Gone are the days when only Albariño or Verdejo are considered the epitome of Spanish white wines. Xarel-lo (pronounced ‘CHA-REL-OH’), one of the primary grapes used in producing Cava, is making waves not only for imparting structure and acidity to bottles of the iconic Spanish sparkling wine but also for shining on its own as a still wine varietal expression. If ‘golden hour’ had a flavor profile, this thick-skinned, aromatic grape would be it — bright lemon, ripe white peach, and fresh herbs with a hint of nutty spice.
The Role of Xarel-lo in Cava
Xarel-lo made its entrance onto the Catalan wine-making scene in 1785. Its vines grow best near the Mediterranean Sea, where the terroir (altitude, soil composition, and climate) helps strengthen the grape’s structural balance and flavor concentration.
The Denominación de Origen (D.O.) for Cava spans seven autonomous regions across Spain. However, most Cava production (95%) happens about 45 minutes south of Barcelona, in D.O. Penedès in central Cataluña. There, the grape trio of Xarel-lo, Macabeo, and Parellada comprise most expressions of Cava.
At Giró Ribot, a family-owned and operated estate in the heart of Penedes, the soil map of their vineyards indicates that Xarel-lo is the most suitable grape variety to be planted and provides balance in wine production. At an altitude of 900 to 1000 feet above sea level, their sub-zone in Alt Penedes sits near the Mediterranean Sea, where Xarel-lo gives its best. “We have around 20 hectares (roughly 50 acres) of Xarel-lo, and it’s the backbone of the majority of our blends, especially for Reserva and Gran Reserva Cavas,” says CEO Eduardo Sanfeliu Giró.
For Giró, the most critical factor for ripening Xarel-lo perfectly is climate. “In higher altitudes, Xarel-lo can suffer from frost. But our sub-zone — which has loamy soils and is surrounded by mountains and close to the sea — makes for the ideal micro-climate to grow this variety.”
Stepping Outside the Cava Box
As the quality of Cava continues to increase, winemakers are discovering ways to showcase the individual elements of this beloved sparkling wine. “To increase appreciation of Cava, it’s important that people have a greater knowledge and understanding of the key grape varieties,” says Javier Pages, the president of D.O. Cava. “Plantings of Xarel-lo have been on the rise for quite some time as growers and producers continue to discover the sites best suited to each of the indigenous grape varieties.”
Xarel-lo’s strength allows the grape to also deliver different styles of wine. “The versatility of Xarel-lo is wonderful; we can produce a delicate young white wine up to an over-ripe wine,” says Giró. “The potential and versatility of Xarel-lo are undeniable. It has lots of structure and elegant aging,” he continues. Outside its Cava portfolio, Giró Ribot has two still white wines, Karamba and Solstici, that are Xarel-lo dominant.
For Juvé y Camps, the well-renowned family estate that has worked with the grape variety since 1796, Xarel-lo is a “key variety in all our sparkling and also still wines from the region,” says Ana Lópezcano Lamarain, communications manager for the brand. “Right now, we own 48 hectares (~119 acres) of Xarel-lo in our most important estate, Finca d’Espiells, and we keep on looking after excellence in each of them as for the rest of our vineyards.”
Flor de Xarel-lo d’Espiells, from Juvé y Camps, is an example of 100% Xarel-lo as a still wine. “Due to its versatility, Xarel-lo is perfect for any type of elaboration — from young, fresh wines to those fermented and aged in oak (or other vessels) with body, structure and a wide range of flavors and aromas,” Lópezcano Lamarain adds.
An Essential Building Block to Quality Cava
As the region’s most historically relevant and highest quality grape variety, Xarel-lo has attributes that give Cava its unique character. Like Chardonnay in Champagne, Xarel-lo delivers the necessary freshness, structure, and pH for high-quality sparkling wine. Not to mention, Cava is produced similarly using the traditional method.
“With more site-specific wines and an increased awareness of which grape varieties work best on which sites, Xarel-lo has excelled,” says Pages. “As much as I appreciate Macabeo and Parellada, Xarel-lo is the grape variety which excites me and many others in D.O. Cava for the future of the wines.”
At Juvé y Camps, the Finca d’Espiells soils are low in organic matter, and the climate is warm and dry. These factors are crucial for growing Xarel-lo which, despite its strength, is a very sensitive grape that performs much better in low yields.
Juvé y Camps is one of the few houses producing a premium monovarietal Cava from 100% Xarel-lo, La Capella. “The inspiration for La Capella reflects the essence of our wine region and our desire to bring what we are from the land to the glass,” says Lópezcano Lamarain. Because of the lower hand-picked yields from the 40-year-old vines, this sparkling wine only sees release in the most exceptional years.
“Located at the highest part of the estate (about 200m above sea level), we yield unique grapes with a stark landscape, a shallow soil bed, and loads of character and spirit, which is essential for long aging sparkling wines.”