Can Cava be the comeback kid?

Often left in the shadow of other sparkling wines, David Kermode says fizz lovers should reconsider the traditional method wine this celebration season – particularly when Xarel-lo is the star of the show

Words by David Kermode

cava landscape and vineyard
(Photo: DO Cava)

The signature sparkling wine of Catalonia, Cava has had little to celebrate in recent years, with its problems almost as contentious as the region’s bid for independence from Spain. Well, not quite. But if geo-politics are all about identity, it’s fitting that Cava’s problems have stemmed from a form of identity crisis prompted by the astonishing rise of DOC Prosecco at the bottom end of the market and the continuing success of Champagne (and in the UK, English sparkling wine) at the top. Cava has been somewhat trapped in a squeezed middle.

Produced using the traditional method, just like Champagne, Cava has always deserved better and there are clear signs that its fortunes are changing. Two years ago, in the throes of the pandemic, the regulatory body, DO Cava, announced sweeping reforms aimed at improving quality and – more importantly – highlighting both its heritage and authenticity.

To me, Cava will always represent the bubbles of Barcelona, with more than 95 per cent of production concentrated in the Comtats de Barcelona, the hills that form the horizon as you look inland. Cava is best enjoyed in the city’s bustling bars, but the wine hails from nearby Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, where it was actually born of adversity, the result of producers seeking a fresh start after phylloxera ravaged the region in the mid 19th century.

cava bottle deguelle
(Photo: DO Cava)

While its illustrious history puts recent troubles into context, Cava’s politics have certainly been fraught, with defections to establish new designations, such as Corpinnat and Clàssic Penedès, making Catalonia’s sparkling scene more crowded than La Rambla. But other producers have – I think sensibly – opted to stay put and rebuild the Cava brand, rather than jettison years of hard work.

The result is a new system of Cava classification, with two separate categories: Cava de Guarda, aged for a minimum of nine months, and Cava de Guarda Superior – with Reserva a minimum of 18 months on lees and Gran Reserva at least 30 months. Significantly, there’s also a top tier for single vineyard sites: Cava de Paraje Calificado, which must be aged for at least 36 months. Among a host of other quality-focused controls, the most striking is the requirement for all producers at Superior level to be 100 per cent organic by 2025. It’s ambitious, yet many have achieved that status already.

Xarel-lo is one of the three traditional indigenous grapes used in Cava: it warrants top billing with its strident acidity and leafy textural charm

Now the battle is to win hearts and minds: Cava is emphatically not Prosecco and is starting to shout about it. This is already reflected in sales: the USA saw growth of 40 per cent last year, no doubt influenced, in part, by the return of hospitality post-pandemic, and the ongoing global shortage of Champagne, with signs it is impacting the ageing of non-vintage examples. The UK market remains challenging, but there are encouraging signals, such as the recruitment of chef José Pizarro to the Cava cause. He’s an almost saintly figure in my book, who has done so much to transform our perceptions of Spanish gastronomy in the UK.

Critics have vaunted the rise of Chardonnay in the region, which, though ubiquitous, undoubtedly adds a level of luxury in many blends, but I believe Cava’s secret weapon comes from closer to home. Xarel-lo is one of the three traditional indigenous grapes used – along with Macabeo (aka Viura) and Parellada – and I believe it warrants top billing with its strident acidity and leafy textural charm. By the end of a recent visit to the region, I resembled a faintly demented sniffer dog seeking out Xarel-lo in any blend I tried, though mono-varietal examples were my favourites.

cava bottle riddling by hand
(Photo: DO Cava)

Price has not always been a friend to Cava, with some of the cheaper, mass-produced, thinner examples damaging the brand in recent years. However, there is no doubt it continues to offer astonishing value for a traditional method sparkling wine, especially at the top-end Gran Reserva level, where many examples will have aged for well over the stipulated two-and-a-half years. Indeed, a decade on lees is not uncommon.

As lovers of bubbles seek drier styles, Cava is also happy to help. A product of the Mediterranean, it is well placed to offer the ripe, juicy fruit required without dosage. I would go as far as to say Cava was born to be Brut Nature, delivering thrilling freshness without a hint of austerity.

Cava undoubtedly lost its mojo for a while, but it has its bubbles back, so now is the time to relish the opportunity to become reacquainted.

What David has been drinking…

  • Guilera Xarel-la Brut Gran Reserva 2012 (£23.95 at Ultra Comida). From a producer that doesn’t like to rush things, specialising in aged Cava, this Brut Nature Gran Reserva is 100% Xarel-lo. A decade on its lees, disgorged a mere month or so ago, it thrills with its rapier freshness, gently invigorating mousse, scintillating purity of fruit and mouthwatering minerality.
  • Krug Grande Cuvée 164ème edition (£1,850 for 6 bottles in bond at BBR). Tasted at an extraordinary concert at Alexandra Palace, where an orchestra of 36 musicians performed composer Ryuichi Nakamoto’s breathtaking tribute to Krug Champagne, the works ‘a translation’ of the ’08 vintage. The 164 is a blend of 127 wines from 11 different years, constructed around that vintage and providing its own symphony, the fine mousse leading into a feast of elegant complexity, with citrus blossom, orchard fruits, nutty nougat and a signature savoury note in the finish.
  • Goleto, Greco di Tufo, 2018 (£47.63 at Tannico). From the hills of Campania, the fruits of a project by Feudi di San Gregorio’s boss Antonio Capaldo, through micro-vinification, to find the perfect expression of Greco di Tufo. Poised, pristine and polished, with stone fruit, zesty citrus and a stunning salinity, elevating this characterful variety into a true textural masterpiece.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.