What is Cava? Spain’s Bubbly Explained 

By: Nicole Indovino / Last updated: May 1, 2024

An Introduction to Spanish Sparkling Wine:

I love any opportunity to celebrate, whether a birthday, holiday, or getting together with old friends. Any occasion is a good one for sparkling wine. That being said, Champagne can be quite a splurge. That’s why I love Cava as my celebratory drink of choice. A Spanish sparkling wine, it is much closer in profile to Champagne than Prosecco, offering a fantastic value for its quality. Chef José Andres calls it “the best-kept secret in the world.” In this article, I will outline everything you need to know about Cava, including its production methods, how to select the right bottle, and the best ways to serve it.

The History and Origins of Cava:

Sparkling wine arrived in Spain in the 1870s when Josep Reventós brought Champagne production methods back to his region of Spain, Catalunya. Not long after, Phylloxera, the vineyard plague, reached Spain. Catalan farmers were forced to rip out their vineyards, mainly planted with red wine varieties. Upon replanting, many local growers opted for indigenous white varieties that make refreshing sparkling wine, which gave them a unique style and rise to popularity throughout the 19th century. They named their product ‘cava’ after the caves where they store and age the wines, adding unique charm and history to it.

Cava Regions and Regulations:

Catalunya hosts the heart of Cava production, specifically Penedès, right outside Barcelona. This area’s temperate climate and Mediterranean influence make it perfect for producing fresh, sparkling wines. However, the ‘D.O. Cava‘ designation is not limited to a specific region, allowing producers to make this sparkling wine in many of Spain’s wine regions, such as Rioja, Navarra, Valencia, Aragon, and Extremadura. Within Cava, different aging requirements and sweetness levels provide different profiles of the wine, all instilled and monitored by the Cava Regulatory Board to ensure quality. 

In the past decade, Cava producers aiming for greater distinction and higher quality standards have established ‘Classic Penedés‘ and ‘Corpinnat‘ to regulate wine production alongside DO Cava. ‘Classic Penedés’ mandates that producers make Cava from 100% organic grapes grown in the DO Penedés and age for 15 months. ‘Corpinnat’ focuses more on the producer and comprises 11 estates within the DO Penedés, creating exceptional sparkling wines from organically grown grapes. The strong dedication to sustainability is a unique pride point for the region, and they are much further along in organics than Champagne. 

Cava vs. Champagne: Production Methods

Cava is made using the Methode Traditionelle (Traditional Method).

  • Making the Base Wine: Producers separate different grape varieties and ferment them in stainless steel tanks until they become dry wines.
  • Blending: Also known as ‘coupage,” the winemaker blends the different base wines with the desired proportions of each variety. Each Cava producer has their own style, and the blend can also depend on the vintage’s growing conditions.
  • Tirage: The winemakers bottle the newly blended base wine and add the ‘tirage,’ a calculated combination of yeast and sugar, to re-ferment the wine. The bottles are then sealed with bottle caps.
  • Second Fermentation / Aging: As the wine ferments for the second time, the carbon dioxide produced from the fermentation has nowhere to escape, dissolving into the wine. This creates bubbles. As the yeast die off, they form solid particles called ‘lees,’ which settle in the bottom of the bottle. As the wine ages with the lees, the interaction creates smaller, finer bubbles and complex aromas we associate with sparkling wines, like toasted bread or hazelnuts. 
  • Riddling: Towards the end of the aging process, winemakers begin turning and tilting the bottles downward so the lees collect in the bottleneck, either by hand or with a machine called a Gyropalette. 
  • Disgorgement: Once the sediment has collected in the bottleneck, it is time to disgorge. This is done by freezing the neck of the bottle and then carefully opening it so only the solids shoot out. 
  • Top off: Once disgorged, the winery adds more sparkling wine to fill up any lost liquid during the disgorgement process. Additionally, they add the appropriate amount of sugar if the wine is destined to become a ‘Brut’ or ‘Seco.’ Finally, they cork the bottles, place the wire cage and foil, and the Cava is ready to roll!

This technique matches the one used for Champagne, while Prosecco undergoes the second fermentation in a pressurized tank. The traditional method results in finer bubbles and structure that you won’t find in Prosecco, making Cava an excellent option for a more economical sparkling wine with high quality.

Grapes Types Used in Make Cava

Xarel-lo grapes: One of the principal grape varieties used in the production of Cava

What differentiates Cava from Champagne are the grapes. In Champagne, the blend typically consists of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Cava commonly uses grape varieties native to the region, so in Penedés, the blend often consists of Macabeo, which adds floral aromatics; Xarel-lo, providing structure and body; and Parellada, which adds fruit and acidity. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Cava Regulatory Board permitted international varieties. Now, some Cava brands, especially some of the more prestigious ones, use Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in some of their wines, like Codorniu’s Gran Codorniu Chardonnay.

Categories and Types of Cava

Within the world of Cava, there is a range of aging requirements and sweetness levels that give each wine a unique profile. Let’s start with aging, a key factor in Cava’s quality. As the wine matures and interacts with the lees, it develops smaller, more integrated bubbles, a finer texture, and complex aromas that are a hallmark of high-quality Cava.

  • Cava de Guarda: From tirage to disgorgement, the wine must be aged at least nine months in bottle. These wines are bright, fruity, and floral, with a touch of yeasty aromas. 
  • Cava de Guarda Superior: This title appears on Cava bottles aged 18 months or longer. Within this category are distinct tiers.
  • Reserva: Cava Reserva is aged for more than 18 months in bottle. These wines have smaller bubbles that rise slower than Cava de Guarda, notes of riper fruits, and slight aromas of brioche and dried fruits.
  • Gran Reserva: Reservas age for more than 30 months in a bottle. These wines express more robust, savory aromas of toasted bread, almonds, and hazelnuts. The bubbles are much finer in texture and have a creamier velvet finish as they are more integrated into the wine. 
  • Cava de Paraje Calificado (Cava of Qualified Location): As the name suggests, these are very high-quality Cavas from specific vineyard sites aged at least 36 months in bottle. They express flavors and aromas similar to Gran Reservas but have finer structure and a greater expression of their vineyard site. 

Along with the various aging requirements and tiers of Cava, there is also categorization based on the level of sweetness. This doesn’t indicate quality but rather the style of the wine. Listed below are the types of Cava, from driest to sweetest, with their permitted sugar content. 

  • Brut Nature: No added sugar, 0-3g/L.
  • Extra Brut: Up to 6g/L of sugar can be added to the wine 0-6g/L.
  • Brut: Slightly more sugar added, with a maximum of 12g/L.
  • Extra Seco: 12-17g/L of sugar.
  • Seco: 17-32g/L of added sugar.
  • Semi Seco: 32-50g/L of added sugar.
  • Dulce: > 50g/L of added sugar.

Selecting & Tasting Cava: What to Expect

Given all the information above, choosing a bottle of Cava might seem overwhelming. It’s a lot to handle between Cavas produced in different regions, Corpinnat, Classic Penedes, and the varying sweetness or aging requirements. If you are looking for a lighter, crisper style of sparkling wine, Cava de Guarda is the way to go with its bright citrus acidity and notes of stone fruits. If you want a more bodied, bready/nutty profile, a Reserva or Gran Reserva will provide a more complex profile due to the longer aging on the lees. Regarding sweetness level, Extra Brut and Brut Cavas will be your most versatile choices; however, depending on what you are eating, try a sweeter or dryer bottle.

Vintage vs. Non-vintage?

Another factor to consider is vintage. Jose María Ferrer, the owner of Familia Ferrer, joked in an article with SevenFiftyDaily that “We used to say that the difference between Champagne and Cava is that Champagne has a very exceptional vintage every ten years, but with Cava, it’s the other way around; we have a bad vintage every ten years.” However, this is changing with the onset of climate change with droughts and unexpected weather events. He goes on to say that he is excited about the challenge of expressing the harvest conditions in each vintage of Cava, treating it more like a wine than a sparkling. You will also find some Cavas that are ‘non-vintage,’ meaning a blend of wines from several years. These are often cheaper, un-aged options with light profiles.

Top Cava Brands

  • Codorníu: One of the oldest family businesses in Spain, Codorníu is credited with pioneering Cava production. They are renowned for their Anna de Codorníu, a benchmark for high-quality Cava.
  • Freixenet: Perhaps the most globally recognized Cava brand, Freixenet is famous for its iconic black bottle for Cordon Negro. They offer a wide range of Cavas, appealing to various tastes and preferences.
  • Gramona: A family-run winery with a long history, Gramona is known for its artisan Cavas. They use lengthy aging processes, sometimes up to 10 years, to produce complex and refined bubbles.
  • Recaredo: Focused on biodynamic farming, Recaredo produces some of the most respected long-aged Cavas. Their commitment to quality and sustainability sets them apart in the Cava scene.
  • Juvé & Camps: This producer is noted for its premium Cava, which is made using only grapes from its vineyards. Its Cava is celebrated for its elegance and intensity.
  • Llopart: Another producer with deep historical roots in the Penedès region, Llopart has been involved in Cava production since the 1880s. They focus on small production but with high-quality output.
  • Vilarnau: A smaller boutique producer with a modern twist on Cava production, Vilarnau is noted for its stylish bottles and equally impressive contents.
  • Mestres: Known as the artisans of Cava, Mestres emphasizes traditional methods and was the first to label their bottles as “Cava,” showcasing a deep respect for heritage.
  • Agustí Torelló Mata: This winery is famous for its high-quality Cavas, particularly its Kripta, a unique bottle-shaped Cava known for its exceptional aging capability.
  • Pere Ventura: Founded in the early 1990s, Pere Ventura has quickly made a name for itself, focusing on innovation and quality, offering distinctively crisp and aromatic Cavas.
  • Raventós i Blanc – Although no longer a Cava producer, they are a leading maker of high-quality sparkling wines from their own appellation, Conca del Riu Anoia, focusing on expressing their unique terroir.

Storing Cava

Properly storing your Cava will make it that much better once you are ready to enjoy it. Ideally, you should store Cava at 50 to 60ºF (10-15ºC) in a place with minimal light and little vibration. Additionally, if you are storing the Cava long term, we recommend storing the bottle on its side instead of upright so that the cork does not dry out.

How long should you store Cava? That depends! Due to the aging requirements, Cavas are released to market when they are ready to be consumed, so there isn’t a real need to age your bottles at home. However, if you are interested in aging Cava, you should do so in ideal conditions and with a quality bottle. 

Serving Cava

Before serving Cava, chilling it is a great idea, even if it’s been in a fridge. I recommend filling a bucket, half with ice and half with water, and chilling the bottle for 15 minutes. Next is choosing the appropriate glassware. I think the best glassware is simply the one you enjoy using most. If a champagne flute or coup makes you feel celebratory, by all means, use those. However, if you want to appreciate further the aromatics of the wine, a ‘tulip’ wine glass is the ideal choice, as the narrow bottom retains the bubbles, and the wider top allows for more aromas. A standard wine glass also works for this! In the end, use what you have and what you like! 

Another fun way to serve Cava is in a cocktail! Its light, crisp profile makes it the perfect bubbly component that does not compete too heavily with the spirits and other elements of the drink. I love using Cava when making a French 75 or an Old Cuban. Another Spanish option is Aigua de València, which combines fresh-squeezed orange juice, Cava, vodka, and gin. It’s like a mimosa but packs a serious punch. 

Food Pairings with Cava

A wonderful thing about Cava is that it pairs well with just about anything, especially with foods that are more difficult to pair with wine. For example, an Extra Seco Cava can pair deliciously with spicy South Asian cuisine. Seafood and Cava are an incredible match; the acidity pairs perfectly with oysters or classic Spanish tapas like ‘pulpo al gallego‘ or ‘gambas al ajillo.’ It can also be a great dessert pairing or even with brunch food.

Enjoying Cava: Beyond the Celebration

While special moments call for sparkling wine, you can and should enjoy Cava on many more occasions. Its versatility allows for casual sipping as a light and refreshing drink on a hot day or as a serious wine to pair with an elegant dish. Moreover, because its price point is more reasonable than Champagne’s, you can consume it more frequently and freely, even in a cocktail!


Cava is an incredible sparkling wine for any occasion. There are many options, whether a picnic in the park or an extraordinary celebration. The terroir-driven Corpinnats and Classic Penedes showcase Spain’s excellence in winemaking, and the variety of Cavas, in quality, price, and flavor profile, make it easy to choose the right bottle for any moment.



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Nicole Indovino

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