Wine

Getting to Know Cava’s New Category

Spain’s budget-friendly designation gets a luxury upgrade with super-premium sparklers

Following three years of paper pushing, Cava’s new, super-premium category, Cava Paraje Calificado (CPC), has been approved and will hit shelves in time for the New Year. This slimmed down Cava category presently includes 12 wines, all of which meet meticulously high standards in a bid to elevate Cava to a world-class sparkling wine category.

The impetus to create a superior category was an attempt to overcome Cava’s widespread reputation as a budget option for sparkling wine, a popular view rooted in the international consciousness since the 1990s. “The Paraje Calificado is changing the inertia of the image of Cava,” says Pedro Bonet, president of the Cava Regulatory Board, which initiated the category’s creation. “It’s no longer just seen as a good-value product but one of excellence.”

A Growing Category

While Cava became internationally known only in the 1980s, Spain’s first traditional-method sparkling wine was made in 1872 by Josep Raventòs of the Codorníu dynasty in Catalonia—he’s considered the forefather of the Cava industry. The term “Cava” itself was introduced only in the late ’50s and didn’t become an official Denominación de Origen (DO) until 1986, following Spain’s entry into the European Union (EU).

The Cava DO split wine production into three categories:

  • Cava (a minimum of 9 months aging on the lees)
  • Cava Reserva (a minimum of 15 months aging on the lees)
  • Cava Gran Reserva (a minimum of 30 months aging on the lees)

 

All Cava must be made with a traditional secondary fermentation in the bottle—as is true of Champagne—and can only be made from the native grape varieties Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Malvasia, Garnacha Tinto, Monastrell, and Trepat or the international sparkling wine varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Cava Conundrum

Unlike most other DOs in the world, however, Cava has few limits on the provenance of the grapes. The wine is predominantly produced in Catalonia, but it can be made in Spanish wine regions as far-flung as Extremadura and Rioja. The business structure, with almost twice as many Cava producers as base wine producers (there were 244 Cava producers and 159 base wine producers in 2014, according to the Cava Regulatory Board), also means that purchasing base wine is common and that the marketing of Cava is rarely focused on vineyard site but rather brand.

Spain’s entry into the EU shifted the market from predominantly domestic consumption, which had been over 90 percent, to predominantly international consumption. Approximately two-thirds of Cava is exported today, making it the most exported sparkling wine in the world. And while the international thirst for Cava continues to grow, over 85 percent of the 242 million bottles of Cava produced each year retail for under $20.

Little is known abroad about the high-end Reserva (10 percent of total annual production) and Gran Reserva (2 percent). This is what the CPC category aims to redress, says Bonet. “Cava has an enormous worldwide distribution in over 140 countries,” he says. “But it’s focused on supermarkets. We have some stupendous Cavas that aren’t well known around the world … They represent only 2 percent[need to say of overall production of Cavas, and within that, a small portion is Paraje Calificado, which really offers the maximum experience. CPC presents the great quality of Cava to sommeliers, writers, and consumers.”

Parameters of the Cava Paraje Calificado DO

The technical committee that developed Cava Paraje Calificado set out to identify and differentiate single-parcel vineyards that produce wines of superior quality, under certain production rules:

  • Qualified small area (single parcel)
  • Maximum yield of 8,000 kilograms per hectare (must yield of 48 hectoliters per hectare)
  • Vines older than 10 years
  • Estate bottled
  • Minimum of 36 months aging on the lees
  • Single vintage
  • Dry style (Brut, Extra Brut, or Brut Nature)

 

Wine buyers, in particular, may be interested to learn that each Paraje Calificado wine is rigorously blind-tasted by a panel of experts (as a base wine and as a finished sparkling wine) to approve its conformity with the new category’s high standards. “Conformity,” however, does not mean there’s a lack of diversity within the classification. “The singularity of the Paraje has to be shown in the wine,” explains Bonet, “and that is what’s most interesting. There are common denominators in the aging and quality, but because the origin is very different, they don’t taste like each other at all.”

Within CPC, you’ll find large and small producers, organic and biodynamic practices, and vineyards ranging up to 300 meters in altitude and with varied slate, clay, and calcareous soils. Most of the wines have already established a cult status in the Cava category and go beyond the classification’s minimum requirements—with vines up to 80 years old, and lees-aging periods extending over 108 months. While any authorized Cava grape variety is permitted, the majority of CPC wines are dominated by or made solely from Xarel-lo.

The 12 wines that have been given the CPC seal of approval are:

 

These wines are already on sale, although stock is extremely limited—they make up less than 0.1 percent of Cava’s total production, with only 220,000 bottles currently available worldwide. With all of the wines retailing for more than $100 a bottle, CPC is undeniably niche, but it’s expected to grow in the near future.

Impact on the Future of Cava

An increase in CPC wines is imminent. “The panel approved another three Paraje Calificado wines [on December 13], so we will have 15 very soon,” confirmed Bonet. “I think we will see an increase of around two to three wines [that will] qualify each year, because many producers are already working toward the qualification. In the future, there’ll probably be a maximum of 30 to 35 Paraje Calificados.”

Although the CPC collection will steadily grow, for Bonet, it’s the overall improvement in Cava that’s most important. “Within the industry,” he says, “there’s a new ambition among producers to improve their facilities and production in order to obtain this category. This is great because we’ll see all premium Cava improving across the board.”

Whether you can quickly get your hands on a bottle of Paraje Calificado or not, the new category is sure to spark a greater interest from both consumers and industry insiders in the stars of Spain’s sparkling wine industry.

Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.

Most Recent

Wine

Do Celebrity Wines Sell?

Industry professionals discuss how fame affects the retail sales of wines associated with actors, musicians, and sports stars