Even if you’ve never heard of any other Spanish wine, chances are you’ve heard about cava.  This is due to the huge international presence of cava sparkling wines.  Freixenet and Cordoníu are the two best-known producers of cava and both wineries have done a marvelous job of marketing Spain’s sparkling wines outside of their home country.  In fact, Spain exports more than half of the sparkling wines it produces, according to the Peñin Guide to Spanish Wine 2007.

You may wonder where the Cava DO is located, and the answer is complex.  Cava is actually a wine region without a region.  Cava DO wines can be made wherever the cava method is used, and wherever cava-designated vineyards are located.  This means that the DO is spread among 160 towns in seven of Spain’s political regions.  However, most cavas are made in Cataluña, specifically in the Penedès area.  The heart of Spain’s cava production is Sant Sadurní d’Anoia; 75 percent of all cavas produced in Spain come from this area in southern Barcelona province.  The Ebro Valley is also home to many cava vineyards.

Because the DO is located in many different areas, it’s nearly impossible to characterize its climate, soils or geography.  Most of the designated cava vineyards enjoy a Mediterranean or Continental climate.

Cava Grape Varieties
Traditionally, three grape varieties were used in cava production: Macabeo (viura), xarel.lo (pansà blanca) and parellada.  Today, you can also find cava wines made from chardonnay and subirat parent white wine grapes as well as the red varieties garnacha, monastrell, trepat and pinot noir.  Trepat and pinot noir grapes may only be used in rosado wines.

Cava History and Method
Cava production began in Spain in the middle of the 19th century, and sparkling Spanish wines were called “xampán” until 1883.  The name was changed because French Champagne producers objected to its use.  Spanish sparkling wines were called “espumosos” or “Spanish champagnes” in various countries, until the name was officially changed to cava in 1983.

Cava wines are often labeled with the words “método tradicional,” which, of course, means “traditional method.”  This production method originated in France but was quickly adopted in Spain, most notably by Josep Raventós i Fatjó of Cordoníu, who created the first truly successful cava wine in 1872.

Cava wine production begins in the vineyard.  In many cases, the grapes are picked early in the morning.  The grapes are either carefully boxed and trucked to the winery for pressing, or, increasingly, pressed right in the vineyard.  Next, the still wine goes through a cold fermentation process.

The blending process gives each cava its individual character.  This step, in which different amounts of still wines are combined to create a cuvée (blend), can involve traditional proportions of macabeo, xarel.lo and parellada, but the cuvée can also be 100 percent chardonnay or some other combination of approved still wines.  At this stage, the licor de tiraje, a combination of yeasts, sugar and wine, is added so that the second fermentation can begin.  The cuvée is bottled and the bottles are allowed to “rest on their lees,” or age on their sides, for at least nine months.  (Many cava wines rest on their lees for 30 months or even longer; if you see a cava marked “Gran Reserva,” you’ll know it has spent a minimum of 30 months resting on its lees.)

The next step is remotion, or removido in Spanish, in which the bottles are moved to bring the yeast sediments up into the bottles’ necks for removal.  This can be done by machine or by hand.

Disgorgement, or removal of the bottle’s cap and the sediment in the neck of the bottle, is the next step.  Once the sediment is removed, licor de expedición, which adds sugars and wine to the bottle.  Addition of a small amount of alcohol is also permitted at this stage.  The wine is corked and labeled for sale after disgorgement is complete.

About half of all cavas made today are brut, but extra brut, brut nature (no sugar added with the licor de tiraje), dry, semi-dry and sweet cavas are also available.

Visiting Cava Wineries
Of course, it’s a lot more fun to tour a winery in person than to read about the método tradicionalFreixenet offers tours for a five Euro fee.  If you plan to visit on the weekend, you’ll need to reserve your place in a tour group before 1:00 P.M. on Friday of that week.  You can do this online by clicking on “Book Your Visit” on the Web site’s “Visit” page.

To get a real taste of cava history, head to Cordoníu’s imposing winery in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia to visit the true birthplace of cava.  You will need to arrange your visit in advance.

If you’d like to visit a family-run winery, stop by Gramona, also in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia , which has been making cava wines since 1881.  Contact the winery for information about booking a visit.

Whether you tour a winery in person or just enjoy a bottle or two of sparkling cava on your deck this summer, you’ll get a taste of Spain at its sparkling best.