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The New Cava Isn’t Called Cava

August 19, 2020

Story: Zachary Sussman

art: Carmela Caldart


The New Cava Isn’t Called Cava

August 19, 2020

Story: Zachary Sussman

art: Carmela Caldart

Once derided as Spain's answer to prosecco, cava is finding a new path, wedged somewhere between pét-nat and grower Champagne. Just don't expect to find the name on the label.

“Google Maps can’t find Cava, Spain. Make sure your search is spelled correctly.”

This error message sums up the existential crisis facing Spain’s most famous fizzy wine. Unlike Champagne, cava refers not to a place, but a style of wine: namely, Spanish sparkling produced via the traditional Champagne method.

No fewer than 11 Spanish provinces have the legal right to label their sparkling wines with the cava designation, including areas as remote as Aragón, Extremadura, Castilla y León and La Rioja. This indifference to geographical distinctions underscores what cava has come to represent to many modern drinkers: a cheap, fizzy import designed to lubricate wedding parties and bottomless brunches the world over, eclipsed in popularity only by prosecco, its chief rival.

You’ll be forgiven, then, if you’ve never heard of Penedès, the Catalonian region that is cava’s ancestral home. It was here, in the rolling hillsides west of Barcelona, that a man by the name of Josep Raventós effectively invented cava in 1872, after bringing back knowledge of the Champagne method from his travels through France. And it’s here that over 95 percent of cava continues to be made.

How cava went from local experiment to international brand follows a familiar 20th-century arc. With Catalonia’s rapid industrialization, what was once a rural farming culture quickly transformed into a multimillion-dollar industry aligned with the interests of a handful of bulk producers. Coupled with widespread factory farming, lax production standards, and the embrace of international grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir, this high-volume mentality resulted in what Assís Suriol, of the family-run Cellers de Can Suriol estate, describes as “the loss of a generation of local knowledge.”

But if Penedès now shows signs of change, it’s not because Big Cava has relaxed its stranglehold upon the region. Today, the ubiquitous Freixenet brand alone (of the black-and-gold labeled “Cordon Negro” fame) accounts for nearly 80 percent of  total cava exports. But much like the grower rebellion that upended Champagne’s established balance of power, Penedès now finds itself the battleground of a sparkling wine revolution of its own.

“We have more than 200 years of history making sparkling wines here,” explains Agustí Torelló Roca of AT Roca, one of the leaders of the region’s new wave. “But whenever you mentioned cava, all that anybody ever talked about was the style. Now there is a movement of growers who are trying to indicate our origins.”

The parallels between this emerging Catalonian counterculture and the grower uprising in Champagne are hard to ignore, involving a similar indie versus major record label struggle between growers and the Big Houses that still dominate production. But the situation unfolding across cava country is more than the usual story of traditionalists upending corporate interest and returning to the soil.

The result? Truly unclassifiable sparkling wines that combine the savory depth and complexity of top "grower cava" (or for that matter, Champagne) with the raw energy of pét-nat.

Coinciding with this classical revival, Catalonia has emerged as an epicenter of Spain’s natural wine movement, fostering a radical counterculture. The dialogue between these two factions has energized the region as a whole, inviting a deeper debate about what kind of wine tells its story best. In short, cava has become a microcosm for the trials, tribulations and triumphs of postmodern sparkling wine.

To many, the first shot across the ideological bow came in 2012, when one influential cava maker, Pepe Raventós of the cult Raventós i Blanc estate, outlined his plans to abandon the cava denomination, choosing instead to adopt a regional designation of his own invention, Conca del Riu Anoia. News of this defection sent shockwaves through the region, and other splinter groups soon followed, including a band of top cava producers who formed the Corpinnat association in 2015. “We wanted to create a specific name for this territory … for those who, like us, didn’t feel represented by cava,” says Alex Bautista of the Recaredo winery, one of the region’s historic beacons of quality.

Hence the irony behind cava’s renaissance: Many of the top versions no longer bill themselves as cava. Rather than raze cava to the ground, however, they’re trying to reframe it as a reflection of Penedès and its centuries-old culture of sparkling wine.

Along with the embrace of organic and biodynamic farming and a strict focus on the region’s native grapes (from the classic cava varieties of xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada to lesser-known examples like the red sumoll and trepat), much of the region’s evolution mirrors Champagne’s grower approach: natural grape juice in place of cane sugar to kick-start secondary fermentations; a proliferation of brut nature or zero-dosage bottlings; and the rise of single-vineyard, vintage-dated wines. The goal, of course, isn’t to emulate Champagne, but to identify a style that’s true to Penedès.

Consider the Corpinnat sparklers from Mas Candí, a collaboration between vine-grower Ramon Jané, his wife Mercè Cuscó and the oenologist Toni Carbó. Having sold his family’s grapes to the big cava houses for generations, Jané started bottling his own wines in 2006. A reference point for Penedès’ new wave, their bracingly mineral yet concentrated Segunyola, sourced from a single parcel of 60-year-old xarel-lo vines, exudes a palpable energy, all ripe yellow fruits and Mediterranean herbs.

Their example is just one of many. But like many of their peers, this “grower cava” framework isn’t the only paradigm in which they’ve chosen to operate. Both Jané and Carbó also belong to a growing cohort of naturalists who, through their fluency with traditional-method winemaking, are elevating pét-nat to unprecedented heights.

“The sparkling wine culture in this region would inevitably have a profound effect on the ancestral winemaking methods today,” says Álvaro de la Viña of Selections de la Viña, an importer of several top examples. “You drink them and you could almost think they’re in the traditional method, because they’re so refined and elegant.”

No one has done more to reconceive the style than Manel Aviñó of the biodynamic Clos Lentiscus winery. Locally known as “Mr. Bubbles,” Aviñó served for 17 years as the technical director of one of the region’s large cava houses before returning to his family property to craft some of Spain's edgiest wines. While his single-parcel Champagne-method wines have won plenty of accolades, his hyperambitious pét-nats have served as a model for a generation of practitioners, including natural wine luminaries like Massimo Marchiori and Antonella Gerosa of Partida Creus and Finca Parera’s Rubén Parera.

The Catalonian examples of what was once labeled a party wine require a different name. Really, they represent the invention of a new style of sparkling wine. In addition to disgorging for greater transparency, one of the hallmarks of this ambitious new take on pét-nat involves unusually long aging on the lees, sometimes exceeding six or seven years—a practice typically associated with the great Champagne method wines of the world, but virtually unheard of for the ancestral method. In fact, the most recent vintage of the Clos Lentiscus Gentlemant lineup—a range of site-specific, single-varietal pét-nats from varieties like malvasia de Sitges, xarel-lo and sumoll—is 2014.

The result? Truly unclassifiable sparkling wines that combine the savory depth and complexity of top “grower cava” (or for that matter, Champagne) with the raw energy of pét-nat. It’s a synthesis that could have arisen only in Penedès, where the joint insurgency against industrial winemaking has converged into something fearlessly independent and entirely its own. As Perara puts it, “We’re all part of the same revolution.”

The New "Cava"

Mata i Coloma Cupada No. 22 Cava Brut Nature Reserva

After a career consulting for conventional wineries, winemaker Pere Mata now grows five hectares of organically farmed vines in the classic cava village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. This bottling offers everything you could desire from a wine at this price point, combining rich flavors of burnt lemon and candied ginger with bright acidity and a salty froth of bubbles. [Buy]

Recaredo Terrers Brut Nature Corpinnat 2014

The original archetype for Alt Penedès, the arch-traditional Recaredo estate has been organically farmed since its inception in 1924. Taut and linear with a core of yellow plums, pastry dough and scrubby herbs, their flagship Terrers is culled from several different parcels and epitomizes the domaine’s vision for single-vintage, brut nature wines marked by extended aging on the lees. [Buy]

Clos Lentiscus Greco di Subur Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature 2016

Though his groundbreaking pét-nats shouldn’t be missed, Manel Aviñó’s Champagne-method take on the rare malvasia de Sitges grape showcases his mastery of classical forms. Wildly aromatic (think chamomile and thyme) and honeyed in its concentration, it’s always one of the region’s standouts, cut through with chiseled acidity and a fennel-like pop of freshness. [Buy]

Anima Mundi Noguer Baix Mètode Ancestral 2017

When he’s not busy making terroir-driven Champagne method wines, AT Roca’s Augustí Torelló Roca churns out equally compelling pét-nats under his Anima Mundi label. Sourced from a single parcel of old-vine macabeo planted in 1974, his Noguer Baix possesses a chalky minerality and stone-fruit purity that drinks like Penedès as imagined by the likes of Champagne growers Emmanuel Lassaigne or Aurélien Lahert, no matter the difference in method.

Partida Creus AA Anonimo Ancestral 2018

“This is a wine [that] is made a different way every year, with different varieties,” explains winemaker Massimo Marchiori. Pale crimson in color, the 2018 version blends four white grapes (xarel-lo, macabeo, parellada and moscatel) and one red (ull de llebre, aka tempranillo). It’s insanely drinkable, with a floral, hibiscus-like tang and licorice-y bitterness. [Buy]

Finca Parera Mala Herba Ancestral 2016

For his most serious ancestral method wine, harvested from a single parcel of old-vine xarel-lo planted 300 meters up in the Alt Penedès subregion, Rubén Parera ferments the grapes on their skins, bottles the still-fermenting juice, then lets the wine age on the lees for two to three years before disgorgement. Though difficult to classify, the result is an apricot-scented, softly effervescent “orange wine” with a tea-like grip of tannins that could be a poster child for postmodern Penedès. [Buy]

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Tagged: cava, sparkling wine