Can Cava Convince The World It’s Worth $200 A Bottle?
Does the idea of ultra-luxe, pricey cava sound like a joke? It’s not to Spanish winemakers.
If you think all Iberian sparkling wines are simple, $10 cheapies to pop open for a budget-brunch drink, it’s way past time for you to recalibrate your wine radar.
There are very good value cavas at $25, but I’m talking about the long-aged examples with elegance and complexity that only recently started making a splash outside of Spain. This spring, much more expensive bottles will arrive in the U.S. and other far-flung countries; giant producer Codorníu, for example, is launching its first Ars Collecta prestige cuvées in the U.S in March. Cost: $125 to $200 a bottle.
Would you fork over Dom Pérignon-level bucks for high-end cava? Passionate wine adventurers clamoring for the latest inside taste thrills will. Are they worth the prices? Yes, for some, but not all. (See my ratings below).
A New Classification
A new top-tier label designation, Cava del Paraje Calificado (single vineyard or single estate cava) may help bring more recognition to the category’s best efforts. Of the millions of bottles of cava produced annually, officials expect only a tiny percentage to qualify.
Here’s the backstory:
For years, the best winemakers complained about cava’s downscale fizz image. There are reasons for that. First of all, two huge companies, Freixenet and Codorníu, dominate the category, and they churn out a lot of inexpensive wine. Second, the definition of cava is pretty loose. Even though the cool Penedès region in Catalonia is cava’s home territory, sparkling wine in places as far-flung as Rioja can also use "cava" on the label.
Wineries could indicate the wine was aged longer with "reserva" and "gran reserva," but until the end of last year, in fact, there were no label terms to identify super premium examples—no grand crus, no prestige cuvée designation, no designated, high-quality subregion as there is, say, for prosecco.
Yet at the same time, top producers have been improving quality by going organic and biodynamic, researching the best sites, doing everything by hand, and creating limited-edition, high-end cuvées from special vineyards.
A Sea Change
Things came to a head a few years ago, when the rebellious owner of first-rate winery Raventós i Blanc declared that cava had such a bad image, he would no longer put the word on his labels. He came up with his own version of an appellation—Conca del Riu Anoia— and set off a cava war. (It’s not an official name, and others can use it if they agree to principles set down by Raventós.)
That helped push the cava council to come up with the new label language that’s just going into effect. The official rules are not as strict as they could be, say winemakers aiming for the highest quality. They do mandate maximum yields and vintage dating, among other things. But only three years of aging are required and vines can be a mere 10 years old (older vines produce more concentrated wines).
The potential for top wines has always been there, in grapes and winemaking method. Cava is made the same way champagne is: Winemakers bottle a basic still wine and add a yeast mixture so the wine re-ferments in the bottle, creating bubbles. But since most top producers use one or more local grapes—macabeao, parellada, and xarel-lo, which brings body and structure—the taste and style are different from Champagne, more savory, nutty, and golden, with Mediterranean scents and flavors, even when the wine contains a touch of chardonnay and pinot noir.
Typically these top bottles are labeled Brut Nature or super dry, which means there’s no dose of sugar as there is, for example, for brut. That’s definitely in line with today’s growing fashion for drier sparkling wines.
But what really distinguishes these prestige cavas is their age—the liquid is left as much as 12 years on the left over yeast (the lees) before release, giving it an intense complexity, with a salty mineral and dried herb character.
“During the Spanish Civil War and World War II, we hid bottles to save them,” says Xavier Gramona, “and discovered how well our wines age. That was a fortunate accident.”
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