Cava is Spain’s most well-known, and most exported, sparkling wine orvinoespumoso. Interestingly, while Cava is aDenominación de Origenin its own right, unlike the wines from Spain’s other DOs, Cava is not made in just one geographical area. In fact, there are currentlysevendifferent areas of Spain authorized to put DO Cava on the label of their sparkling wines, including Valencia, Aragon, Navarra, Rioja and Extremadura, as well as a host of towns and villages in central Catalunya which is the region most people think of when they hear the word Cava. About 95% of Spain’s Cava comes from Catalunya, especially from the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia which is about 40km inland from Barcelona.
Cava vs Champagne vs Prosecco
So, Cava, Champagne, Prosecco….what’s the difference? Well, technically speaking they all fit into the sparkling wine category which encompasses a whole range of different wines of varying degrees of sweetness, fizziness and, of course, price made in lots of different places around the world. And like so-called ¨still¨ wines, sparkling wines too can be made from a range of different grapes depending on where they are grown – but more about that in a minute.
No, the key thing that differentiates all these various sparkling wines ishowthey are made. All sparkling wines involve the accumulation of gas under pressure, and the most common way of achieving this is by some kind of secondary fermentation which creates carbon dioxide in the wine and makes it fizzy. Both Champagne and Cava are made using the so-called traditional method (orméthode traditionnelleas you’ll sometimes see it referred to in French), which is the most meticulous approach as it involves secondary fermentation in the bottle. This involves thetiragestage, when a mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the base wine (ie the wine that has undergone a first fermentation) and it is put in an extra strong bottle to withstand the pressure and capped with a crown cap like the ones found on beer bottles.
The bottles then spend about 4-8 weeks in a horizontal position undergoing its secondary fermentation until the desired pressure and level of fizz is reached. While all this is happening, the yeasts gradually die off but remain in contact with the wine which is a good thing. In fact, the longer the wine is in contact with the dead year cells the more complex the flavours it acquires, including the biscuity or bready notes often associated with quality Champagne and Cava.
In Spain, for a sparkling wine to have DO Cava on the label it has to spend a minimum of nine months ageing in the bottle, though some spend much more. Once bottle ageing is complete, the winemaker has to remove the sediment from the bottle via a delicate process known as riddling, which essentially moves the bottle from horizontal to near vertical and ensures that sediment collects in the neck of the bottle, ready for the all importantdisgorgementphase.
Disgorgement essentially involves freezing the neck of the bottle where the sediment has accumulated, and popping off the crown cap so the frozen pellet of sediment can whizz out of the bottle. This is followed by thedosagephase, when a dash of wine and sugar syrup is added to the bottle just before it is stoppered with a proper champagne or cava cork and wrapped in the famous wire mesh or ¨muzzle¨ that champagne and cava drinkers are familiar with.
Now, if you’ve read this far one question you’re probably asking yourself is: what’s the difference between Cava and that other famous - or infamous? - sparkling wine from north-east Italy, Prosecco?
Well, one of the main differences is how it is made. Unlike Cava or Champagne, Prosecco is made using the tank method (aka the Charmat process) which is much cheaper, faster and less labour intensive than the traditional method. As the name suggests, the tank method involves adding sugar and yeast to a base wine held in a pressure tank. The secondary fermentation then takes place in the tank rather than the bottle, which means that all those intriguing flavours that develop in Champagne or Cava thanks to their time in bottle are absent from Prosecco, which is a lot more like still wine with bubbles added to it.