The link between Cava and Spain spans centuries. Cava, the Spanish word for cave, refers to Spain’s famous sparkling wine and has a global reputation for high quality and outstanding value. Resting in the dark, cool cellars below wineries, maturing bottles of traditional method Spanish sparkling wine age for a minimum of nine months. Although, rare and exceptional versions don’t see daylight for 120 months or more.
The first bottle of Cava was crafted in 1872 by Josep Raventos in Sant Sidurni d’Anoia, his hometown, which is in the heart of the Penedès region in Catalonia. He found inspiration using the winemaking method he’d observed in Champagne, where still wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. The principal difference was his use of Spanish indigenous grapes such as Xarel-lo, Parallada, and Macabeo. His ingenuity led to filling the gap that Phylloxera had created following the devastation of vineyards in France.
In the last decade, frustrations grew as high-quality producers felt Cava was chasing Prosecco’s affordable prices on grocery store shelves, resulting in lower quality wines. Consequently, three regulatory bodies now play an active role in the production and marketing of Spanish sparkling wine: DO Cava, Corpinnat and DO Penedès, specifically its sub-appellation Classic Penedès which produces only sparkling wine.
Generally speaking, DO Cava focuses on the winemaking process, Corpinnat spotlights the best producers, and Clàssic Penedès highlights the region. But there are a lot more intricate details that underline the variances between the three labels.
Undoubtedly the most well-known Spanish sparkling wine, Cava received Royal Assent in 1904. By 1911, it overtook sparkling wine imports. DO Cava became official in 1972, and the zones were officially demarcated in 1986.
The region’s annual report declares that 205 sparkling and 144 base wine vintners make up the globally recognizable Denomination of Origin. Together, they produce 252.9 million bottles, a 17% increase from 2020.
Representing premium Spanish sparkling wine producers, 2017 EU approval gave Corpinnat (meaning ‘Heart of Penedès’) the use of a visual trademark for its 11 members.
Corpinnat appears on the front label and is a guarantee of the entire production process, from certified organic viticulture to estate vinification, aging, and bottling.
Sustainability is at the heart of wine production in DO Penedès. In 2014, estate wineries created the protected denomination to differentiate quality Penedès wines from DO Catalonia, establishing specific regional boundaries. Clàssic Penedès, a sub of DO Penedès, safeguards the region’s 100% organic sparkling wines from indigenous varieties. It is the first in the world – ahead of Champagne, Prosecco and Crémant – to require 100% organic grapes for bubbles.
The classification sees its Reserva wines age for 15 months before release. In addition, the DO also allows winemakers to use the Ancestral winemaking method.
Spanning 160 municipalities, DO Cava regulates 38,000 hectares of vines over seven autonomous communities. The core of DO Cava is Catalonia; however, it also includes areas of Navarra, Rioja, Basque Country, Aragon, Valencia, and Extremadura. The vast majority of production, 90%, still comes from Sant Sidurni d’Anoia, by three major producers, including Freixenet and Codorníu.
In addition to the indigenous varieties common in Cava, regulations also allow small amounts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Monastrell, Garnacha, Malvasia, and Trepat.
Corpinnat captures a geographic area of nearly 23,000 hectares. Its seven sub-zones include Alta Penedès (high), Alta Camp, Baix Penedès (low), Tarragones, Garraf, Baix Llobregat, and Anoia.
In contrast, Clàssic Penedès covers a mere 4,000 hectares (although the umbrella DO covers 16,000 hectares) and includes vineyards growing on rocky, poor ancient soils. Elevations range from hilltops to river valleys with variable microclimates. Three sub-zones include Penedès Superior (inland at high elevations), Penedès Central (central plain), and Penedès Maritim (the coastal area just south of Barcelona). In total, ten distinct growing areas within the greater DO Penedès identify various mesoclimates.
With overlap between Cava and Corpinnat, Clàssic Penedès rules dictate that wineries cannot purchase still wine. Further, all wine processing must happen on the estate.
Aging Requirements for Spanish Sparkling Wine
In 2020, DO Cava introduced categories of Cava de Guarda and Cava de Guarda Superior. Cava de Guarda wines are youthful and fresh and age for a minimum of 9 months. There are ten approved grape varieties with specific acidity, pH, and alcohol requirements (10 – 13%).
Cava de Guarda Superior includes Reserva, with 18 months of aging, Gran Reserva, at 30 months, and Paraje Calificado, at 36 months – the highest of all classifications. By 2025, Cava de Guarda Superior will require 100% organic fruit. Cava Rosado, by law, is produced using only the saignée method (to bleed rather than to blend). All DO Cava sparklers have a 4-point star branded cork as a mark of authenticity.
Corpinnat guarantees 100% indigenous organic grapes and work by hand. The 18-month minimum bottle age is longer than Champagne and on par with Cava Guarda Superior Reserva as the minimum standard. Many producers extend bottle age, some by as much as 120 months.
Clàssic Penedès guarantees 100% Reserva or 15 months in the cellar – higher than Cava de Guarda. All must be made from organic grapes that grow within the Penedès demarcated region. Producers often exceed minimum aging requirements.
Marketing The Future
To help clarify the increase in Spanish sparkling wine regulations, DO Cava launched Cava Academy. Its purpose is to educate wine professionals worldwide as the globally recognized brand “Cava” exports 70% of its production.
The increases in education and focus on quality are proving successful. In 2021, Cava de Guarda accounted for 88% of DO Cava production. That same year, sales of Cava de Guarda Superior grew to 22.8 million bottles, up 65% from 2020. Premium consumers in North America lead interest in Cava de Guarda Gran Reserva, perhaps in place of higher-priced Champagne.
Sales of Corpinnat in 2021 topped 2.3 million bottles, with the average price per bottle rising 2% to 17.35€ versus 2€ supermarket Cava in the UK. Corpinnat brand building centers on gourmet food and annual wine events in Vilafranca del Penedès. Positioning efforts speak to the gourmand and the wine list gap between Prosecco and Champagne.
Classic Penedès offers back labels that identify both DO Penedès and Clàssic Penedès. With vintage-only production, the date of disgorgement appears on the label speaking to wine professionals or sommeliers. Rumor has it that Classic Penedès and Corpinnat are in discussions to join forces, but the differences – primarily allowable grapes – are slowing progress.
In comparison to Champagne, Cava has room to grow, particularly with its more attainable price points. Champagne’s 16,000 growers and 320 houses contributed 322 million bottles in 2021, while Cava DO’s 6000 growers and 249 producers topped 252 million bottles. Size matters, and quality Cava is on the rise.