It’s Cava a Big Deal
Time for another review and a bit more info about Spanish wines. (Yay, Spain!)
In case you missed my last wine review, I talked about Spanish Rioja and one of the aging categories (Crianza) and the types of grape varietals that are in the blend.
Today, we’re in a totally different area of Spain. Technically – we are all over Spain. Cava D.O. is a classification, it’s not a region.
That’s right. Cava can be made multiple places in Spain. It’s not like Champagne… that can only be made in Champagne France. However, it is limited to few different areas in Spain. There’s a small area in the Rioja, a ton of space in Penedès, and other very specific areas throughout Spain. The point is that, it’s not just one place.
Cava is a sparkling wine that comes from Spain, and made in the same way that Champagne is made. There is a new designation that you’ll start to see that says Cava “Penedès” determining extra high quality, so keep an eye out for that! This wine is not Penedès designation but it is a good wine and it is from that region.
Penedès is a region, when it appears on a bottle it means that the wine adheres to higher standards and is deemed as higher quality. This is very cool because there’s a lot of Cava producers out there. Like, a lot, a lot. There is cheap Cava and there is great Cava. And there’s a lot of Cava’s in between. So Penedès is a designation to help consumers know a quality Cava right off the shelf.
So first, let’s talk a bit about how Cava is made. Metodo Traditionelle / Methode Champenoise / Champagne Method / Traditional Method are all different ways to say the same thing. Champagne producers don’t really believe in the whole saying “imitation is the best form of flattery” so they got in a tizzy over producers from other places using their name on bottles and that’s not seen very often anymore. A few producers from California still do it, but they don’t sell to the EU so they get away with it.
As the original name suggests, Champagne is accredited with starting this style. I believe it was actually a different area of France, Limoux, that created the first sparkling wine. However, Limoux was clearly the middle child of French regions and Champagne was a firstborn and took all the glory. Mais c’est la vie, non?
The Traditional Process
So here’s a quick overview of how traditional method wines are made:
- First you have the grapes that are harvested at high acidity levels (too much sugar means the grapes will get too high in alcohol to make a second fermentation). Ferment them into a dry (no residual sugar) wine. Typically this is about 10% ABV. The winemaker will blend various still wines (from various plots of land, grape varietals, or years) to create a cuvée.
- Tirage occurs next, where the wine is put into bottles with a yeast and sugar mixture. A crown cap (like on a beer bottle) is placed on top of the bottle and the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. This second fermentation generates CO2 (yeast eats sugar creating CO2 and alcohol as byproducts. The CO2 is locked into that bottle (crown cap, remember?) so it actually infuses into the wine and raises the ABV by about 1.2%. So now we’re at 11.2-12% ABV – see why we needed those tart grapes earlier?
- Once the yeast has eaten all the sugar it dies. No food = no live yeast. These dead yeast cells are called Lees. They fall to the bottom of the wine and just sit there. But they still have a HUGE effect on the wine. They impart flavors of bread (yeast = bread, get it?) brioche or biscuit. I personally think that Champagne wines smell like cheerios. That’s those lees. Aging the wine on the lees is a process called autolysis (pronounced aut-al-lee-sis really fast). Say that at a dinner party and you’ve got the crowd immediately impressed. This process lasts for a minimum of 9 months (longer in other places, and even longer for vintage sparklers).
- Next – you’ve got all those dead yeast cells (lees) in the bottle, so you’ve got to get those out. Nobody wants to have muck (it really looks like that) in the bottom of their $50 Veuve Cliquot. So how to do it? It’s a riddle for sure. Riddling. it’s the process known as gently shaking the bottles slowly over a period of time while slowly turning the bottles upside down. A skilled riddler in the 18th century could supposedly do 50-60,000 bottles a day taking about 6 weeks to complete the whole process and getting each bottle upside down. Yikes. These days, it’s mechanically done with a machine called a Gyropalatte (created in Spain!).
- After all this riddling comes the fun part. The sediment is all in the neck of the bottle, so the neck is placed in liquid nitrogen and then the crown cap is quickly removed. The pressure from the CO2 causes the now-frozen sediment to pelt out of the bottle. It’s quickly topped off with a base cuvée of sparkling wine, perhaps some extra sugar if the wine will be sweet in any way, and capped with the exact cork you get when you purchase the bottle. This process is known as Disgorgement.
- After all that, the bottles are often aged yet again before going out to market. This is a reserva cava, so it has to be aged for a minimum of 18 months total (some can be on lees, some can be in bottle).
Prosecco, Asti, and other styles of sparkling wine are made in a couple of other different ways, mainly the charmant method. That’s for another post.
The Grapes of Cava
So that’s the method. What about the grapes?
Xarel.lo, Macabeu, and Parellada are the most common and native to Spain. The best soil is Llicorella (Slate). It’s semi-permeable and provides great drainage for the vines.
Cava vs. Champagne
So the wine is made the same way as Champagne, but what’s the difference? Well, climate is huge as are the different grape varietals. The climate is a lot warmer, so the grapes are riper. Furthermore, I find that with Spain’s native grapes have a lot more fruit flavor to them than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir typically have in a Champagne style wine.
That being said, I find that Champagne will typically be more brioche/bready/green apple flavors and Cava is more jasmine/honeysuckle/pear/peach flavors. The fruit in the grapes masks some of that delicate brioche note. Like having a piece of plain toast and butter, or putting avocado and a fried egg on the toast. You don’t taste the toast when you have so much else going on. The toast is more of a vehicle to the other ingredients than a stand alone component.
Furthermore, Cava is much less expensive than Champagne. You can easily find a great value Cava for $18-$20 bucks. You can get a great value Champagne for about $40, and those are hard to find.
The Price Gap
Why the price difference if the method is the same? To be honest — it’s consumer demand and awareness. Some people view Cava as lesser because it’s not as sought after. Furthermore, it’s seen as an inexpensive wine partially because of all the cheap-o producers. Hopefully the Penedès designation on labels will help remove that stigma.
So now that you know a bit about Cava, how it’s made and some great price points, and that it can be an AWESOME affordable sparkling. Let’s do a review!
Sumarroca Cava Reserva D.O.
Wine: Sumarroca Cava D.O. non-vintage
Appearance: Clear, pale lemon color with bubbles.
Nose: This is a developing, clean wine with light intensity. It has aromas of green apple, pear, lemon zest, quince, wet stones and a slight note of brioche. The nose is well-defined and ripe.
Palate: This is a dry wine with medium plus acidity, medium alcohol, medium body, a delicate mousse, and a medium flavor intensity. There are flavors of green apple, pear, brioche, and wet stones. The finish is medium minus.
Assessment of Quality: This is a very good wine.
Level of Readiness for Drinking: This wine is good to drink now but can be suitable for further aging.
What do you think? If you have any feedback I’m always willing to hear it!