Cava – a Spanish Wine Category in Transition

Written by Laurie Love, WSET L3, December 2020

Cava is well-known around the world as an easy-drinking sparkling wine that is also easy on the wallet. Much like it’s cousin Prosecco, for years Cava was not really taken too seriously; it was simply a fun beverage cranked out by a handful of mega-producers to satisfy the thirst of budget-conscious wine drinkers. But that is changing now. The Spanish sparkling wine category, once simply known as Cava, is undergoing a transition that aims to improve its quality and its image.

The Cava wine category is evolving from its origins as a DO (Denominación de Origen, a Spanish wine protected designation of origin) to the inception of five other sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja. These designations seek to improve the overall quality and global image of Spanish sparkling wine by focusing more on terroir and setting higher standards—for aging, for production, for winegrowing, and more—than the original Cava DO traditionally has.

To start, let’s take a look at the original Cava DO so we have a basis for how and why things are diverging in this category. At the end of this article, you’ll find detailed tasting notes for some of the wines in the divergent designations. ¡Salud!

Original Cava DO (1986)

Cava was established as an official Denominación de Origen in 1986, shortly after Spain joined the European Union. Prior to that, sparkling wine made in Spain was simply called Cava, which means “cave” or “cellar,” referring to the traditional method of sparkling wine production used by Cava where secondary fermentation happens in the bottle while it rests in the production cellar or cave. This is the same method used in Champagne. The first traditional method sparkling wine made Spain was crafted in 1872 by Josep Raventós of the Cordoníu family in Catalonia after he had spent some time in the Champagne region of France (Raventos.com). Raventós is considered the founder of the Cava industry.

Cava DO wines must be made in the traditional method with a minimum of 9 months on the lees (basic Cava), 15  months on lees (Reserva, 18 months beginning with 2021 harvest), and 30 months (Gran Reserva). Sweetness levels are the same as for champagne; however, Gran Reserva may only be Brut or drier. Authorized grapes include both indigenous (Xarel-lo, Macabeu, and Parellada) and international varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). The heart of Cava production is the Penedès region of Catalonia. However, Cava grapes can be from any of eight non-contiguous Cava growing regions throughout Spain (including Catalonia), and producers are allowed to buy base wines from other regions (Cava.wine, Guildsomm.com).

It is precisely this laxity of sourcing that prompted several quality-focused Cava producers to question the DO’s commitment to terroir specificity and geographic indication of origin. From that arose five new Spanish sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja.

Conca del Riu Anoia (2012)

A new generation of Raventós, Pepe Raventós of Raventós i Blanc, broke away from the Cava DO in 2012 and established Conca del Riu Anoia (Anoia River Basin) as a potentially separate DO (Hudin 2020). Pepe felt that Cava DO had become too volume-oriented without focus on geographic origin and terroir. Among other things, Conca del Riu Anoia defines a small geographic area in the Penedès region between the Anoia and Foix rivers. It stipulates grapes must be indigenous, can only come from vineyards within those boundaries that are organically certified, and are minimum 10 years old with set yields, and wines must age on the lees for 18 months minimum (Lawrence). So far, Raventós i Blanc Winery is the only producer following this designation, which has no legal recognition (Hudin 2020). However, Raventós is an historic name in Spanish sparkling wine production, so this designation carries quite a bit of clout.

Clàssic Penedès (2013)

At the same time that Raventós was breaking from Cava, 18 Cava producers left the Cava DO and formed a subclassification of the Penedès DO called Clàssic Penedès in 2013 (DOPenedes.cat, Hudin 2016). Unlike Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès is a legal designation for Spanish sparkling wine recognized by the Consejo Regulador and the EU, the first such designation outside of the Cava DO. The primary goal of Clàssic Penedès was to establish a premium sparkling wine category from a specific region within the classic growing and production area of Cava in Catalonia.

The rules for Clàssic Penedès require that grapes come from certified organic vineyards, notably the first sparkling wine category in the world to do so (DOPenedes.cat). There are strict regulations against buying base wines from outside the region; all production must take place within the producer’s own premises with the Penedès DO.

Furthermore, Clàssic Penedès wines may be made in the traditional method, or the ancestral method, the only Spanish sparkling wine designation with regulations for ancestral sparklers. Traditional method wines require minimum 15 months lees aging (equivalent to the classic Reserva level of Cava), and all wines must be vintage and include the date of disgorgement. Ancestral method wines may be released after four years on lees, and label with the term “No Degorjat” (or “No Degollat”), indicating it has not been disgorged (DOPenedes.cat).

Clàssic Penedès went a long way toward terroir specificity and promoting organic production. But several issues remained: to use the Clàssic Penedès designation, producers had to leave the well-recognized Cava DO (18 producers as of this writing). Also, the rules allow for a laundry-list of grape varieties, including international varieties (such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling!) alongside the traditional indigenous varieties, and the designated growing region is still considered too large. For these reasons, in addition to the fact that the name may seem too generic, several premium producers opted to remain in the Cava DO while they worked independently on forming yet another more stringent sparkling wine designation: Corpinnat.

Corpinnat (2018)

Simultaneously, a band of independently-minded premium producers worked to form Corpinnat. Corpinnat, which means “heart of Penedès,” was formed in 2015 and authorized by the European Union in 2017 (Corpinnat.com). Corpinnat was officially launched in April 2018 as a terroir-driven, premium quality-focused collective. It is not a separate DO, but rather a brand and collective of winemakers and growers. Corpinnat wines are certified under the Vino Espumoso de Calidad category, its guidelines are enforced and audited by the European Bureau Veritas, and Corpinnat is an EU trademark (Hudin 2020).

The rules shine a bright light on grape sourcing: all vineyards must be certified organic, grapes must be hand harvested and grown and sourced from the strictly defined Corpinnat region, a 997 square kilometer area that encompasses approximately 23,000 hectares of vineyards (Corpinnat.com). Additionally, grapes must be minimum 90% indigenous varieties, and there are minimum pricing standards for grapes, protecting growers. Corpinnat producers are required to make their own base wine on their own premises and undergo traditional method secondary fermentation in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months lees aging. 

Intentionally, all of these rules effectively exclude large-scale producers. As of 2020, there are 10 Corpinnat-authorized producers who left the Cava DO in order to use the Corpinnat brand.

Cava de Paraje Calificado (2017)

Meanwhile, in response to the movement started by Raventós as well as Clàssic Penedès and Corpinnat producers away from Cava DO, the Cava DO Consejo Regulador created a new subclassification called Cave de Paraje Calificado (CPC) in 2017 (Cava.wine). CPC addresses the terroir issue by requiring single estate bottlings from single vintage certified organic vineyards. International varieties are still allowed, but the vines must be minimum 10 years old and owned and controlled by the producer. Minimum 36 months lees aging is required and wines must be Brut or drier.

The downsides are that large-scale producers can still qualify, and participating wineries’ overall production are not taken into consideration (Barnes 2017).

To complicate things even more, the Cava DO Consejo further changed the rules in July 2020 forming two new “super classifications”: Cava de Guarda and Cave de Guarda Superior. In the Cava de Guarda bucket is basic Cava with minimum 9 months lees aging. The Cava de Guarda Superior category encompasses all of these: Reserva, Gran Reserva (minimum 30 months and only Brut or drier), and the new Cava de Paraje Calificado. At the same time, the Cava DO also increased the minimum required aging time for Cava Reserva from 15 to 18 months (Cava.wine), thereby aligning it with the Corpinnat requirements.

Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja (2017) 

At the same time, Rioja DOCa gets into the act. Rioja, arguably the most well-known Spanish wine region, is one of the eight regions in Spain authorized for Cava production. As further evidence that quality-focused producers are moving away from the Cava designation, in 2017 the Rioja DOCa Consejo Regulador authorized a new sparkling wine category, Vino Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja, with wines so designated being first released in 2019 (Barnes 2018). The designation is for traditional method sparkling wines only. Aging requirements exceed those for generic and Reserva Cava (15 and 24 months, respectively), while wines aged 36 months or more are labeled Gran Añada (Riojawine.com). Grapes must be hand harvested and can be any of varieties authorized in Rioja DOCa. These wines are part of the Rioja DOCa, so are not labeled Cava DO.

Throughout the wine industry, consumers worldwide are demanding more terroir-focused wines, with a movement away from mega producers to micro producers with a more hands-on approach. The growth of sales in the grower-champagne category is a good example of this. The thinking is that smaller production from a more specific geographical area yields better quality wines. Moreover, savvy consumers are looking for premium wines sourced from certified organic vineyards, and producers are responding by stipulating organic production methods. Organic production requirements are a key and growing trend (OIV.int). These things are becoming more and more important to wine drinkers. On the whole, the changes that have taken place in the Spanish sparkling wine category go a long way towards meeting these market demands.

However, producers opting out of the Cava DO to follow these more stringent terroir-focused categories face an uphill climb to establish these as top-quality sparkling wines. They risk losing market share without the well-known and heavily-marketed Cava designation. Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, and Conca del Riu Anoia, are not well-known outside of Catalonia. In addition, the flurry of activity in this category (new designations and subclassifications, changing terminology, zones and subzones, etc.) all but certainly will create confusion in the market. And retailers will need to be educated and prepared to educate consumers on the differences between these designations. “As a retailer, it’s not necessarily an explanation or conversation I want to get into with every customer who’s looking for a ‘Cava,’” said retailer Andy Booth, co-owner of California-based The Spanish Table (Vinepair.com). But with time, exposure, and word of mouth, these pioneering sparkling wine producers will reap the benefits of adhering to strict production rules while supporting the all-important and on-trend organic vineyard certifications. In the future, they will be seen as trailblazers that improved the quality and image of Cava. The proof is in the glass!

CITATIONS

Barnes, Amanda. “Getting to Know Cava’s New Category,” December 2017, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/getting-to-know-cavas-new-category/.

Barnes, Amanda. “What You Need to Know About Rioja’s New Regulations,” May 2018, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-riojas-new-regulations/.

Cava.wine, https://www.cava.wine/en/ and https://www.cava.wine/en/categories-types/cava-de-paraje-calificado/.

Corpinnat.com, https://www.corpinnat.com/en/.

DOPenedes.cat, http://www.dopenedes.cat/en/classicpenedes.php.

Guildsomm.com, https://www.guildsomm.com/research/compendium/w/spain/360/cava-do.

Hudin, Miquel. “An Introduction to Clàssic Penedès,” March 2016, https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/miquel_hudin/posts/penedes-article

Hudin, Miquel. “Three Misunderstood Topics in Spanish Wine,” August 2020, https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/miquel_hudin/posts/misunderstandings-spanish-wine.

Lawrence, James. “New Breakaway Sparkling Wine Appellation to Rival Cava,” March 2013, https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/new-breakaway-sparkling-wine-appellation-to-rival-cava-20501/.

“OIV Focus: The Global Sparkling Wine Market,” April 2020, http://www.oiv.int/public/medias/7291/oiv-sparkling-focus-2020.pdf.

Raventos.com, https://www.Raventós.com/originshttps://www.raventos.com/concariveranoia .

Riojawine.com, https://www.riojawine.com/en/rioja/types-of-wine/.

“Sparkling DO Penedès Winemaking,” http://www.dopenedes.cat/pdf/penedessparklingwines.pdf.

Vinepair.com, https://vinepair.com/articles/corpinnat-sparkling-wine-cava-guide/.

TASTING NOTES

2017 Julia Bernet “Cuvée Ú” Corpinnat, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $22.99

The wine consists of 100% Xarel-lo from 15-40 year old organic vineyards on calcareous soils. The wine aged two years on the lees in stainless steel tank. Disgorged 10/2019.

On the pour, the wine was very foamy with a fine bead. Appearance: clear medium lemon-gold with a fine and delicate mousse and plenty of bubbles. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of ripe red apples, quince, Asian pear, white flowers, and brioche. Tree fruit aromas dominate. Palate: dry with medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity and finish. The mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Apples!, fresh baked bread, cream tart, wet stones, Meyer lemon pith. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3 to 5 years. Quality for value: Meets expectation.

2017 Raventós i Blanc Conca del Riu Anoia, Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs, 12% ABV, $21.99

The wine is a blend of 32% Macabeu, 40% Xarel-lo, 28% Parellada from 40 year old vines sourced from the estate biodynamic vineyard called “Vinya del Llac” (vineyard of the lake), which is north-facing. The northern exposure and lake moderates the microclimate of the vineyard. Soils are clay on calcareous bedrock. Dosage is less than 6 g/l. Disgorged 3/16/20.

On the pour, very fine, delicate, and abundant bubbles that persist for a very long time. Appearance: clear pale lemon very fine bead to the bubble. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of green pear, yellow apple, white flowers, white nectarine, saline minerality, raw almond, and a touch of brioche notes. Palate: very dry with a crisp texture, medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity, and a long finish. Mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Green tree fruit (apple, pear), unripe peach, dried pineapple, touch of crème fraiche, saline, wet stone, bitter almond, touch cidery, a kiss of anise seed on the finish. Very complex aromas and flavors! Very well balanced. Quality level is outstanding. Drink now or hold 7 to 10 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

2017 AT Roca Rosat “Vi de Paisatge” Clàssic Penedès Reserva, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $25

Vi de Paisatge translates to “terroir wine”. This wine is a 50/50 blend of the indigenous grapes Macabeu and Garnatxa Negra. The Macabeu comes from calcareous, limestone, and gravel soils in plots from two subzones in the Clàssic Penedès: Costers d’Ordal and Massif of Garraf. It was destemmed and gently pressed. The Garnatxa comes from the Conca de l’Anoia subzone (central part of Clàssic Penedès) in calcareous clays and pebbles. It was macerated on skins 9-12 hours. The wine spent 20 months on the lees. Dosage is 3 g/l. Disgorged on 12/11/19 to order.

On the pour, very fine bead to the bubble and medium froth, bubbles more quiet than previous wines. Appearance: clear pale Salmon with fine beaded and persistent bubbles. Beautiful color! Nose: clean with medium intensity developing aromas of raspberry, strawberry, rose petals, white flowers, wet stone, toast, lemon, and unripe peach. Fruity and floral! Palate: Bone dry with medium-plus acidity, light tannin slightly noticeable on finish, medium alcohol and body, medium flavor intensity, and medium-plus finish. Mousse is very delicate and quiet. Flavor characteristics: Fruity! Strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, green apple, ripe Meyer lemon, chalk, licorice notes, and toast. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3-5 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

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