Tis the season to break out the bubbly. And in Spain that toast-worthy bubbly is almost always cava. This month Spaniards will drink nearly 6 times more cava than they do during any other month of the year. But exactly what is cava? And how has it become the unofficial beverage of the holidays?
What is Cava?
Cava is the Catalan word for “cellar.” And while it may not sound fancy, this Spanish sparkling wine has become the go-to drink for celebrations across Spain and around the world.
Winemakers in the northeastern Mediterranean region of Catalonia began making cava over 200 years ago after the invention of corks allowed for the bubbles to be safely contained within the bottle.
Spain’s cava industry exploded in the late 1800s after the root-destroying plague phylloxera destroyed much of France’s Champagne-making capabilities. In the 150 years since, cava has never looked back. Today, Spain produces nearly a quarter billion bottles of the festive bubbly per year.
How Cava Is Made
Cava is made using the same process as Champagne. There are two main differences between the two: where it is made (Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France; Cava must be made in specific areas of Spain) and which grapes are used. In Spain, those grapes are usually Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada, three white grapes that are known for being brightly lemony, robustly floral and tartly citrusy, respectively. Chardonnay is also often used, although it is not native to Spain.
Rosé cavas, which are pink, are not nearly as popular as their white counterparts but are still widely produced in Spain. These cavas are often made from Pinot Noir, Garnacha or Monastrell grapes.
Cava starts out like most Spanish wines: in giant stainless steel vats full of freshly-squeezed grape juice. Each type of mosto, or grape juice, undergoes one fermentation in these large vats, where natural sugars are converted into alcohol.
After this initial fermentation, the wine is strategically mixed, with each winemaker creating their specific blend. The mixed wine is then poured into cava bottles and capped with a bottle cap, much like those found on beer bottles.
Winemakers add just the right amount of sugar and yeast into the bottle depending on how long they plan to age it. Then it is left to undergo a second fermentation. This is where the bubbles come in.
After at least nine months of bubble making, the yeasts’ job is finished. The yeast is very carefully removed, sugars are added (except in brut nature cavas, which contain no added sugars), a cork is popped in and the cava is ready to be enjoyed! Cava, unlike still wine, is best right after the cork is put in. These are not usually wines you want to cellar for long periods of time!
Types of Cava
As a cava shop owner once told me, there are as many types of cava as there are types of still wine. While I can’t say I completely agree, there are definitely more types of cava than I could try in one holiday season!
Cava is classified in two ways: by how much sugar it contains and by how long it has been aged. As a general rule, drink the sweeter cavas with sweeter food (like desserts) or spicy food (the cool sweetness calms the burn!).
- Brut Nature– The driest type of cava, Brut Natures (pronounced “broot na-tour-ay”) have no added sugars.
- Extra Brut – These dry cavas can contain up to 6 grams of sugar per liter.
- Brut– With no more than 12 grams of sugar per liter, Bruts are still quite dry. They are the most popular type of Cava, making up nearly 50 percent of the cava sold in Spain and 55 percent of the Cava exported.
- Extra Seco– Extra Secos, despite their name, are starting to get a bit sweet with between 12 and 17 grams of sugar per liter.
- Seco– Even though these cavas are called Secos, which means “dry”, they are actually quite sweet! Secos have between 17 and 32 grams of sugar per liter.
- Semi Seco- Meaning ¨semi-dry,¨ Semi Secos are actually quite sweet! They have between 32 and 50 grams of sugar per liter.
- Dulce– When they say “sweet” they mean it! Dulce cavas have more than 50 grams of sugar per liter. That’s more than 7.5 teaspoons of sugar per bottle!
- Joven– All cavas have to be aged at least 9 months in their bottles in order to be officially classified as cava. After those first 9 months and up until 15 months of aging it is considered a Joven or “young” cava. About 90% of all Cava is joven.
- Reserva– Meaning “reserved,” these cavas have been aged for a minimum of 15 months. They are typically a bit darker yellow than jovens and have deeper, nuttier flavors.
- Gran Reserva– These long-aged cavas have spent at least 30 months in the bodega. Gran Reservas are only made with dry Brut cavas.
Cava at Christmas
Cava is about as essential to Spanish Christmas as sugar cookies are to Christmas in the U.S. Cava is served at each of the season’s big family meals (there are 5 in Spain between Christmas Eve and Three Kings Day on January 6!).
You’ll usually find it at the end of the meal, used for a final toast to accompany Christmas sweets like turrón (almond-toffee bars) or polverónes (powdery almond cookies). After Spaniards scarf down their 12 lucky grapes at midnight on New Years Eve, cava is usually the first drink of the new year.
Are you a cava person? What type of cava do you prefer?