in eleven provinces located in seven autonomous regions (similar to the states in the USA) distributed all over the country. Cava is made by nearly 230 wineries of all shapes and sizes in the Catalonia region with more than 190 situated in the 600 square mile Penedés area of the Barcelona province. The other forty wineries are distributed in the Girona, Lerida and Tarragona provinces, as well as the Alella area just north of Barcelona.
There are 35 more Cava producers located in seven other provinces; 15 in the Requena area of Valencia down the Mediterranean coast from Catalonia, six in the Zaragossa province to the southwest of Catalonia, six more in Extremadura in the extreme west of the country, seven in La Rioja,  Rioja Alavesa and Navarre (North-central Spain) and one in the province of Burgos, a couple of hundred miles north of the nation’s capital, Madrid.
Cava can be compared with Champagne in one major aspect, the elaboration process, which is identical. Any other comparisons are nebulous and even totally erroneous. Geographically, the Champagne region is some 550 miles north of the Spanish/French border, the soils are quite different, climates including year-round temperatures and rainfalls are different, and, the grape varieties are different. The elaboration process is basically the following: after harvesting, the grapes are gently pressed in order to obtain what is known as the Flor or first juice, which is immediately removed from the presses and skins, then goes through settling and the first fermentation during ten days, sometimes a bit longer. From here, the “base wines” are blended according to each winery’s oenologist who creates his/her assemblage to which is then added the licor de tiraje, a combination of sugar, yeast and wine solution, and bottled for the second fermentation during which the gasification takes place and the future Cava begins its mínimum ageing or crianza laid down in the depths of the wineries cellars. When the desired crianza is attained, the bottles are placed in wood racks at slight angles, rotated and increasingly inclined until the remains of the yeasts and other solid residues accumulate at the mouth of the bottles. Many of the large wineries place the bottles in metal cages, 500 at a time and mechanically rotate and incline the bottles. Less romantic but more cost effective. Each bottle is then opened so that the residues are expelled and then topped-off with licor de expedition of the same vintage. The bottles are then corked, sealed, labeled and prepared for distribution. The minimum ageing for Cava is nine months, while Reservas are aged a minimum of 15 months, Gran Reservas for 30 months and Brut Nature Gran Reservas for at least 36 months. Any of these can be aged for longer periods. Some Brut Nature Gran Reservas are aged for 90 or more months.
The categories of Cava’s dryness, or sweetness, also correspond with those of Champagne, and are classified according to the amount of sugar added in the licor de expedition: 
BRUT NATURE - “ultra dry” – no sugar added, but can have up to 3 grams of residual sugar per liter resulting from the fermentation
EXTRA BRUT - very, very dry – 0 to 6 grams of sugar per liter (only Cava, not Champagne)
BRUT - very dry – up to but not exceeding 12 grams per liter
EXTRA SEC* or SECO – extra dry – between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter
SEC* or SECO – dry – between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per liter
SEMI SEC* or SECO – slightly sweet – between 32 and 50 grams of sugar per liter
DOLC* or DULCE – sweet – more than 50 grams of added sugar per liter, with no maximum amount
*Terms in the Catalonian language that describe this characteristic
The regulatory entity for Champagne, Appellation d’origine Contrólee, or AOC, only authorizes three grape varieties, the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the white Chardonnay. On the other hand, the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen del Cava – Regulatory Board for the Cava Denomination of Origin C.R. D.O. Cava, permits a much wider variety of grapes, mostly white; Macabeu, Parellada, Subirat, Xarel-lo and Chardonnay, plus the red varieties Grenache, Monastrell and Pinot Noir, all these used for making pink or Rosé Cava, or Blanc de Noir (White Cava from black grapes) . Recently, the Trepat grape, a variety indigenous to the Conça de Barbará region in the province of Tarragona has been authorized exclusively for pink still wines and Cava.
The world’s largest producer of sparkling wines is naturally the largest producer of Cava, the Freixenet Group, comprised of the various Freixenet labels, plus nine other Cava wineries; Segura Viudas, Castellblanch, René Barbier, Conde de Caralt, Dubois, Rigol, Castell d’Ordal and Canals & Nubiola in the Penedés area and Unión Vinícola del Este in Requena. Freixenet also owns a major sparkling wine plant in the Rias Baixas área of Galicia in the Northwest corner of the country, Agnus Dei, and the Henri Abelé Champagne house. Other Freixenet holdings are the Gloria Ferrer estate in California and several wineries in Mexico, Argentina and Australia. 
Until not too many years ago, the now second ranked Cava house was also the world leader, Codorniu. Codorniu also owns several other Cava wineries. Codorniu’s principal claim to fame is that the commonly accepted inventor of Cava, Josep Raventós Fatjó, owner of the estate in the 1870’s began commercial production of Spanish sparkling wines in 1872. Seven years later he delivered his first batch of 864 bottles in Barcelona.  However, sparkling wines were being made in Reus, in Tarragona in the mid 1860’s by Francesc Gil and Domènec Soberano who presented their wines in the UNIVERSAL EXHIBITION in Paris in 1868, made according to the Méthode Champenoise with Pinot Noir grapes. The first officially established Spanish sparkling wine producer was the Mont Ferrant winery in Blanes in the province of Girona in the early 1870’s. 
From the earliest years, the sparkling wines produced not only in Catalonia but in many other parts of Spain were labeled and commonly referred to as Champán, Xampán or Xampany (in the Catalonian language). The term Cava first appeared in a government decree in 1959 which established the regulations concerning the distinctions between the sparkling wines elaborated according to the Méthode Champenoise and the gasified wines made by adding carbón dioxide gas to wines after fermentation.
The law published in 1972 covering Vines and Vineyards, Wines and Alcohols, specifically regulated the elaboration of Cava. In that same year, the Regulatory Board of the Cava D.O. was established and in 1986, upon Spain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), the term Cava was officially recognized Europe-wide.
Today, Cava is consumed in all parts of Spain, increasingly combined with meals at any time and any day, and not limited to celebrations, and exported to 100 countries around the world. The major export markets for Cava are Germany, Belgium, the UK and the USA, and increasingly the far East – Japan, China and Korea. 

Cava is the next big thing. When will you be having your next glass?

The above is based on the contents of the forthcoming book, CAVA, Spain’s Effervescent Treasure, written by George Potter.
George Potter is an American-born wine writer and photographer living a good part of the year in the Penedés region of Spain. He has worked in corporate public relations and advertising, and has been a frequent contributor to several Spanish food and wine publications. He was correspondant in Spain for some time for WINE & SPIRITS. He spends extensive time investigating Spanish sparkling wineries, and has made more than a few very interesting discoveries.

Mentioned in this article


  • I'm so glad to see (and read!) that George's years of work will finally bring us the definitive book on Cava. As I read this article I can't help but wonder why the US doesn't have a widely recognized descriptive name for its sparkling wine. Maybe George can spend some time on home soil rectifying this . . .

    Feb 17, 2015 at 1:33 PM

  • Snooth User: rcascone
    275031 7

    Dear George: Interesting article, but the misspellings are so rampant as to be totally distracting - gassification, railfall, labelled, diferent, área, carbón, elboration, advertisnig, etc. Don't you have Spellcheck, or were you deep into the Cava when you wrote this?


    Ron Cascone

    Feb 17, 2015 at 1:37 PM

  • What a good article, very informative.

    Feb 17, 2015 at 1:46 PM

  • Snooth User: willmehr
    1807049 27

    Living in Spain for over 10 years, loving Cava in any variety (except the semi-brut = sweet); enchanted with the info here given, thanks a lot!!

    Feb 18, 2015 at 4:37 PM

  • I enjoyed the article, but was surprised you didn't specify prosecco in the Italian sparklings. I had always preferred prosecco but will now try to find more of the better cavas, I prefer Brut or perhaps the Extra Brut. Thanks for the info!!

    Feb 26, 2015 at 3:49 PM

  • I'm a big fan of Cava since my trip to Spain in the 1980s. Brut is my favorite. Cava can range from very affordable to pricey. Glad to see it getting more recognition.

    Feb 27, 2015 at 2:36 AM

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