In association with Cava DO.Lenka Sedlackova MW takes a look at the main grape varieties used in Cava production....
In association with Cava DO.
Cava grape varieties
White (% of plantings)
Subirat Parent (0.2%)
Red (% of plantings)
Pinot Noir (2.5%)
For many leading quality Cava producers, Xarel.lo is the most important grape variety. At Recaredo it represents 60% of plantings and Ton Mata, third generation enologist, defines himself as a staunch Xarel-list, or as he explains, ‘someone who is looking to interpret and explore the properties and virtues of the Xarel.lo grape variety’.
Research conducted by the University of Barcelona and UC Davis has highlighted that among white grapes, Xarel.lo is the variety with the highest concentration of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that can be found in grape skins. This, along with Xarel.lo’s low pH and fresh acidity, is beneficial for long ageing.
Xavier Gramona from the familyowned estate Gramona describes Xarel.lo’s acidity as ‘Mediterranean’ and its high antioxidant capacity is therefore necessary to allow long ageing. He adds that ‘the high concentration of resveratrol allows Cava to age without the need for dosage’ – in fact, the leading producers of premium Cava largely concentrate on producing Brut Nature styles.
And while these Cavas are bone dry, they have plenty of fruit and lees complexity to carry it.
For most of the longest-aged Cavas, Xarel.lo represents the main component of the blend, if not the whole blend. It is a variety that is difficult to grow and performs best when it’s at lower altitudes (below 400m). Early budding and late ripening equal a long growing season and the development of thick skins. Both Mata and Gramona highlight Xarel.lo’s ability to withstand drought as hugely important and this benefit was demonstrated during the very dry 2016 season, when other varieties did not perform so well.
Xarel.lo’s flavour profile is best described as intense and reminiscent of dried camomile and fennel, adding a pleasant bitter tone to the finish. With long ageing on lees, these flavours can develop into honeyed acacia tones and notes of warm patisserie.
Macabeo is the most common variety found in the Cava blend and represents 35% of plantings within the DO Cava.
Known as Viura in Rioja, it is a relatively neutral variety that shows delicate orchard fruit flavours. Because of this neutrality it is very useful in traditional-method sparkling wine production as it is easily able to take on secondary flavours from lees ageing.
Mata believes that Macabeo gives long-aged Cavas their delicate floral aromas. Macabeo also displays elevated levels of resveratrol, although not in the same concentration as Xarel.lo, making it useful for long ageing.
Parellada often plays a supporting role in the Cava blend, but there are some producers, including Llopart and Mascaró, who put emphasis on this oft-maligned grape. Elegance, delicacy and finesse are the strings to Parellada’s bow.
Higher-altitude plantings are crucial to get the best out of Parellada, according to Jesi Llopart of Cava Llopart, one of the longest established producers of traditional-method sparkling wines in Penedès: ‘Altitudes of 300m and above allow us to unlock its potential, a balance of acidity and adequate fruit ripening.
‘As Parellada ages on lees, it develops an orange zest aroma,’ she adds. Older vines and lower yields can further add to flavour concentration.
Not all producers are prepared to use Parellada. The importance of site is further emphasised by Gramona, who purposefully avoids its use: ‘We are reluctant to use it in our area, where it reaches low acidity and its large and thick grapes retain a lot of water.’ Gramona goes on to explain that these big berries and Parellada’s low alcohol of 9–10% result in oxidative characters, rendering it undesirable for long ageing.