Expert’s choice: premium Spanish sparkling
The Spanish sparkling wine scene has become increasingly fragmented, but overall quality has risen. Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW shares 18 of Spain’s best, from the Cava DO and beyond
Until the turn of the century, understanding Spanish sparkling wine was easy. Spain produced a single category, Cava, which was mostly, but not only, from Catalonia. Cava used to be cheap and cheerful, cheaper than Champagne and better quality than Charmat-method wines.
Then, confusion set in. First, a number of relatively small producers aimed for the highest quality – and achieved it. Some excelled in understanding old vineyards, others mastered ageing, a few became great at both. In one decade, several very good wines received market acclaim, and icon Cava was born – but only in the market, not yet on the label. All wines, no matter their quality, were just Cava.
Some producers were angry at the situation and left the DO. They created a new sub-appellation, Clàssic Penedès. In addition, Raventós i Blanc – owned by descendants of the ‘inventor’ of Cava – decided to work in SuperTuscan style, outside the appellation system.
The first defections moved the appellation to recognise that fine Cava is a reality, and that its potential for quality is extremely high. Cava segmented itself from the top down by creating the Cava de Paraje Calificado (single-vineyard Cava) category, which was successful in highlighting the best wines. However, it arrived too
late to prevent the exodus of another group of great producers, who formed the Corpinnat association.
In parallel, another appellation also decided to adopt high-quality sparkling wines. In 2017, Rioja’s governing body created a new category for sparkling Rioja – a fitting change, given that the first recorded Spanish sparkling wine was made in Rioja, according to littleknown documents from 1848. What’s more, several wineries in Rioja are already producing sparkling wines under the Cava DO.
Nonetheless, the Cava appellation continued its endeavours. Many of the DO’s remaining producers reacted by impressively increasing the quality of their wines, and nowadays Cava is one of the most thoroughly defined classifications in Spain.
Diversity and quality
On the one hand, sparkling Spanish wine today is a nightmare for students of wine, with so many appellations that cannot be distinguished by tasting. There is Cava from Rioja, as well as sparkling Rioja, not to mention wines from Penedès that are called Cava, Penedès or Corpinnat...
On the other hand, it is a gift for the wine lover. The quantity and average quality of sparkling wines is better than ever before. The diversity, due both to terroir and to human ingenuity, is also increasing.
Most of the best wines here have two things in common. First: the vineyard is key. The most refined examples are single-vineyard wines, many of them cultivated using biodynamic or organic methods. Second: ageing. Top wines need long ageing. In particular, bottle ageing in the cellar under cork (rather than metal caps, as is most common) results in amazing smoothness and complexity.
I hope that one day all the great producers of
Penedès get together once again under the name of Cava, or whatever title they choose. Recognising and protecting quality on a wider scale would be helpful for all. For the time being, we’ll live with the current landscape of Spanish sparkling – the wines are worthier than the words.