In spite of growing worldwide demand for bubbles, recent challenges arising from the pandemic and the cost of living crisis have put the brakes on consumers’ willingness to spend on non-essential products. In search of new and imaginative ways of rising to the challenge, Cava producers believe that while it can be tough for consumers to fork out for fizz, they can continue to enjoy ‘the little luxuries of life’ by purchasing reasonably priced Cava. This isn’t to suggest going for the cheapest option, but rather a very different proposition: to encourage value at the right price and quality. This article sets out just how the Cava D.O. is raising its game, accompanied by an overview of a recent tasting at Decanter’s headquarters with some very tasty examples of what’s in store for consumers.
As against its competitors, Cava has at least three huge positives. Cava is made by the traditional method of sparkling winemaking, and the second fermentation carried out in the bottle in which it is ultimately sold is a proven quality factor in sparkling wine. Secondly, Cava is for the most part made from native Spanish varieties, an influence on style that’s at last seen as a virtue and valuable point of difference. Finally, the new rules on ageing and origin promulgated in 2020 are starting to bear fruit, showing that Cava means business, literally, in fighting back against rival bubble makers worldwide. Ever increasing quality, character and age worthiness were apparent at our recent tasting.
Conquering the world
Cava (the word means ‘cellar’) is the traditional method Spanish sparkling wine mainly produced in Catalonia’s Penedès region. From its 38,000 hectares, the main grape varieties are the local triumvirate of Macabeo (13,966 ha) Xarel·lo (9,841 ha) and Parellada (7,345 ha). Xarel·lo has character, flavour and the greatest potential for quality; Macabeo good acidity; and while Parellada tends to be neutral, it can bring aroma and finesse to a wine. Altitude, older vines, massal selection and low yields can all make a difference. The grapes are generally harvested fully ripe, resulting in a soft-textured fizz with uniquely Mediterranean aromas and flavours. Initially controversial, and now accepted as part of the status quo, more recent plantings of Chardonnay (2,848 ha) and Pinot Noir (811 ha) have not grown in vineyard area over the past decade, reflecting a renewed focus on the local varieties.
Against the backdrop of the global pandemic and tough economic circumstances, Cava reported growth of 17.3% in 2021, reaching a record sales volume of 252 million bottles globally, its 50 foreign markets accounting for more than two thirds of total sales. The UK ranked number four in the export market after Germany, US and Belgium, with just under 20 million bottles. Although from a smaller base, China showed the fastest growth in 2021 at 86% over the previous year.
Quality shaped by time and place
The Cava D.O. is setting much store by new rules on provenance and the ageing and bottling of its top-tier wines, in an attempt to create major points of difference between its fizz and competitors both at home and overseas. The creation of the new rules serves a dual purpose: on the one hand they reinforce and communicate Cava’s distinctive character and origin; on the other, the two new tiers of Cava Guarda and Cava de Guarda Superior that came into force in January this year bring a fresh focus on quality and terroir.
Over 95% of production is now concentrated in the Comtats de Barcelona while, on a smaller scale, two subzones in Valle del Ebro – Alto Ebro and Valle de Cierzo – and the Levante and Viñedos de Almendralejo zones, are also within the D.O. Cava. The new ageing categories formalise the time of maturation in bottle. Nine months is the minimum for Cava de Guarda, 18 months for Cava de Guarda Superior Reserva and at least 30 months for Cava de Guarda Superior Gran Reserva. At the top of the ageing category pyramid, Cava de Guarda Superior de Paraje Calificado, wine from a single estate, must be aged for a minimum of 36 months, which brings it into line with vintage champagne. This year also sees the launch of a colour-coded quality seal, indicating age and origin in a way that is easier for consumers to perceive.
The category of organic Cava stands out within the D.O. Cava as a result of the new regulations that set 2025 as the year when the whole category of Guarda Superior will be 100% organic. The 23 million bottles sold in 2021, with big growth at premium level, was up from just four million in 2016. In addition, Cava’s 205 producers must demonstrate adherence to a wide range of specified sustainability initiatives, with areas such as water, packaging, emissions and traceability every bit as significant as requirements in the vineyards. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in 2021 higher-value Cavas with long ageing achieved unprecedented growth, with the category of Reserva up 24%, and Gran Reserva up 25%. Among the most notable trends of 2021, Rosé Cava also experienced impressive growth of 30%, even bigger at premium level, with 29 million bottles.
Stunning line up
All but three of the Cavas in our tasting fell within the categories of Reserva and Gran Reserva. Ten were organic. Perhaps the single most notable takeaway from our tasting was how much the process of ageing in bottle added to the quality and complexity of the wines. I was truly impressed by many of these wines, with longer ageing on lees certainly adding a dimension of complexity, although not at the expense of fruit. Many of the wines tasted were disgorged this year or last, a fact either deliberately noted as part of the branding itself, i.e. as late-disgorged, or by the simple expedient of showing the date of disgorgement on the label. The extra degree of maturation, often exceeding the minimum ageing requirements by some distance, brought significantly greater complexity.
Another major feature of the tasting was that roughly half the wines were Brut Nature or Extra Brut, that is to say wines with no or little added dosage at the disgorgement and bottling stage. This tasting showed that when the grapes are harvested ripe in this largely Mediterranean region, they produce a well-balanced, fine-textured sparkling wine that doesn’t lack acidity but can express the unique aromas and flavours of their terroir. The local grapes in particular make a significant contribution to this character. There were a few excellent Cavas made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the vast majority of the wines were blends of the three main native varieties, or, on occasion, single variety sparkling wines. As expected, the varietal Xarel·lo wines often showed the greatest potential, but a pure varietal Macabeo and a Parellada also had their day in the Mediterranean sun.
Tasting Cava D.O. – Outstanding examples to try:
Cava de Guarda Superior Reserva
Bodegas Langa, Cava Reyes de Aragón Reserva Brut Nature 92
Pale lemony hue. Bright and fresh in aroma with an appealing nutty note from autolysis. Good billowing mousse of fine bubbles carrying delicate flavours with an attractive nutty dry finish. Although a Brut Nature, the finish is not aggressively dry but appealingly balanced with a delicious saline edge. Chardonnay 60%, Macabeo 40%. Alc 12%
U MES U, Rara Avis Larus 90
Pale lemon in colour. This has fresh, bright and lemony aromas, with an appealing soft stone fruit mousse and juicy citrusy acidity. Very elegant on the attack, this
is a pleasantly balanced cava with dry finish and very good, fine persistence. Xarel-lo, Pinot Noir. Alc 12%
Cava de Guarda Superior Gran Reserva
Cava de Guarda Superior Gran Reserva
Alta Alella, Alta Alella Mirgin Exeo Evolució + 2005 93
Pale gold in colour. Extremely fresh, lifted and youthful for its age, this shows a gentle nuttiness, light toasty complexity and fine detail. Soft, rich mousse of peachy bubbles that taper to a clean, lean dry, savoury finish. One to enjoy with the best boquerones. Pansà Blanca 60%, Chardonnay 40%. Alc 12%
Cava Guilera, Musivari 2007 93
Pale gold in colour. Nicely oxidative in aroma with farm butter and biscuity undertones, following through to a satisfyingly rich mousse. Underlying nutty and savoury notes carry though to a delightfully savoury finish with an ever so slightly bitter, intriguing finish. Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada. Alc 12%
Maria Rigol Ordi, Microtiratge 6: Parellada Brut Nature 2016 93
Mid-gold in colour. This displays a bright, fresh appley aromatic quality underpinned by a light, complexing nuttiness. The fresh appley quality follows through into a full-flavoured mousse tinged with spice. Satisfyingly crisp and saline, making it a crowd-pleaser that’s very much a food fizz for tapas and Mediterranean seafood. Fine winemaking on show here. Parellada 100%. Alc 12%
Cava Varias, Edició Limitada Brut Nature Xarel.lo 2008 93
Mid-gold in colour, this has a fine biscuity aromatic quality, with evolution bringing with it complexity, but not at the expense of freshness. Those biscuity flavours explode in the mouth in an energetic stream of toasty bubbles whose richness of flavour is balanced by just the right amount of fresh acidity to make this delightful. Such an appealing texture and length. Xarel-lo 100%. Alc 12%
Agustí Torelló Mata, Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2015 92
Pale gold in colour, this is subtle and quiet on the nose but reveals itself, slowly but surely. Quite explosive in the mouth with richly flavoured, crunchy stone fruit that tapers to an appetisingly and elegantly dry finish in a stylish framework of bubbles. A saline edge adds nuance and complexity. Macabeo 45%, Xarel-lo 20%, Parellada 35%. Alc 11.5%
Alta Alella, Alta Alella 10 2010 92
Pale gold. Rich and smoky aromas show evolution but not tiredness. The palate shows a distinctive evolution of flavour in a winey mousse that’s both nutty and smoky with an oxidative buttery character. This cava will pair very well with the right sort of food, notably Mediterranean seafood and salads. Expressive and characterful. Chardonnay 100%. Alc 12%
Giró del Gorner, Brut Gran Reserva 2012 92
Mid-gold hue with good nutty notes of autolysis and a hint of ginger spice. The palate follows with an attractive, complex rich mousse of apples and stone fruit and an underlying nutty nuance, with notes of buttered toast and almond croissant. Dry, elegant finish. Very good with food. Macabeo 40%, Xarel-lo 45%, Parellada 15% Alc 12%
Maria Rigol Ordi, Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2015 92
Mid-gold in colour, this is both fresh and rich in aroma in an unusual, nuanced combination. The mousse has a stone fruit texture and intriguing light spiciness that brings distinctive character to a fizz that seems to speak of its regional origins, with precision balanced by substance. A terroir character, in short, enhanced by a salty dryness that really brings it out. Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada. Alc 11.5%
Pere Ventura, Vintage Gran Reserva 2015 92
Pale lemon. Very attractive aromatic quality with underlying autolytic nuttiness and a delicious briney tang. Fine fleshy quality in stone fruit vein with a buoyant mousse of bubbles that keeps the palate refreshed as you taste, delivering an appetising soft dry finish with a bitter almond touch. Xarel-lo 60%, Chardonnay 40%. Alc 12%
Rovellats, Gran Reserva Masia Segle XV 2012 92
Mid-gold, this intriguing cava is showing considerable evolution in a bouquet of buttered Brazil nut and toffee apple. That evolution continues through to a buttery mouthful of bubbles whose expression combines both stone fruit and buttered nut flavours that taper to an elegant dry finish with a bitter twist crying out for food. Xarel-lo 50%, Macabeo 36%, Parellada 9%. Alc 11.7%
Canals & Munné, X–10 92
Mid-gold in colour, this has a distinctive, smoky, lemony aroma. The bubbles come almost as a surprise, delivering instant freshness and at the same time an intriguing nutty-leesy character that you might expect from a white Burgundy with bubbles. Charming and surprising. Xarel-lo 100%. Alc 12%
Agustí Torelló Mata, Barrica Gran Reserva 2017 91
Pale lemon hue. Nice lemony freshness with breezy, buoyant mousse that dissolves on the tongue with a tangy stab of bubbles combining light toasty flavours of autolysis. It finishes with an ever so slightly bitter tangy twist that’s refreshing and elegantly dry. Macabeo 100%. Alc 12%
Avinyó, Selecció La Ticota 2015 91
Pale gold, this shows appealing oxidative buttery and nutty notes on the nose and follows through in similar vein in the mouth with a soft-textured mousse, good fruit flavours and an appetisingly dry finish. Nice extract with broad palate and lovely texture. An excellent food fizz. Xarel-lo 85%, Macabeo 15%. Alc 12%
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas, Tantum Ergo Brut Nature 2018 91
Pale gold in colour, this shows quite fresh and firm notes upfront with a nice nuttiness and vibrancy. The Chardonnay brings attractive appley flavours complemented nicely by the berry fruit quality of the Pinot Noir. The tangy dry finish makes it very much a fizz to enjoy with tapas. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir/Pinot Nero. Alc 12%
Bodegas Sumarroca, Núria Claverol Homenatge 2015 91
Pale lemon in the glass. This isn’t giving much away on the nose but reveals a vibrant subtlety. On the palate it has equally subtle stone fruit flavour and complexity with good delicate finish, underpinned by a delicious salinity. Elegant wood spice nuances add complexity. Xarel-lo 100%. Alc 12%
Cava de Guarda Superior Paraje Calificado
Can Sala, Can Sala 2008 94
Deepish gold, this has an intensely nutty, underlying richness and complexity of aroma that follows through in the mouth, showing sumptuous nutty and buttery characters of evolution without sacrificing freshness. Very poised, beautifully crafted, world class cava. Alc 12.5%
Can Sala, Vinyes Can Sala 2015 92
Pale gold in colour, with a fine aromatic quality, powerfully scented with stone fruit, spices and Mediterranean pine. Delightfully rich yet refreshing, with a complexity of flavour and terroir character that’s quite outstanding. Still remarkably youthful. Parellada 60%, Xarel-lo 40%. Alc 12.5%
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas, Tantum Ergo Rosé 92
Pale salmon pink in colour, this shows some subtle complexity and nice aromatic freshness. When tasted there’s a crisp cranberry-like bite to the fruit carried by a buoyant, finely-textured mousse that dissolves on the tongue with a refreshingly tangy dry bite. Pinot Noir 100%. Alc 12%