Spanish Cava has a reputation as bargain bubbly. There’s good reason for that: Millions of bottles of Cava, most of it inexpensive, are shipped to the U.S. every year, and the wines are a mainstay on shelves of supermarkets and mass-market wine stores.
But a number of Cava producers are trying to up their game. They’re aging their wines longer before release and paying more attention to their vineyard practices. These producers charge more for their wines, but some of these bottles still can be tremendous values. Higher-end producer Gramona, for example, has an excellent cuvée that retails for just $22.
The Cava Regulatory Board even has added a new label designation aimed at higher quality: Cava de Paraje Calificado. To qualify for the designation, a wine must be made from a single, estate vineyard and be aged a minimum of 36 months on the lees. A number of producers hope the move will boost Cava’s image in the minds of consumers.
Let me back up here and explain some of the basics of Cava. Many consumers don’t realize that Cava, even the inexpensive stuff, is made in the traditional method, like Champagne: The second fermentation takes place in the same bottle in which the wine is eventually sold. (This is in contrast to Prosecco, much of which is also bargain-priced. Prosecco generally is made by the charmat method, in which the second fermentation takes place in a tank.)
Like Champagne, most Cavas are blends of multiple vintages. The grapes, however, are different. The main grapes used in Cava are xarello, macabeo and parellada, all white grapes; chardonnay sometimes is used. There are also rosé cavas, which often get their color from a local grape called trepat. (Pinot noir, monastrell or garnacha are also permitted.)
Nearly 90 percent of Cava is simply labeled “Cava,” which requires a minimum of nine months of aging. Wines labeled “reserva” are aged at least 15 months, while “gran reserva” wines are aged at least 30 months and always carry a vintage.
As for sweetness, Cava ranges from brut nature (no sugar added) to sweet (which is, indeed, quite sweet). Much of what is sold here is brut or extra dry (a little sweeter than brut), although I’m starting to see more extra brut, which has a small amount of sugar added but tastes very racy and fresh. Gran reserva wines are always brut, extra brut or brut nature.
Although Cava has denominacion de origen (D.O.) status, which usually refers to a geographic area, the wines can come from a number of diverse areas of Spain. About 90 percent of Cava production, however, is from the Penedes region, south of Barcelona, especially in the area around Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, known as the “City of Cava.”
More than 1.5 million cases were exported to the U.S. in 2014, up about 2 percent, according to the Cava Regulatory Board. Freixenet is the largest producer of Cava – in fact, the company is the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wine in the world. Much of the wine produced by Freixenet and other big companies is inexpensive – think Freixenet’s Cordon Negro, in its distinctive black bottle.
Cava’s mass-market image has contributed to the departure from the Cava appellation of some artisanal producers in Penedes – Raventos i Blanc is a good example. But there are still some excellent wines produced under the Cava designation. Even Freixenet has introduced the pricey and delicious Casa Sala Gran Reserva Brut Nature. The 2006 ($80) is rich, creamy and full-bodied, with notes of brioche, hazelnut and dry honey, and a long finish.
My favorite artisanal Cava producer is Gramona, whose sparkling wines are all gran reservas. Xarello is the backbone of Gramona’s sparkling wines; Xavier Gramona believes that it is the best grape for longer aging of Cava wines. He acknowledges that most of the world’s longer-aged bubblies are made from chardonnay and pinot noir, but Gramona thinks such wines can be made successfully with the traditional local grapes. His wines, which are aged an average of six years (more than twice what’s required for gran reserva) make a good case for his view.
The 2011 Gramona La Cuvée Gran Reserva Brut ($22) is powerful yet precise, with racy, fresh fruit, some spicy notes and fine texture. Prices climb from there. The 2010 Gramona Imperial Gran Reserva Brut ($32) is rich and creamy, with a hint of smoke and fine texture, while the 2007 Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature ($50) has a firm, racy core of citrus and green apple, along with notes of mineral, hazelnut and brioche. The 2005 Gramona Celler Batlle Gran Reserva Brut ($100) is rich, creamy and full-bodied but also has nice freshness.
“We look for wines that are going to stand very much after the years,” Gramona says.
A number of Cava producers that also make less expensive wines have a pricier cuvée or two. Freixenet’s sister brand, Segura Viudas, produces the non-vintage Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad ($25), packaged in an impressive metal-clad bottle. The wine is fresh and appley, with lovely texture. The 2012 Pere Ventura Cupatge d’Honor ($28; this vintage may not be in stores yet), a blend of xarello and chardonnay, is creamy, with white fruit and nice freshness. And the 2010 Agusti Torello Mata Brut Reserva ($24) is very racy, with citrus and green apple and a hint of brioche.
Juvé y Camps makes several reasonably priced Cavas, as well as some more expensive wines that are harder to find. Among the former, there’s the winery’s flagship 2011 Reserva de la Familia Brut Nature Gran Reserva ($16), which is slightly yeasty, with racy citrus and apple and hints of smoke and mineral. (The 2012 was recently released, but 2011 is still in stores.) The 2013 Juvé y Camps Essential ($16) is fragrant, with white fruit and a hint of smoke, and the non-vintage Juvé y Camps Brut Rosé ($16), based on pinot noir, offers bright strawberry and cherry with a slight leafy note. Among the expensive wines, I’m partial to the 2010 Gran Juvé Brut Reserva ($50), which displays racy citrus and apple, hints of wet stone and smoke and nice weight.
Vilarnau, part of the Gonzalez Byass group (best known for Tio Pepe Sherry), produces some well-priced Cavas, including the 2012 Vilarnau Reserva Brut Nature ($20), which is fresh and racy, with citrus, green apple, a hint of brioche and a persistent finish, and the non-vintage Vilarnau Reserva Brut ($15), which is bright and creamy with a little more weight from the added dosage. Other under-$20 Cavas to look for include the fruity non-vintage Pere Ventura Tresor Rosé ($15); the bright, citrusy, slightly toasty non-vintage Mas Fi Brut Nature Reserva ($13); and the creamy non-vintage Vallformosa Classic Brut ($17).
As for the famed non-vintage Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut ($12), it’s light and a little soft, with golden apple flavors. I think the non-vintage Segura Viudas Brut ($10) is even better: very fresh, with citrus, apple, mineral and hints of brioche and spice. The Ferrer family of Freixenet acquired Segura Viudas in 1982, but the winery operates independently.