THE SPANISH took a page from the French when it came to their sparkling wines. The invention of the bubbly drink known as champagne, the first recorded sparkling wine, was credited to an abbot priest from Hautvillers named Dom Perignon in the 17th century in the Champagne region, France.
This invention would later be known simply as Methode Champenoise, a method that requires two separate fermentations in the making of sparkling wines. The first fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, and the second fermentation takes place in the bottle — the same bottle that will reach us, the consumers, as the finished product.
The second fermentation is the one that creates the delicate bubbles or effervescence and its’ longevity. All sparkling wines under this method go through a minimum disciplined period of 15 months, and have to undergo the very tedious remuage process (also known as “riddling,” the slow racking and tilting of the bottle from level position to inverted position, without agitating the yeast), and “disgorging” (when the used yeast is removed). The resulting sparkling wine is one that has a much more complex nose and resulting bubbles that are not only finer, but also longer lasting. You can compare the effervescence when you try either an Asti Spumante or Prosecco — both huge Italian sparkling wines, side by side with a French Champagne. Both Italian bubblies use the simpler Charmat Method or Tank Method, where secondary fermentation takes place in larger pressurized tanks. Both sparkling wines will have courser bubbles and the effervescence will not survive long in the glass after pouring.
The champagne phenomenon was the inspiration behind Spanish cava. In 1872, Don Josep Raventos, a descendant of Don Jaume Codorniu, founder of Codorniu (one of the largest cava manufacturers in Spain), made the first recorded bottle of cava in the Penedes region, Northeastern Spain. This was a creation done for survival.
At that time, the dreaded phylloxera plague — louse-like insects that prey on the vineyards — was destroying the vineyards of the predominantly red varietals in Penedes, thus leaving the region with only the white varietals. Unfortunately during that period, the white varietals were not commercially viable when made into good still wines. After learning of the success of French champagne, Raventos cleverly studied the process and worked on its adaptability. With much study and resolute determination, Raventos pushed for the creation of the Spanish version of the champagne, using the same Methode Champenoise, and using abundantly available indigenous Spanish white varietals macabeo, xarello, and parellada. This was the birth of Spanish cava.
A decade later, Manuel Raventos, son of Don Josep, started the ambitious promotion of cava across Europe, and, by 1888, the Codorniu Cavas would win the first of many gold medals and awards, establishing the much needed foothold for Spanish cavas outside of Spain. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The Raventos name is still very much revered, with its own eponymous cava label, the Codorniu Cuvee Raventos Cava, being the bestselling premium cava in the world.
Fast-forward to modern times — Spanish cavas are on a consistent rise, with production volumes now reaching over 18 million cases (of 9 liter cases), second only to the French champagne. Spanish cava export has more than doubled in the last 10 years, proving that the world is slowly embracing Spanish sparkling wine. And since the Spanish Cava Regulatory Council has less stricter geographic coverage on its D.O. (Denominacion de Origen), the potential of cava in terms of expansion is still far greater.
The registered vineyards for cava are also far bigger than those in Champagne. The wide area of cava defies the usual definition of D.O., which restricts production to a particular demarcated area. In the case of Cava D.O., the name Cava denotes more of a quality standard, specifically the use of Method Champenoise, rather than a regional coverage. The Cava Regulatory Council has, however, permitted a list of areas to be considered Cava D.O., largely in Catalonia, where close to 95% is in Penedes, but also included are those vineyards in La Rioja, Aragon, Castile y Leon, Extremadura, the Basque Country, Navarre, Extremadura, and Valencia.
The Methode Champenoise also became easier with the Spanish invention of the gyropalette, a mechanical device used to riddle (remuage) hundreds of bottles of cavas at any time. This is the method used by the big cava houses in mass-producing their sparkling wines, and with a shorter remuage period. Cava is also Spain’s largest wine export, exceeding that of Rioja, Spain’s most prominent wine region, for almost 10 years now. Cava is surely creating its own identity as cava, and not simply as Spanish Champagne.
BEST VALUE QUALITY BUBBLIES
One of the reasons for the rise of cava is the price advantage. The commercialized success of Champagnes has made the French bubblies’ prices very high. For Spanish cavas, they have to fight the perception of inferiority, especially having to work with relatively unknown Spanish grape varietals macabeo, xarello, and parellada. This augurs well for us consumers, as cavas still have friendly prices and are within our budget.
While admittedly, these three Spanish white varietals do not come close to their Champagne varietal counterparts — namely the most adored chardonnay and the royal pinot noir — these Spanish grapes still exude wonderful aromas, crisp acids, and nice complex flavors that include petals and citrus fruits. Macabeo, is a wonderful inexpensive basic dry white wine that makes decent solo La Mancha D.O. wines, and is also known as Viura, in your basic white Rioja D.O. wine. The xarello is used in a nice majority of solo wine in the Penedes region, and is one of those possible upcoming Spanish whites to look out for. Parellada, on the other hand, is more like a third wheel in this blend and contributes to the floral elements of the wine as well as extra acidity.
In the last decade, the Cava Regulatory Council has allowed both chardonnay and pinot noir (the two most important of the three mainstays of Champagne) to be part of the cava blend. While, I understand why major cava houses would do this, I just feel that cavas should still be more Spanish, in terms of adhering to its indigenous grapes. The use of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes is also bound to cause the prices of cave to skyrocket by creating more Cuvee Prestige styles to rival their French Champagne counterparts.
It would really be interesting to see how cava evolves over time. For now, I’ll take my regular cava and drink to my heart’s delight. After all, a Codorniu Classico Brut or a Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut is just one-fourth the cost of a Moet Chandon. And that is reason enough to celebrate!
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.