This is the first of two parts about cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. The second part, short reviews of several cavas, posted Feb. 4.
Two things confuse wine drinkers about cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. First, they assume that because it has bubbles that it’s like French champagne or California bubbly. Which it’s not. Second, because it’s so cheap — almost all of the world’s cava costs less than $15 — they figure that it’s one of those cheap wines that they shouldn’t be seen drinking in public.
Neither could be further from the truth. The Wine Curmudgeon is a long-time cava supporter; after all, it’s cheap and offers value, and that’s my reason for being. Yet even I discovered there is more to cava than meets the price tag during my trip to Spain last week. It is, as the inestimable Janet Kafka noted, “a wine that needs someone behind the label to explain it.”
What those things are, after the jump:
Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first. The trip was paid for by cava producer Segura Viudas, which is part of one of the largest cava companies in the world. But no quid pro quo was part of the trip, and I have not agreed to write anything in exchange for being invited.
So why the confusion about cava? Why is it always included in the champagne and sparkling wine category, and usually regarded as a second-rater in comparison? Partly because it is sparkling wine, and sparkling wine is lumped together when it’s sold, regardless of origin. This is, interestingly, different from how cabernet sauvignon is sold; you don’t see red Bordeaux racked next to Napa cabernet in the store. But $10 cava is on the shelf next to $100 champagne.
That’s because retailers figure bubbly is bubbly is bubbly, regardless of where it’s from or what it’s made out of. Cava is not the only wine that suffers because of this. Italian sparkling wine, the astis and proseccos, is also sold against champagne and found lacking in comparison.
But comparing cava to champagne is as pointless as comparing red Bordeaux to Napa cabernet. They’re not the same thing, and they’re not supposed to be. In cava’s case, not only is it made in a different part of the world — the terroir difference — but the grapes are different. Cava is made with macabeo, xarel.lo, and parellada, and they aren’t pinot noir and chardonnay, the main grapes in champagne and California sparking wine. Different grapes mean the wine tastes differently, and cava is less rich, less yeasty and less fruity (and has different fruit flavors). This is neither good nor bad, and doesn’t mean one is better than the other. After all, no one claims Napa cabernet is inferior because it doesn’t taste like red Bordeaux.
The other issue is price. As I have written many times before, the wine world has a difficult time giving less expensive products like cava their due. Cava costs less than champagne because the costs of production — land, labor, and grapes — are substantially less. The price of grapes in Catalunya, where most cava is made, is about one-fifth the price in Napa — $400 a ton compared to $2,000 a ton — and about 1/10th the price in Champagne. Should cava be penalized for this?
Of course not. Judge it on quality, which it delivers. it may not be the quality that champagne drinkers expect, with “hints of strawberry, cherry, bread dough and spice. … typical berry flavors up front, but toward the back it evolves to offer baked apples, almonds and the tartness of pomegranate and citrus.” But we don’t need that kind of quality every time, do we? Especially when cava quality comes at pennies on the champagne dollar.