‘Tis the season when many of us will be faced with the important question of what to serve our guests for the holidays. One thing’s for sure—it’s gotta sparkle if it’s for the New Year’s crowd. Champagne may be customary, but try changing things up this year with a different kind of bubbly. Spanish cava is the sparkling wine of choice among some circles, so ring in the New Year with its brighter, more fruity, floral aromas that your guests won’t forget!
What’s so special about cava?
How is cava made?
Traditional cava is made from a blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel.lo grapes that are pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. Some producers also add chardonnay to the blend of base wines for white cava. To make rosé cava, typically Garnacha, Monastrell or Pinot Noir grape varietals are used.
The resulting base wines are custom blended together with the addition of the liqueur de tirage—a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast—before the bottles are sealed, kickstarting the secondary fermentation process. The sealed bottles are then left to rest on their sides in a cellar for at least nine months while the sugars convert to alcohol.
The aroma profile of these Spanish sparkling wines is mostly due to the blend of base wines and yeast used, as well as the length of the secondary fermentation process.
As the secondary fermentation takes hold and carbon dioxide begins to form, the lees—dead yeast particles and other sediment—settle to the bottom of the bottles in a process known as autolysis. In accordance with methode traditionelle, each fully aged bottle of cava is turned and tilted very gradually by gyropalette—or in some cases by hand (called remuage)—until the bottles face downwards at an angle. This allows the lees to collect inside the bottle tops, which are flash-frozen to remove the particulates. A mixture of sugar and wine, known as the liqueur dosage, is added to each bottle, which is then corked and allowed to rest for six more months before the cava is finally ready for sale.
Brut Nature or Dolce?
The result is a light- to medium-bodied sparkling wine with fresh fruity, floral notes. The most common style of cava you’ll find in stores is Brut—or dry—cava, which contains 6 to 12 grams of residual sugar. For those who prefer their bubbly on the drier side, consider the Extra Brut or Brut Nature which has no extra sugar added. Or, if you like things a little sweeter, cavas are also available in varying degrees of sweetness to suit your palate, from Extra-Seco (12 to 17 grams) all the way up to Dolce. At 50 grams of residual sugar, Dolce cavas are essentially fizzy dessert wines!
Aroma Analysis: Cava
Fresh, fruity and floral
Young cavas are aged for a minimum of nine months and are bright with flavor, boasting fresh fruity, floral notes. The aroma profile of these Spanish sparkling wines is mostly due to the blend of base wines and yeast used, as well as the length of the secondary fermentation process. As you can see in the aroma wheel above, our analysis of a 14 month-aged cava reveals a predominantly floral scent with a fruity-pineapple nuance.
During the secondary fermentation process, the concentration of floral-scented 2-phenylethanol aroma molecules increases as the wine continues to age in contact with its lees. A hint of spicy pungency recalling the fruity bite of a crisp green Granny Smith apple is also present, adding further complexity to these sparkling wines. As such, you can pair Spanish cavas with apples, apricots, cherries, cucumbers, cheddar cheese, raw oysters, black tea and even chicken.
Cava, Reserva and Gran Reserva
Reserva cavas require at least 15 months of aging, during which time the enzymes continue to break down the lees, producing new amino acids and fatty acids. It’s at 15 months that the transformation becomes apparent; the cava’s fruity, floral flavor aroma molecules begin to give way to more of the toasted biscuit and nutty aromas that we normally associate with Champagnes. By law, Gran Reserva cavas must be aged for a minimum of 30 months, after which the producer will determine whether to classify the sparkling wine as a Brut or a Brut Extra. Gran Reserva cavas may only list the vintage year on their labels if all of the grapes used to make that cava are specific to that one year.
It’s at 15 months that a cava’s fruity, floral flavor aroma molecules begin to give way to the more toasted biscuit and nutty aromas that we generally associate with Champagnes.
Champagne versus cava
Champagnes, on the other hand, are typically aged for two to three years, which allows more time for autolysis to occur than is typical for young cavas. Again, the leftover yeast cells die off as the wine ferments in contact with its lees, causing even more amino acids to develop while the Champagne’s aroma profile takes on its characteristic nutty, toasted biscuit flavors. These tasting notes become even more pronounced in the case of vintage Champagnes since they are aged for a minimum of three years.
Cava Denominació d’Origen
Spanish cava has its own Denominació d’Origen (D.O.), as it’s referred to in Catalan, where 95% of cavas are produced in the Penedès region of the Ebro River Valley according to the methode traditionelle. Penedès has a long history of winemaking dating back to the sixth century when the first chardonnay grapes were planted. Since the 1870s, cava has been in production, using the same méthode champenoise as is used for Champagne. Today there are nearly 200 producers of Cava D.O. registered within the Consejo Regulador del Cava, the regulatory board that oversees the quality and production of this Spanish sparkling wine’s special designation.