Over the past few years of sipping Cavas in some of Spain's top restaurants, it has become increasingly apparent that a number of the country's smaller producers are bottling some absolutely superb sparkling wines. By contrast, not too long ago, Spanish sparkling wine was little more than quaffable, mass-market bubbly widely available at bargain prices. While that still holds true for a large percentage of the staggering ten million-plus cases of Cava exported each year (another eight million-plus cases are consumed in Spain), during the past ten years — hand-in-hand with quality advances on the country's wine and gastronomy fronts — a number of Champagne-quality Cavas from a wide range of producers have emerged. Some of these exceptional wines are vintage dated, prestige brut cuvées; bone-dry, palate-cleansing brut natures (great with shellfish); and an increasingly impressive group of sparkling rosados (rosats in Catalan), some made with pinot noir, others with indigenous varieties such as trepat, monastrell and garnacha.
Though some of these noteworthy Cavas are being produced by the larger, well-known houses, such as Codorníu and Freixenet (whose top cuvées, unfortunately, are not exported to the U.S.), it is the smaller, ultra-quality-oriented firms that are making their mark. Juve y Camps, a family venture that has long been appreciated in Spain among aficionados, is perhaps the best known. Founded by Joan Juvé and his wife, Teresa Camps, Juve y Camps launched its first wine in 1921 and has been a producer of artisanal quality méthode champenoise wines ever since. Other top-shelf producers, such as Agustí Torelló Mata, Raventos i Blanc, Gramona, Parxet, Sumarroca and Castillo de Perelada, have recently been making names for themselves among the Spanish cognoscenti. Indeed, a number of these labels have been gaining fame as the featured sparklers on wine lists at El Bullí, Arzak, Can Fabes and Martín Berasategui, Spain's four internationally acclaimed Michelin three-star restaurants. Castillo de Perelada's Rosado Brut Cava was even served at the royal wedding of Spain's Prince Felipe in Madrid this year and was Salvador Dalí's house Cava.
Josep María Pujol-Busquets, partner-winemaker of both Privat and Parxet, attributes Cava's ascent, in part, to simple economics: “Cava is made by the traditional méthode champenoise, which means that with a relatively small investment, a sparkling wine with Champagne characteristics can be produced.”
Under Spanish law, Cava must be produced by méthode champenoise, the technique perfected in Champagne long ago. Since 1994, however, in order to protect legitimate French Champagne production, European Union rules have forbidden using the phrase “méthode champenoise” on sparkling wines not made in Champagne. Many Cava producers now favor the EU-approved método tradicional or méthode traditionnelle terminology, which essentially means the same thing. Like Champagne, Cava spends a minimum of nine months fermenting on the lees in the same bottle in which it will be sold before dégorgement and re-corking. In practice, most of the better Cavas are aged longer. Under the Consejo Regulador DO Cava rules, Cava reservas must be aged for 18 months and gran reservas for 24 months. Some specialty cuvées are aged even longer.
Although there are several officially approved Cava-producing areas in the provinces of Barcelona, Tarragona, Gerona, Lérida, La Rioja, Alava, Navarra, Zaragoza, Valencia (Requena) and Extremadura (Badajoz) — encompassing some 160 municipalities — the rules laid out by the Consejo Regulador de Cava address the production requirements that must be met to call a bubbly Cava, not the area from which it comes, because it is forbidden by EU regulations to declare the denominación de origen (DO) wine region, such as Penedès or La Rioja, on the label.
To sidestep the issue, most producers will print the town name on the label (but not the region) where the winery is located, so those who know Spanish wine regions can figure out from whence the Cava comes. Yet this question of origin is generally a moot point because 95 percent of all Cava produced in Spain comes from the Penedès wine district, west of Barcelona. The name Sant Sadurní D'Anoia, an effervescent little town (population 10,000) that is the epicenter of Cava production and the Catalan equivalent of Champagne's Épernay, can be found printed on many bottles, especially from the largest producers. It tells the consumer that the grapes probably came from Penedès. Sant Sadurní, produces nearly 75 percent of all the Cava made in Spain; 40 percent of the town's population is engaged in its production and sales.
Sant Sadurní is most famous as the hometown of the aforementioned giants of Cava, Codorníu and Freixenet (the latter the world's largest producer of sparkling wine and Spain's largest wine exporter). Each maintains a large bodega here, but Sadurní's smaller houses are now making big waves. Among those first-rate Cava firms that call Sant Sadurní home are the aforementioned Agustí Torelló Mata, Raventós i Blanc, Gramona and Juve y Camps, along with Mestres and Maria Casanovas.
Gramona is one of the pillars of the Catalan Cava trade and a legend in Cataluña, but until recently, it was practically unknown in the states (think Deutz Champagne). In 1914, founder Bartolomé Gramona graduated from an enology course in Vilafranca del Penedès in a class that included such names as Ferrer (Freixenet), Juvé, Mestres, Mascaró and Nadal. Today the firm calls itself “criadores de Cava,” agers of Cava, because its Cavas are held a minimum of 18 months, but the portfolio averages four years of aging. Gramona is the real McCoy; at today's high standards, its cuvées are among the finest sparkling wines in the world.
Ironically, Codorníu, makers of some 3.5 million cases per year, laid the foundation for quality Cava production. The founding Codorníu and Raventós families, who trace their winemaking history to 1551, are said to be the first to have produced méthode champenoise sparkling wines outside of Champagne in the 1870s, when Josep Raventós began making a Champagne-style wine to supply the French, whose vineyards had been devastated by phylloxera.
The house of Josep Raventós i Blanc was established in Sant Sadurní in 1986 by Josep-Maria Raventós, a breakaway member of the Codorníu family. His aim? To make exceptional small-production estate Cavas. “The key is having your own vines,” he says. “Only from a deep knowledge and direct management of the vineyard can a bodega obtain quality grapes with personality, which is the basic distinction amongst different producers.” Those who farm their own estate grapes are still in the minority. “The vast majority get their base wines from cooperatives and private producers who sell them wine,” he continues. “Perhaps this explains why [many of] the smaller producers, especially those who have their own vineyards, are making very good Cavas.”
His are more than just good, they're among the very best, although he eschews analogies between his wines and Champagne. “We don't like to make those comparisons. Simply put, the two are made in two distinct regions with very different grape varieties and climatic conditions. There are excellent Champagnes and mediocre Champagnes. The same can be said for Cava.”
Apart from the Cavas made in and around the town of Sant Sadurní, there are three other notable producers in Cataluña: Privat and the previously cited Parxet, both situated in the Alella wine region just north of Barcelona, and the aforementioned Castillo Perelada in Empordá-Costa Brava just south of the Pyrenees. All three also produce some distinguished table wines in their respective DOs. Interestingly, Privat is owned by the partner-winemaker at Parxet, Josep María Pujol-Busquets, and his wife, Christina Guillen, a wine shop owner. Together, they organically farm 33 acres planted to chardonnay and pinot noir. An inspired business decision dictates that its Privat AD Series (Acabat de Degollar) is disgorged only as orders are received.
There are also several quite pleasant Cavas made in relatively small quantities by Rioja producers, such as Muga, Olarra and Faustino Martínez, and a couple of fledgling producers, Pago de Tharsys and Dominio de la Vega, in Valencia. Normally these relatively minuscule efforts would hardly warrant a blip on the bubbly radar, but sales spiked upward last winter when Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, a Catalan separatist politician, insulted the rest of Spain by calling for “all good Catalans” to withhold support for Madrid's bid for the Olympic Games in 2012. Because nearly 55 percent of all Cava sales occur during the year-end holiday season, the ensuing backlash resulted in a boycott that caused a ten percent drop in Catalan Cava sales across Spain.
But according to Agustí Torelló i Sibill of Agustí Torelló Mata, Cava country in Penedès is producing the best wines because, “The Mediterranean climate allows the grapes to get naturally riper than in Champagne. We get a lot of personality in our Cavas, some of which show the influence of our unique terroir. We use nothing but indigenous varieties from 30-plus-year-old vines grown in some of the best soils in the Penedès. Some vineyards are close to the Mediterranean, but the inland terrain rises rapidly and there also are vineyards growing up to 3,000 feet above sea level, where the cool nights help us get grapes with the necessary acidity.” (His assertions are borne out by the fact that his father's Brut Nature Gran Reserva 1999 is the article's top-scoring wine.)