Cava (pronounced "kava") is the sparkling wine of Spain - just like champagne is of France, prosecco is of Italy, and sekt is of Germany.
The difference among all these sparklers is in both the grapes and the process: while Cava is produced from Spanish grapes Xarel-lo (pronounced "charello") and Macabeo (with sometimes a bit of Chardonnay thrown in) and uses the same in-bottle secondary fermentation process that is used for champagne, both prosecco and sekt, while using local grapes, use the faster in-tank Charmat method that is far cheaper (and tends to produce a simpler product).
While Cava can come from anywhere in Spain, the most (and best) Cava comes from the Penedes region near Barcelona - that is because the Xarel-lo grape (which is grown almost nowhere else in the world) provides its own distinctive character to the wine.
Cava suffers from an image problem here, principally because the only Cava available in India for several years was low-priced (and frankly not very good). Cava such as the Freixenet Negro Brut, which is produced on an industrial scale. However there are many Cavas that are as really very good - and one of those is definitely the Cava from Bodegas Gramona.
Gramona, located in the Penedes region, is owned and run by the sixth generation of the Gramona family, and their small production (less than 50,000 cases annually) belies it's status as one of Spain's most iconic Cava houses. The winery itself is over 135 years old, and its cellars go down 10 metres below the ground and hold over 2.5 million bottles. The vineyards have been 100 per cent biodynamic since 2011 - this means that not only do they use no chemical pesticides, weedicides or fertilisers, but also that they follow ancient practices in sustainable viticulture. This includes planning by phases of the moon, and even using bats for pest control!
They have recently rolled out some of their Cavas in India - including the Gramona Gran Reserva 2009 (Rs 2,940 in Bengaluru and Rs 3,630 in Mumbai). I tasted it last week and found it to be a beautiful sparkling wine, aged for two-an-a-half years on the lees and another three-and-a-half years post-disgorgement in bottle (compared to nine months on the lees for most Cavas and two years for champagnes). The wine itself has fine, long-lasting bubbles (mousse), a complex aroma of white fruits, oak, vanilla, nuts and bread or brioche and a soft yet crisp palate that, with a rich texure and a long finish, is quite stunning. And this is their entry-level wine!
Importer Wine Park had reportedly (according to Sommelier India & Indian Wine Academy) conducted a blind tasting in mid-August at the JW Marriott, Mumbai, with 3 Gramona Cava wines against several champagnes (including market leaders Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon 2004). The results indicated that the Gramona Cavas were preferred to cross-line champagnes. This reminds me of the "Judgement of Paris" tasting held in 1976 by Steven Spurrier, which showed that Californain wines were at least as good as the best from France!
Good Cava wines are priced mid-way between champagnes and cheaper prosecco or other sparkling wines. By offering quality equal to or better than champagnes at a significantly lower price, they are excellent value for money. It remains to be seen whether Cavas can overcome the brand value of champagnes to gain sales and market share: Moët Hennessy reportedly sold some 30,000 cases of the stuff in India last year, and is not going to make things easy for any Cava-come-lately.
We'll drink to that - Salud, as the Spanish say!
Alok Chandra is a Bengaluru-based wine consultant