Cava’s big steps towards the sparkling elite

Fine bubbles, subtle yet complex. Toasty notes, rich texture, berry and floral notes and a mineral, almost steely finish.   Vintage champagne?  Close… though actually I’m describing high-end Cava.  Cava?

Yes. For most consumers, the word “cava” usually brings to mind cheap, simple, inoffensive mass-produced sparkling wines from Spain. Millions are sold every year and most of them fit the descriptions above.  However, a handful of quality-driven producers, working with very high standards in the vineyard and in the cellar are in the process of slowly shifting this reputation via exceptional, terroir-driven, world-class wines.  So what makes high-end cava so distinctive?

First of all, it’s the traditional grapes is made from, primarily Xarello complemented by Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja) and Parellada.  Xarello is grown almost exclusively in Catalonia and when farmed appropriate it expresses terroir and a sense of place. Second, it’s the care and oversight of their vineyards.  A few of them, like Recaredo, Gramona and Raventos, farm organically or are certified biodynamic and use only estate fruit.

IMG_0430Cava is made with the same production method as Champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle, and it also has minimum standards for aging on its lees prior to release, which adds complexity and special flavors to the wine.  Most high-end Cava producers tend to age their cavas for far longer than the minimum time required; all the way to the recently created category of “Cava de Paraje Calificado, the top classification for single-vineyard cava with a minimum aging requirement of 10 years.
Also, given Catalonia’s warm Mediterranean climate, most high-end cavas are Brut Nature or Zero-dosage, as they usually don’t need to balance the high levels of acidity typical in Champagne.

Earlier this month, I was in Barcelona and got the opportunity to taste a lot of local cavas and was quite impressed with the serious, well-made cavas that I’d read about – not only at the high end but also in the mid-price tier by select producers. My impressions of cava as a “headache waiting to happen” were absolutely shattered, and I can say that I’ve become a true fan of the category, especially as an alternative to Champagne and a great value for money.

I started my visit at the cellars of Recaredo, a few minutes from the train station in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia.  Founded in 1924 and currently run by the family’s 3rd generation, Recaredo is a traditional producer of the finest artisanal, hand-crafted Cavas. It production is around 300K bottles per year and all bottles – regardless of size – are closed with 100% natural cork stoppers. Disgorging is carried out exclusively by hand in the cellars, without freezing the necks of the bottles. The cavas of Recaredo are disgorged totally dry with a zero dosage and all cuvées are vintage-dated.
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Recommended Wines:
Terrers 2013, Brut Nature Gran Reserva
Complex and fresh, grown mostly on calcareous soils. Terrers is the entry-level cava, completely dry brut nature, with no dosage. 58% Macabeu, 39% Xarel·lo, 3% Parellada.  Steely, herbal and mineral flavors coated with an elegant texture and finesse.

Serral del Vell 2008, Brut Nature Gran Reserva (Paraje Calificado)
Formerly known as “Recaredo Brut de Brut”, another amazing bone-dry brut nature cava with no dosage. Aged in the bottle for 105 months, complex aromas of coffee and brioche complementing a nervy acidity.

Reserva Particular 2007.  First created in 1962 by Josep Mata Capellades with the original idea of conveying the delicateness and the subtle complexity of a long-aged cava without sacrificing freshness. Bone-dry, mineral and complex, full of inner life with long-lasting flavors of dried fruit, fennel, forest floor, caramel and quince.
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My next stop was in the outskirts of town for a visit to Raventos i Blanc where I was met by Lionel, a Seattle Seahawks-loving Catalan who spent some time living in Vancouver, BC.  Currently run by the the twenty-first generation of the Raventós family, Pepe Raventos uses biodynamic winegrowing methods in the 220 acre estate on the banks of the Anoia River, which also includes a lake, an orchard, a small forest and a stable full of goats, sheep, a horse and a donkey.
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Our tour started with a trip to the Anoia river and a couple of caves nearby where we could observe rocks with the remains of an ancient sea, full of marine fossils and seashells.  Then we walked the different vineyards in the property, where the younger vines are 35 years old, all worked biodynamically in a true sustainable environment.
A few years back, Raventos decided to leave the Cava DO as a result of the lack for rigorous standards and now makes wines with the Conca del Riu Anoia designation, which they expect to become a DO known for great sparkling wines sometime in the near future.
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Recommended Wines:
Textures de Pedra 2013. Excellent. A combination of 3 local red grape varieties: Xarello Vermell, Bastard Negre and Sumoll. Textures de Pedra is a vin gris with 42 months of aging, full of floral notes and a distinct structure and complexity; grown mostly on stony soils.

Blanc de Nit 2012. A rose wine from a blend of the 3 main cava grapes plus a bit of monastrell for additional color and complexity.   Fresh, lively and tangy with a hint of berry flavors. Fermented and aged in stainless steel prior to the second fermentation in the bottle.

Manuel Raventos Negra 2010. Blanc-de noirs-style, rich and yeasty, with bready flavors of brioche and baked pear. Slightly nutty and yeasty on the long finish, with a lasting sense of richness.
Mas del Serral 2007. From the Clos del Serral vineyard, a co-plantation of Xarel-lo and Bastard Negre old vines. Biodynamic viticulture and horse-plowing between rows. Aged for 100 months on the lees. Definitely one of Spain’s top sparkling wines.

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Next I met up with Pau Rosell, with whom I’d connected a few days earlier during a trade tasting in Barcelona. I’d learned then that Pau was coming to Seattle the following week and he invited me to his family’s bodega, Rosell Mir located in the town of Subirats, on the outskirts of Sant Adurni d’Anoia. We were joined by his father Josep Maria over a lunch of delicious Botifarras (Catalan sausages), Pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato rubbed over and seasoned with olive oil and salt) and paired with a couple of the bodegas top cavas and still wines. Pau is the 14th generation of the family who has been growing grapes in the area since 1497 and his wines are all grown on sustainable and organically-farmed vineyards on clay and calcareous soils.


Recommended Wines:
Cava El Serralet Brut Nature. Mostly Xarello with a little Macabeu Bright yellow with fine bubbles. Citrus aromas with hints of fresh fruit, herbs and flowers. High acidity, very refreshing.

Cava Can Guineu. Aged 18-24 months on its lees. Aromas of fennel, tropical fruits and honey ripe apricot. Full, round Reserve Cava with apple flavors with hints of raw almonds.  A blend of Macabeu and Chardonnay.

Pla de la Creu Blanc 2016.  Young wine, mostly Xarello. Pale yellow with fresh, ripe fruit flavors. A perfect picnic wine.

Marc Mir 2016.  50% Garnacha Blanca, 50% Xarel·lo. Harvested at night to minimize oxidation. First fermentation in stainless steel at low temperature, then a second one in oak barrels of American and French oak during 6 months. Deep, bright gold color. Fresh aromas with floral notes. Complex and structured due to the long lees contact.  The most interesting and intriguing one of their wines.

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Finally, the next day I visited Alta Alella, a winery in the small DO of Alta Alella and a short 25 minute drive from Barcelona.  The area is home to only 8 wineries and is planted with Pansa Blanca – the local name for Xarel-lo, the signature grape of Cava. Alta Alella Privat is situated on a hill overlooking Barcelona on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other.  It was founded in 1991 and works only with estate fruit from saulo soils (sandy granite).

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Recommended Wines:
Mirgin Opus.  A Cava de Paraje Calificado aged for 4 years. 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pansa Blanca. Balanced, structured with aromas of ripe fruits and nuts.

Mirgin Exeo. A Cava de Paraje Calificado aged for 5 years. 60% Pansa Blanca, 40% Chardonnay. Creamy, marked by minerality and high acidity. Long and persistent finish.

Dolc Mataro. Late Harvest wine, 100% Monastrell (Mourvedre). The grapes are allowed to overripe in the vine and the harvest takes place right before the grapes begin the process of passerillage. Dark, inky color with aromas of candied fruit and eucalyptus.  On the palate, a good balance of acidity, tannins and sweetness.

At the end of the trip, I was utterly convinced that well-made Cava has room in my cellar and so should in yours. With Champagne’s prices increasing steadily, being able to buy top sparklers like these cavas is such a great deal.  Coming from a variety of soil types: saulo (granite), llicorella (slate), calcareous or clay and diverse microclimates with some degree of influence from the Mediterranean sea, there’s definitely a sense of place in each of these bottles.  So next time you’re in your favorite wine shop, please do look for these and similar Cava producers – you’ll be rewarded with these finds, especially if paired with cuts of jamon iberico, grilled sardines, olives and a slice or two of  homemade “pa amb tomaquet”.

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