Cava: the discerning alternative
In a category dominated by the two extremes of Rap Star Champagne and Girls’ Night Prosecco, it’s not easy to be Cava.
But can this Spanish fizz capture the imagination of those wanting something affordable, authentic and distinctive?
With its second fermentation in bottle, mandatory cellar ageing (which gives the wine its name) and dry, complex flavour profile, Cava has more in common with Champagne than Prosecco. But what makes premium Cava stand out from the cheaper examples that have given it a bad name?
John Graves, Bibendum Channel Director and Cava groupie, explains, “When I started in the wine industry, Cava was cool. However, over time – and until recently – it has become a commodity; something to steer well clear of. With producers getting back to basics and focusing on a terroir-driven approach, this category is going full circle.
“Quality producers have refused to compromise and continued the traditional production methods. They have a real provenance and are making these wines in the correct, artisanal way. Cava can truly be a great alternative discovery for those willing to look beyond the commercial offer and spend a little bit more.”
A point of difference
In order to adhere to the regulations of the DO, all Cava must be made using the traditional method of sparkling wine production, with a minimum of 9 months lees ageing. So even entry-level Cavas will exhibit a degree of depth and complexity over that of, say, tank method wines like Prosecco. Reservas and Gran Reservas (requiring a minimum of 15 and 30 months lees ageing respectively) can indicate higher quality still, but the focus, nonetheless, remains on what is happening in the cellar, rather than on the grapes themselves. Like most premium wines, though, the real difference starts in the vineyard.
DO Cava (the region’s regulatory body) has recognised this with the recent introduction of a new single-estate designation: Cava del Paraje. In addition to a minimum 36-month required bottle fermentation, Cava de Paraje classification wines must be made from hand-harvested grapes, from minimum 10 year-old vines, with a maximum yield of 8,000 kg per hectare.
The Llopart story
Tiny yields of quality fruit from old vines? That’s old news to the Llopart family of Subirats. They’ve been making Cava this way since the 19th century. At 87, Pere Llopart is the 4th generation of his family to follow this winemaking philosophy, which he is now passing on to his five children. “Llopart vineyards are the essence of the Llopart Cava character,” he says.
The average age of Pere’s vines is 40, with some reaching 60, 70 and even 85 years old. This, along with rigorous viticultural practices such as green pruning and selective manual harvesting, means Llopart has some of the lowest yields in the area. It produces a tiny 5,000-5,500 kg/hectare, when the maximum requirement for Cava DO is 12,000.
The family also hold a deep respect for the land, farming completely organically since 2000 and obtaining the EU´s Organic Certification in 2013. Pere explains, “The idea is to make the vines naturally resistant to disease, create a balanced environment and encourage biodiversity, so that the ecosystem regulates itself.”
An exceptional place
But it helps if you have great terroir. At an elevation of 1,000-1,300 feet in the Subirats sub-region of Cava DO, Llopart’s 500ha of vineyards benefit from cooler temperatures than in the town below, but are protected from extreme cold by the Montserrat mountains. At 15km from the coast, the vines are also protected from any humidity. The area’s shallow, calcareous soil, uneven slopes and terraces stress the vines and, along with their significant age, contribute to Llopart’s extremely low yields of high quality fruit.
The vineyards are harvested in ‘levels’ according to variety and altitude, ensuring that only fruit that has reached optimum ripeness reaches the winery. From the pressings only 50% of the first free run juice is kept and used to produce Llopart Cava, while the remaining 50% is sold on.
All the wines are aged for a minimum of 18 months, so all their Cavas are no less than Reserva (for which the minimum ageing requirement is 15 months). The Gran Reservas are riddled by hand.
Pere tells us, “Our Cavas are very gastronomic, they pair perfectly with the main courses of any meal. We like to explain that every cava has its moment: the Rosé Brut is perfect as a welcome glass, paired with some appetizers (both sweet and salty), with a fruit salad, even with chocolate; pair the Brut Reserva with a tuna tartar for an unforgettable experience; the Imperial Panoramic matches perfectly with sheep cheese, pork brochettes, grilled steak or taste it with coco chilly soup with chicken.”
Already poured in some of Spain’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, like Celler Can Roca and Lasarte, isn’t it time to see more premium Cava on wine lists closer to home?