Cava: Catalan Champagne
Everything you need to know about Spain’s own sparkling wine
By Duncan Rhodes
Welcome to Cava country! Catalonia’s very own white (or pink) sparkling wine is made using the very same ‘Champagne method’ famously employed on the other side of the Pyrenees, and is a delicious – and much cheaper – version of its French cousin. It is extremely popular in Barcelona, and indeed the rest of Spain, thanks to the numerous vineyards in the region owned by top wine-makers such as Codorniu, Torres and Freixenet.
Defining The Drink
Cava was first produced in 1872 by Josep Raventós of the Codorniu winery, who, after a reconnaissance mission to France, fell in love with Champagne and successfully copied its production method using Spanish grapes.
The essential process that makes a Cava what it is (and not a mere carbonated wine) is the secondary fermentation of the wine in the same bottle in which it is sold; the bubbles are formed naturally. This produces finer, more persistent bubbles than sparkling wines made by other methods, such as adding CO2 to a still wine.
Cava is produced in varying levels of dryness, according to the amount of sugar used in the fermentation process. These are: brut nature, brut (extra dry), seco (dry), semiseco (medium) and dulce (sweet). Connoisseurs tend to prefer it dry.
According to Spanish law, it can be produced in six wine regions in Spain and must be made according to the traditional Champagne method to qualify as the real deal. The most common grapes used are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello, although Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Subirat can also be used to make a fine sparkling wine.
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Xampanyerias (Champagne Bars)
Barcelona’s small handful of Xampanyerias (the word is simply Catalan for Champagne bar/Cava bar) are much-loved institutions, adored by the locals who flock to these, usually homely, dens to stand cheek-by-jowl and munch on tapas in between glasses of the good stuff. Typically the Cava is served up as a complement to relatively cheap bocadillos (sandwiches) and tapas dishes which patrons are required to order if they want to be served drinks too. The atmosphere is often a feeding frenzy and a far cry from a civilised sit down meal – or quiet drink – however a visit to a Xampanyeria is strongly recommended for anyone who wants to sample these typical Barcelona joints and see the Catalans in their natural environment… everyone from old men in ill-fitting suits to boys in beach wear and senoritas in elegant cocktail dresses are partial to a Cava-flowing standing supper!
Found on the very same street at the Picasso Museum, what better way to round off an afternoon of effervescent art than a glass of bubbly? There’s no fixed menu and tourists with a poor grasp of Spanish are advised to queue up at the counter, rather than let the waiter decide for them (unless they want all the most expensive tapas in the house!). And whilst the lack of transparency on prices is a bit frustrating, the charm and art nouveau decor mean this is an iconic venue well worth visiting. Full review here.
Often referred to simply as ‘La Xampanyeria’, Can Paixano is an immensely popular, standing room only, bar in La Barceloneta district where vast hams are hung up over the counter and delicious bubbly is as cheap as chips… get there very early to avoid the stampede. Or better still get a local to take you there.
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La Vinya del Senyor
Locations don’t get much better than a spot in the shade of the iconic Santa Maria del Mar church in El Borne, and so life at this little wine bar gets off to a good start. But it’s not just the scenery that’s great… there’s a fantastic selection of the fruits of Dionysus – and not just the sparkling stuff. Oenophiles can also sample some of the great reds and roses made in the nearby regions of Penedes and Priorat. Good nibbles too. It is a trifle touristic, but hey sometimes the holiday atmosphere of travellers indulging themselves is nice to be around.
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Cava Tasting Tours
There are plenty of tourist operators who are more than happy to pack you off in a mini-van to the Penedes region of Catalonia for a tour of a Cava vineyard or two, and the famous cellars where they are kept. Here are a few places and selected activities to begin your enquiries…
A great experience, and a twist on the usual Cava tour, the “Create Your Own Cava” activity takes place in a tiny village in the Penedes region where you’ll be taken to small but innovative winery. Here, not only do you taste several different types of ‘Spanish Champagne’, but you even become directly involved in the bottling process. Having chosen your favourite blend of white wine, you will be armed with visor and gloves and asked to ‘disgorge’ the wine’s sediment, so that it is ready to be taken home and consumed (this is also your job!). You can even come up with a name and custom label for your own personally-bottled blend of Spanish champagne! The Create Your Own Cava experience also includes a tour of the surrounding vineyards and underground cellars with an expert oenophile, a slightly kitsch video presentation of the production process, and of course your take-home bottle of bubbly. That’s all for 42 euros. For a bit extra you can enjoy a slap up rustic lunch, either in the millennium-old masia (farm house) or out on the terrace by the ancient olive tree overlooking the sun-kissed Catalan countryside. You can catch the train there cheaply and easily (and they will meet you at the station and drive you to the winery), or you can book private transport from Barcelona at an extra cost. Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation or for more details. The activity is extremely popular and availability goes fast.
This premium experience, selected by Barcelona Life, is a bit different from your standard cellar tour, in that not only are taken to one of the two most famous Cava producers in Spain – the Codorniu winery – for an in-depth look at top-of-the-range grape-squeezing and some tasting, but you’re also given a personal tour of a boutique vineyard. Here you’ll not just sample Catalan champagne, but a range of red and white, sparkling and still, local wines – and get to sit down for a tapas-style lunch with the wine-making family. If you’re looking for a more intimate/authentic experience of Cava and other Catalan wines, you just found it! The price varies on the size of the group, but is currently €150-220 per head, incl. private transport to and from the city centre. Email us on email@example.com to reserve or enquire.
Also worth reading is our article on the Cava vineyards of Catalonia where you can read about some of the individual wineries where the wines are produced, and how to arrange your own visit if you prefer to travel independently. Meanwhile, if your epicurean sensibilities also include fine food then check out our guide to dining out and our page on delicious cooking and tasting activities.