What’s the deal with Cava’s new top tier, Guarda Superior?

The Cava DO’s new rules around the ageing and labelling of its top-tier wines have come into play. What does it mean for sparkling wine fans? Simon Field MW explains

Words by Simon Field MW

cava wines in the rack being riddled
(Photo: D.O. CAVA)

What’s the story here, then?

It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Cava, over the years, has had an ‘image problem’ – yet when one puts it in the context of magisterial Champagne and all-conquering Prosecco, it does seem to have been somewhat left behind. A shame, surely – especially when one recalls that Cava, unlike Prosecco, is made entirely in the traditional method, with the second fermentation of its annual production of 250 million bottles all taking place in the bottle. That’s quite an achievement, and one that maybe isn’t properly recognised. Time for change, then…

In July 2020, new regulations came into effect in the DO of Cava. In essence, they focus on the quality and provenance of the product. And from this month (January 2022), two new quality tiers exist – Cava Guarda and Cava de Guarda Superior.

cava vineyard
(Photo: D.O. CAVA)

What’s the plan with provenance?

Whereas before, ‘Cava’ applied to traditionally made sparkling wine that could, without our knowledge, come from Logroño (Rioja) or Barcelona, now reference must be made to one of the five zones of production. The largest zone, Comtats de Barcelona, has five sub zones, and it is hoped that in time all will earn individual reputations and thus improve awareness and knowledge among drinkers. 95 per cent of all Cava, we should not forget, comes from this Catalonian homestead; now the consumer will get to understand it a little better, it is hoped, and thus appreciate it all the more.

And what exactly is Cava de Guarda Superior?

In terms of quality, the key change is based on the ageing of the wine. There will now be two separate categories: Cava Guarda, which must have been aged for a minimum of nine months, and Cava de Guarda Superior, which dovetails with ongoing age designators for Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, but formalises the time of maturation. Therefore, Reserva wines must now be aged for at least 18 months and Gran Reservas for at least 30 months.

At the top of the Guarda Superior pyramid will sit Cava de Paraje Calificado: wine from a single site, which must be aged for at least 36 months, thus bringing it into line with vintage Champagne.

winemaker opening a bottle of cava with spray
(Photo: D.O. CAVA)

Why change things now?

Change always risks confusion, the effort to make things clearer often having the reverse effect. The DO regulator has long been aware of this but felt that change was better than the status quo ante, where Cava’s reputation was continually challenged, not least by the ‘defection’ of some of its most illustrious Bodegas, Raventós I Blanc and Gramona, for example (the latter setting up a rival body known as Corpinnat). The idea was to effect radical change to satisfy the remaining producers (the vast majority of sparkling wine makers), to significantly tighten the rules, and at the same time, not to terrify consumers with wholesale changes to nomenclature and labelling.

Patricia Correira at the DO maintains that, ‘Cava now has the most demanding regulations in the world of sparkling wine,’ adding that they will ‘provide a fail-safe guarantee to the consumer and underwrite an initiative to ever-improving quality’. Keeping both producers and consumers happy will mean that Correira is, ultimately, very happy indeed.

grape picking at harvest in cava do wine region
(Photo: D.O. CAVA)

So how will it benefit Cava drinkers – will the message be clearer, and not merely more complicated?

The consumer will benefit in the sense that Guarda Superior regulations build on those that were already there, further pushing ahead the drive for quality and for specifying the origin of the wine.

Aesthetically, it might even be easier for Cava drinkers. The ongoing project aims to capture additional information on the label by means of a colour-coded seal (not unlike Rioja, I suppose), the designated colour indicative of the age and also specifying the origin. This move has been met with universal approval, and it is hoped that all Cava will be labelled thus by the end of 2022. The labels will be easy to understand yet also unobtrusive.

The ageing rules are easy enough to grasp, but what about the aspects around quality?

The quality initiative is impressive and precise. Not only does it tighten up the ageing regime, but it also stresses the importance of locality, with increased emphasis on the proximity between the vineyards and the wineries for Guarda Superior wines.

Guarda Superior wine will have to be entirely hand harvested

There’s an additional requirement to note the vintage on the label, and there’s also a ceiling on harvest production levels: 48 hl per hectare specified as the maximum yield. Finally, the vineyard in question will have to be entirely hand harvested in order to merit Guarda Superior accreditation, and only vineyards established over ten years ago can apply.

cava grapes
(Photo: D.O. CAVA)

There is an ambitious sustainable angle being introduced too, right?

Perhaps the most eye-catching initiative is the requirement for all producers to be 100 per cent organic by 2025, and also to demonstrate adherence to a wide range of specified sustainability initiatives, with areas such as water, packaging, emissions and traceability just as significant as requirements in the vineyards. A forward-reaching, holistic approach, in other words.

Perhaps the most eye-catching initiative is the requirement for all producers to be 100 per cent organic by 2025

The same adjectives can be applied to the rebranding process as a whole; according to Toni Cantos, a winemaker at Juvé y Camps, this is just the step that Cava has been waiting for and will be sure to underpin its fight-back in the fiercely competitive world of sparkling wine. Let’s see…

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