Cava: Sparkling Wines of Character, Versatility & Value

Last week I visited the Penèdes wine region in Spain, which is the heart and soul of Cava sparkling wine production. While I have tasted many Cava wines over the years, this trip really reinforced both the quality and versatility of Cava, as well as its exceptional value.

Located about an hour northwest of Barcelona, the Penèdes is actually quite an easy region to access and visit. During our time there we were guests of the well known Cava producer Segura Viudas, whose wines are widely available in the United States, and indeed all over the world. Over the few days there we spent time exploring the vineyards, winery and cellars to better understand the uniqueness of Cava among the greater world of sparkling wines.

Cava D.O.
Cava is an official designated wine that can only be made in Spain. While the denomination (Cava DO) extends across a number of Spanish regions, the Penèdes is the heartland and accounts for over 95% of all Cava production.

Cava - Traditional Method Sparkling Wine
Like Champagne, Cava is made using the traditional method whereby the second fermentation (i.e the creation of the bubbles) happens in the bottle. But what makes Cava unique, and not just in contrast to Champagne, but compared to most other traditional method sparkling wines, is the use of indigenous grape varieties, rather than the more ubiquitous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Cava grape varieties, often referred to as the ‘Holy Trinity’ are Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. Each variety adds its own unique character to the wine. Typically Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja) contributes freshness, fruitiness and acidity; Xarel-lo brings body, alcohol and depth of flavor while Parellada adds delicacy, finesse and elegance to the blend.

The Assemblage
A key part of our visit was to experience first hand the ‘Assemblage’ process - a critical step in the Cava winemaking process. The ‘Assemblage’ is when the winemaker decides which lots of still wines will be assembled to create the final blend. Most of us typically associate the word with Champagne, but it is a step in all traditional method sparkling wine production. During the ‘Assemblage’ the winemaker is looking for harmony and consistency. It is particularly important in the creation of NV (non-vintage) wines, where maintaining the house style year-in, year-out, is paramount.

Once the ‘Assemblage’ is created the wines are bottled, along with a small quantity of sugar and yeast, to enable the wine to undergo the second fermentation to create the bubbles. While many producers use cultured yeasts, Segura Viudas has its own in-house yeast farm and cultivates its own proprietary yeasts, adding an extra unique dimension to its Cava wines.

When the second fermentation is complete, each bottle contains dead yeast cells, known as lees. Ageing on the lees is another important step in quality sparkling wine production. During this time the lees break down, interacting with the wine to create more complex aromas and flavors. For Cava the mandatory lees ageing for a young Cava is 9 months, compared to 15 in Champagne. However, at Segura Viudas they leave these wines on the lees for 15 months.

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When to Drink Cava
An important point that was stressed several times during our visit is that Cava wines do not age well and should be consumed within max two years of release. Indeed, Cava's strengths lie in its freshness and lively youthful bubbles, when the special character of the Cava grapes can be most enjoyed.

Cava at the Table
And what of the wines? During the trip we focused on the Segura Viudas Cava wines available in the United States. We tasted them on their own for our individual analysis and detailed note taking. We tasted them at lunch and dinner each day to enjoy with diverse dishes. What struck me was how particularly food-friendly these wines were.

Here I enjoyed Cava with dishes as hearty as steak, duck and paella as well as with a multitude of tapas and lighter fare. Some particularly memorable pairings for me were the rosé wines with sautéed wild mushrooms and blood sausage, with roast ‘mute’ duck, pan-fried sea bass and the regular Brut Cava with seafood paella. One less obvious pairing was their more aged Cavas such as their Reserva Heredad (aged at least 30 months on the lees) with steak. While red wine was also served I was very impressed with how well the Cava paired with the red meat, adding lift and delicacy.

Another very important point about Cava wines is their excellent value. Many retail under $10 - so no need to reserve a glass of bubbly for special occasions.

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Wines Tasted

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, D.O. Cava, $10 – A blend of the three Cava grapes. Aged 15 months on the lees. Subtle aromas of fresh brioche on the nose. Dry and very refreshing with a lively fine-beaded mousse.. Fairly light-bodied but showing lots of flavor – a medley of green apples and subtle spices.

Segura Viudas Brut Rosé, D.O. Cava, $10 – Mainly made from 90% Trepat, a local variety, and 10% Garnacha. Aged 12 months on the lees to retain more upfront fresh fruit. Inviting aromas of red berry compote, with notes of rataffia. Smooth, creamy mousse that is fine and persistent. Dry with ample flavors of summer pudding, dried herbs and a savory hint on the finish.

Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad, D.O. Cava, $19 – Made from 67% Macabeo and 33% Parellada (No Xarel-lo in this wine) and aged more than 30 months on the lees. More complex aromas of brioche and orchard fruit. Elegant mousse of persistent fine beads. Fresh with a nicely taut palate and a long creamy finish. Shows elegance and finesse.

Aria Estate Brut NV, D.O. Cava, $10 – A blend of the three Cava varieties. Fermented at lower temperatures than the regular Brut Reserva. Aged 15 months on the lees. Delicate nose of green apple, quince and spice. Crisp, bright with lively mousse. More fruity than the regular Brut Reserva. Smooth across the palate with fresh orchard fruit flavors.

Aria Estate Pinot Noir, Brut NV, D.O. Cava, $10 – 100% Pinot Noir and aged 18 months on the lees. Quite a deep cherry color. Ripe nose of earthy red cherry compote and strawberry that follow through on the palate. Creamy yet lively mousse and smooth texture and lots of bright red fruit flavors. Persistent bead leads to a savory, earthy finish.

Until next week, enjoy exploring some delicious Cava wines.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Wine: Let's Hear It For Sparkling Rosé Wines

(Images: Mary Gorman)

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