Spanish Cava or Champagne: Both Bubbly, but Distinctly Different
by Raquel Pardo
Translated into English and adapted by Jonell Galloway
Para leer la versión en español, pinche aquí
I risk sounding like a schoolteacher (or a wine snob), but I shall continue. My hair stands on end when I hear people confuse Champagne and Spanish cava, or bubbly (I hide my annoyance, of course).
I can no longer maintain my silence, so I will hastily scribble out a few lines to remove all doubts about the difference between cava and Champagne, and you can face up to the test. You only have to worry about perhaps finding yourself at a blind tasting with people who always know how distinguish one from the other, who never get it wrong. Otherwise, you’re set to roll.
First point: cava, as the Spanish call their sparkling wine, is exclusively from the Catalonia, La Rioja, La Mancha or Valencia regions in Spain, and Champagne is exclusively French, “frog”, Frenchie, show-off, you name it, and it totally redundant to say, “a glass of French champagne,” because if it is real Champagne, it is by definition French. And to be even more precise, it comes from the Champagne region northeast of Paris.
Second point: Cava and Champagne are not made with the same grapes. Without going into too much detail, white cava (as compared to pink) is usually made with three types of grapes, which is what gives its very own personality. These grapes include Xarel·lo, Macabeo and Parellada, all indigenous to Catalonia; they produce a sparkling white wine. In any case, two of the three grape varieties used to make almost all Champagne are red.
The third grape, which is very well known, not only for its use in Champagne but also because it is used to make wine of just about every origin, is Chardonnay. Chardonnay is also used to make excellent white wines, as well as a type of Champagne known as blanc de blancs, or literally, “white of whites.” The name refers to the white grape used to make the wine, in order to distinguish it from other Champagnes, which are also white in color, but which also include red grapes.
“White” champagne is white, even though it is made from red grapes. There is a reason for this: during maceration of the grape juice, unlike in the process for making red wines, the juice is not in contact with the peels and skins, which is what gives wine color — as well as other qualities — and once fermented, first in the vat or barrel, then in the bottle, the final product is Champagne.
We’ll explore how it is made another time, but we won’t delve deeper into the subject here.
But that is not the only difference between these two bubblies. There are essentially two others that make it that cava is cava and Champagne is Champagne and not vice-versa: The terroir or earth which produces each of these wines and the grapes from which they are made. Above all the first of these two fundamental differences — because from time to time cava introduces the use of grapes such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the form of blends — the earth or land, marks a fundamental difference which can be noted in either sparkling wine, whether it be French or Spanish, produces as much in the bouquet as on the palate.
Once you know this, you can go on to more complex things: fizz, acidity, mineral touch, elegance, etc. And you start preferring one over the other. I like both. I’ve tried excellent cavas and excellent Champagnes, and I like one as much as the other, both as apéritif and as an accompaniment to meals (why not eat with cava? Or with Champagne? I’m talking to men as well as women).
They are not alike, they both have bubbles, and after a glass or two, we’ll all be able to speak another language.