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Cava Drama, Black Friday, Corrections, and Sparkling Wine For The Holiday
Whether it's Cava or some other name, I'm recommending quality sparkling wine from Catalonia for Thanksgiving.
This past week, at a metro station in Barcelona, I saw an odd reminder of just how unique our fall American holiday is: In posters advertising the new horror flick Thanksgiving, the movie is renamed Black Friday for local audiences. I wonder how the film will be received. Driving around Penedès, Priorat, and Terra Alta last week, tasting and researching future articles, several people asked if I would be home “for…what is it called…your turkey holiday?” Yes, I am home, and a little late on my Thanksgiving recommendations, but below I am suggesting the Spanish sparkling wine once known as Cava.
Though you’ll have to excuse me if I nervously look over my shoulder when I say the word “Cava.” Rather than being worried about an axe-wielding maniac in a horror movie, I fear a bunch of Wine People coming at me, nitpicking with whatever one nitpicks with.
Cava is Spain’s best-known sparkling wine. The finest Cava is the Spanish answer to Champagne. Unfortunately, in most markets across the world, Cava competes in a race to the bottom with cheap Prosecco. Even within Spain, Cava is cheap, with 90 percent of it retailing for under 10 euros. To say there is an ocean of middling Cava is an understatement.
Part of the problem is that Cava, as its currently defined, is a wine without a true geographic place. Though it’s protected as a Denominación de Origen, Cava can be made in over 20 different regions across Spain, so long as they’re made méthode traditionnelle. Two huge wineries, representing more than 75 percent of production, basically control the Cava D.O. The smaller, artisan producers in Penedès, the area of Catalonia south of Barcelona that is Cava’s spiritual home, finally grew annoyed at this situation.
“We thought it was necessary to do something,” says Ton Mata of Recaredo. “People around the world were thinking Cava was only a massive, cheap wine. But we can compete with any sparkling wine in the world.”
The article is about the 30 or so producers who’ve broken away from Big Cava over the past several years. Some formed a trade group in 2019 called Corpinnat, with 11 members, including prestige producers such as Recaredo, Gramona, Nadal, Llopart, Mas Candí, and others. Other producers—such as AT Roca and Colet—now make wine as Clàssic Penedès (officially an organic sparkling wine under the DO Penedès). Both Corpinnat and Clàssic Penedès have strict rules, including that grapes must be organic and must spend at least 18 months on the lees (meaning all wines would qualify as Reserva under Cava’s rules).
So, just to recap: Spain’s most famous sparkling wine went from having, by default, a simple four-letter name to now potentially being labeled as Corpinnat, Clàssic Penedès or even Conca del Riu Anoia. Even in the confusing world of wine, that opens the door to an awful lot of possible confusion.
My article attempts to even-handedly translate the legitimately confusing world of Catalan sparkling wine. You should read it—and definitely read beyond the headline!
But, of course, people with vested interests in Big Cava are not particularly happy with me—thus my nervous looking over my shoulder. So what happens in the world of wine when powerful organizations with lots of money don’t like the message of your article? They unlease the minions who take their money to nitpick you.
I spent the week before Thanksgiving, while on the road, fielding a number of nitpicky DMs on social media from people with fancy wine certifications—most of whom had never interacted with me about anything prior. The PR people for the Cava D.O., which also has never been in touch with me about anything before, invited to fly me, all expenses paid, to Madrid next week for a grand tasting of Cava. Another concerned entity emailed my editor suggesting that my article contained “inaccuracies” and demanded a correction.
Since I pride myself on facts and error-free journalism, allow me to share the corrections. First, I had a typo in the second reference to number of months that Clàssic Penedès ages, which is 18, but which I wrote “15” in the second reference. My apologies to everyone affected by this. The numeral has been fixed.
The second correction is more complex, and revolves around when the term “Cava” came into usage. In my original text, this is how I explained it:
Until the 1980s, most Catalan sparkling wine was called “Xampany.” (The X is pronounced as if saying shah). You can still find sparkling wine listed as Xampany in some of Barcelona’s old wine bars. When Spain joined the European Union in 1986, France objected to the term’s use for obvious reasons (sound it out). That’s when “Cava,” the Spanish word for cave or cellar, came into usage.
Whoever demanded the correction insisted that the term came into usage earlier, and it was changed to:
To be honest, there’s always been confusion surrounding the name Cava, itself a relatively recent term. Until the 1970s, most Catalan sparkling wine was called “Xampany.” (The X is pronounced as if saying shah). You can still find sparkling wine listed as Xampany in some of Barcelona’s old wine bars. The term “Cava,” the Spanish word for cave or cellar, was officially registered with the EU in 1986.
The basis of this “fact check” is the Oxford Companion of Wine, which states, “The term Cava was adopted by the Spanish in 1970 when they agreed to abandon the use of the potentially misleading term Champana.” So let’s fact check the fact checking.
The denomination of Cava, according to the D.O.’s own website, was established in 1972. More importantly, let’s just take a moment and consider what “terms” were being “adopted by the Spanish in 1970.” Let’s remember that Spain was still under the Franco dictatorship at that time. And that Cava sparkling wine is and was largely a Catalan product. And that the Catalan word for the sparkling wine was “xampany,” which is what the French objected to. And let’s consider the situation of Catalonia under Franco, and of the Catalan language, which was officially suppressed. Finally, without delving too deeply into contemporary Spanish-Catalan politics, let’s remember how, in 2017, many Spaniards boycotted Cava when Catalonia’s separatist government held a referendum on independence. Perhaps, as fact checkers, we might consider all of this when debating how and when Cava came to be called Cava, and then wasn’t.
Or not. In the end, what matters to most wine drinkers is that 30 or so of Cava’s best producers thought it was better to the leave the Cava appellation, and its name, and to take their fine wines with them. The result is that Spanish sparkling wine has become very confusing—especially for those of us who love both Cava as well as those wines formerly called Cava.
Six Holiday Picks: Cava Or Not-Cava?
Raventós i Blanc left the Cava D.O. in 2012 to invent their own appellation, Conca del Riu Anoia, which may be confusing. Set all that aside, and just seek out this blend of macabeu, parellada, and xarel.lo. Dry, floral, herbal, with pear, honeysuckle, and smoke, with a long finish.
AT Roca was one of the first producers to leave the Cava D.O. and now bottles as Clàssic Penedès. Amazing value for a sparkling wine that ages 30 months on the lees. Bright and fruity on the nose, with clean, complex notes of sea spray and flint on the palate. 20 bucks, really?
One of the original members of the Corpinnat collective. This is a blend of macabeu, parellada, and xarel·lo that spends more than 18 months on the lees. Soft, fresh, with aromas of pear, green apple, and a fresh, vibrant palate.
Converting to biodynamic in 2014, leaving the Cava D.O. in 2019, Gramona is a among Catalonia’s prestige producers. This brut is perfect for someone who likes traditional Champagne, a blend of macabeu and xarel·lo is aged 55 months under cork on the lees. Pretty, fruity, bready, flowery nose and an enveloping, expansive palate balanced by hints of pepper. Fab crowd pleaser.
Pere Mata remains within the Cava D.O. (for now) working his 5-hectare estate , Mata i Coloma. His entry level blend of macabeu, parellada, and xarel·lo is a full of stone fruit and ginger, with rich creaminess, and salty finish. Crazy to find this much complexity in a sparkling wine under $25.
A golden, delicious blend of 80 percent xarel.lo along with pinot noir and chardonnay, with great persistant bubbles, and notes of dried fruit, spice, honey on toast, warm juicy tangerine, and underlying salinity.