Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine is Spain’s bubbly of choice. It is to the Spanish what Champagne is to the French or spumante or prosecco is to the Italians. Go out to restaurants and bars in Barcelona and you’re more likely to see locals drinking Cava than anything else.
Cava has played an integral role in the everyday life of Catalans and Spaniards since its creation by Catalan Josep Raventós in 1872 in the Penedes region near Barcelona, Spain, with bottles not only popped at baptisms, weddings and other celebrations, but Cava drank more informally at family meals or simply after work during casual drinks.
“Cava is unique and has a history that is intrinsically tied to the Catalan way of life,” wine consultant Ryan Opaz says. Like many locals, Ryan has a soft spot for the sparkling wine. He and his wife Gabriella run Catavino, a business promoting Iberian wines, including the Spanish sparkling wine.
Our Guide to Cava and What Makes the Spanish Sparkling Wine So Special
The Penedès: the Cradle of Cava
The Penedès is the closest wine region to Barcelona and is renowned for this Spanish sparkling wine. In fact, Josep Elías Terns, winemaker and owner of Parató winery calls it “the cradle of Cava”, because it was here that Cava was born after Josep Raventós returned from a trip to France with the idea of producing a sparkling wine using French techniques, which is why the first Catalan bubbly was called champán or xampany.
“People don’t realise that 50 kilometres from Las Ramblas and Barça stadium is a wine region where there is beautiful countryside, few concrete roads, and guys running old wine presses,” Josep says. “There are 160 wineries producing Cava and still wine in the Penedès. It’s actually the third largest wine region in Spain after Rioja and La Mancha. And everyone is producing nice wines and behind every winery there is a story!”
Indeed, Josep has a story or two. From one of the region’s oldest winemaking families, Josep has only been making Cava and wine at his small winery at El Pla del Penedès since 1975 (his house dates to 1685!), yet his ancestors were making wine as far back as 1670.
“They had grape vines right here!” he tells us, stomping his foot on the floor of the new Fira de Barcelona. The Elias family had vineyards close by on the slopes of Montjuïc, the mountain between the Fira and the city, and have deeds to a wine press there dating to 1880.
We talk to Josep, along with other winemakers specialising in the Catalan sparkling, at Alimentaria, Barcelona’s premiere food and wine trade fair. While we’ve enjoyed this Spanish sparkling wine on previous trips to Spain, and particularly on visits to Barcelona — Freixenet, Spain’s leading Cava producer, has generally been the first bubbly we’d reach for at a bottle shop (it was often the only one there!) — we admit we knew very little about the stuff until Alimentaria.
So what makes a Cava a Cava?
So what makes a Cava a Cava?
“Cava mainly uses three grapes or a combination of three grapes — Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada — these are local grapes and we know how to work with these, however, Xarel·lo is the pillar of Cava. We can also use other grapes, such as the native grape Samsó, as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Subirat and so on,” Josep explains.
“Cava can be brut nature (naturally dry), brut (extra dry), seco (dry), semiseco (medium dry), dulce (sweet), and there is also brut rosé (made with black grapes like Garnatxa, Monastrell and Pinot Noir).”
“But to be Cava, it must be made according to the traditional methods that follow our Denominación de Origen laws — and there are many rules we have to follow before we can put ‘Cava’ on the label! After the grapes, the most important is that there is a second fermentation in the bottle, and the aging time.”
A Sunny Bubbly
After tasting Josep’s delicious Parato Cava Reserva Brut Nature, we ask what is it about the Penedès region that enables it to produce such fine sparkling.
“It’s a combination of the sunny climate, soil and grapes. We can also produce an extensive variety of grapes, everything from Merlot to Tempranillo, and it’s because of the success of Cava that other wines have emerged from here,” Josep reveals.
“For me, Cava is very Mediterranean and this is because of where it’s made. It is very fresh, light and clean, very easy to drink. It’s perfect for our climate, for the summer. If you’re sitting in the sunshine, it’s ideal,” Josep says.
“In Spain, we like to spend time with our family and friends, to eat slowly — Cava is not as alcoholic as red or white wine, so it’s perfect — you can drink it all afternoon long.”
Anywhere, Anytime & with Anything — or — Why Cava Rocks
Jeci Llopart, a fifth-generation winemaker, from Llopart Cava, another small family-owned winery, dating back to 1887 and currently run by Jeci and her three siblings, agrees with Josep. Jeci introduces us to seven delicious Llopart Cavas.
“It’s the freshness, the fruitiness and the versatility that makes it so special,” she says, as we sip her effervescent drops. “You can have it at anytime, winter or summer, with or without food, and with all moments.”
“I really believe Cava is a wine you have with anything, with tapas, or on its own. It fits with everything,” Josep continues.
“Ferran Adrià said that Cava is perhaps the only wine that can match 25 dishes and I agree,” he elaborates. “It’s like with music. Sometimes you want classical, sometimes you want rock, but then there is music that goes with everything. It’s the same with Cava.”
Location, Location, Location
Efrem Mallol, owner and director of the award-winning winery Finca Ca N‘Estella and Clot dels Oms, has been making wines since 1973 on the family estate, although his ancestors began producing wine in 1847. His circumstances are a little different to other wine-makers, although he believes the results are similarly special.
“Due to our location — we’re the closet vineyard to Barcelona, in the north of Penedès where it’s very warm — we pick most of our grapes at night when it’s cooler. We start picking at the end of July and we’re finishing in September when the others are just starting their harvest,” Efrem says.
“As a result, it tastes different because we pick it at a different time and because our soil is different. We also have some very old grape vines, dating back to 100 years, which we handpick. (The other grapes are picked by machine.) Because of this, I think we can feel the different flavours when we try it. It’s also because of how we look after the grapes at small wineries. At huge estates you can’t feel the quality of the grape.”
We try Efrem’s Cava Rabetllat I Vidal Brut Ca N’Estella, made from Xarel·lo and Macabeo grapes, aged for 12 months, and we agree. It’s rich and complex, a gorgeous drop.
Cava versus Champagne
So how does Cava compare to Champagne? “They are very different!” Josep Elías Terns exclaims. “The climate and the soil make them so. Cava is not as acidic because we have plenty of sunshine, so our wines are more rich, but on the other hand, the acidity can be nice; it makes the wine fresher and allows it to stay longer in the bottle.”
“Cava, while made exactly the same way as Champagne and Cremant, is a better product,” says Anthony Swift from Wine Pleasures, which offers specialised wine tours and tastings, as well as events and workshops.
“Two glasses of Champagne and you can’t drink anymore, as it’s too heavy on the stomach. This is because the climate in Champagne is harsh — there’s not enough sun — which makes for an acidic grape, and so the winemakers are forced to add sweet wine to smooth over the acidity,” Anthony explains.
“This is not the case in Spain where we have the sun and are therefore able to make a Brut Nature with no added sweet wine. And of course it’s a lighter drink — you can drink more than two glasses for sure!”
“Add to that the price and you’ll never buy Champagne again — unless of course you’re a celebrity and you need to flaunt — but for a good Champagne, you’ll be paying over 100 euros (anything less and you’ll need to break out the aspirin!), whereas a five-year-old bottle can be bought (from the winery) for just 12 euros and it’s a steal.”
Ryan Opaz agrees that one of the things that makes Catalunya’s sparkling wine so special is its value for money.
“The entry point is so low for something of such artisanal quality,” Opaz says. “For 10 euros you’re starting with quality that is often equal to a 30-euro bottle of Champagne. Also the high end is pretty low with amazing Cavas available for under 50 euros.”
To Visit or Not to Visit Penedès
Ryan and Gabriella Opaz believe that anyone who visits Barcelona and enjoys Spain’s sparkling wine should visit the Penedès region.
“First off, if you want to visit a winery, the region is easy to get to from Barcelona on a tour — or even independently by train — and second of all, you are going to get an experience that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”
As Josep Elías Terns says “When you go to Penedès and drink the Cava you will really feel the place!”
Learn More about Cava
We returned to Barcelona specifically to explore the Penedès and taste the region’s 50 great Cavas on a five-day wine tour. We visited the area’s finest wineries and the wonderful VINSEUM wine museum, learnt what a terrific match Cava and Catalan cuisine were and were taught how to eat calcots like the locals. Now we’re wondering if we’ll ever be able to drink Champagne again.
Where to Taste Cava in Barcelona and Beyond
In Barcelona you can sample Cava on this Tasting of Catalan and Spanish Wines. You could also rent a car in Barcelona airport and do a road trip through the Penedès wine region, 50 kilometres south of the Catalan capital. If you do this, at some Cava wineries you will need to make appointments to do vineyard tours and wine tastings. If you prefer to do a guided tour, try this Catalunya Wine, Tapas and Cava Tour from Barcelona or this 8-Hour Wine and Cava Tasting in Catalonia.