The Best Cava Is Not Even Called Cava
And other lessons in confusion among Spain's finest sparkling wines
We’re featuring Jason Wilson today, author of the newsletter,“Everyday Drinking,” one of the 11 recipients of the Substack Food Fellowship, here. We encourage you to subscribe to these publications, as they’re some of the best food newsletters around.
— The editors
One of my favorite podcasts is 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s by music critic Rob Harvilla. I especially love Harvilla’s audio essays on Guns N Roses’ “November Rain,” Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
A recent episode deals with the controversy surrounding the 1993 release of Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (which Harvilla argues is a “strip-club song that has transcended the strip club and now aspires to turn the whole wide world into a strip club”). However, a couple of months before Tag Team, another group called 95 South had already released a very similar — and similarly titled — song: “Whoot, There It Is.”
The controversy and confusion culminated in an appearance by both groups on The Arsenio Hall Show, where viewers voted on their favorite by calling a 900 number. In the end, Tag Team’s version, more mainstream and less raunchy, was the hit—the one still played at weddings and in Geico commercials— while 95 South’s is now more of a footnote.
I’ve been pondering the subtle, but obvious, differences between “Whoomp! (There It is)” and “Whoot, There It is.” I’ve also been thinking about how confusion in pop culture and the marketplace happens, and the consequences of this confusion. And so—for the purposes of this newsletter — I’ve been thinking about cava.
Cava is Spain’s best-known sparkling wine. The finest cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne. Unfortunately, in most markets across the world, cava competes in a race to the bottom with cheap prosecco.
Within Spain alone, 90 percent of cava retails for under 10 euros. More than 75 percent of cava production is by two huge wineries, Freixenet and Codorníu, who control the Cava D.O. Yes, perhaps surprisingly, cava is a Denominación de Origen, yet it’s one that’s not based on place. Cava sparkling wines can be made in over 20 different regions across Spain, as long as they’re made méthode traditionnelle — the key difference between cava and prosecco.
There is an ocean of uninspiring, middling cava. “The sparking wine in this region was always supposed to be fruity and fun,” says Ana López Lidon of Gramona. “But we know it can be a serious wine.”
In 2019, after years of living under Big Cava’s thumb and its denial of terroir, producers like Gramona had enough. Nine estates from Penedès, the area of Catalonia south of Barcelona that is cava’s spiritual home, broke ties and left the D.O. to bottle their wines under the brand name Corpinnat (roughly meaning “heart of Penedès” in Latin). “We all quit on the same day,” says López. “The Cava drama!” There are now 11 members.
“We thought it was necessary to do something,” says Ton Mata of Recaredo. “People around the world were thinking cava was only a massive, cheap wine. But we can compete with any sparkling wine in the world. Corpinnat wants to play in the Champions League.”
For now, Corpinnat is not an actual D.O. — it’s only a trade group —since Big Cava can block an official denomination. You’ll have to look for Corpinnat on the label, not cava. But that name carries weight.
The rules for Corpinnat are strict: Grapes must be organic and picked by hand. All wine must be made at the winery, with no juice bought from outside, per Big Cava’s business model. If Corpinnat wineries buy grapes, they are obligated to pay a higher, premium price to growers. Aging rules are also more strict: All Corpinnat wines must spend at least 18 months on the lees (meaning all wines qualify as Reserva) and wineries must make at least one wine that ages 30 months or more and another aged 60 months or more on the lees.
“Thirty years ago, if we talked about terroir here, everyone would be laughing,” says Ton Mata. “We have a wonderful story, and it’s a true story. There’s rigor.”
Corpinnat was not the first rebellion in cava. Before that, in 2012, Pepe Raventós of the famed Raventós i Blanc estate left the Cava D.O. to bottle under his own invented designation, Conca del Riu Anoia.
The following year, there was a secession of a dozen other producers from the D.O. to start a new denomination, called Clàssic Penedès (which is an official D.O., now with 18 members) Classic Penedès also has strict rules, including that grape must be 100 percent organically grown and wines must spend 15 months on the lees (meaning they are also all Reserva).
“For me, there are two ways to make wines. You can make popular wines or you can make wines with soul,” says Augustí Torelló i Sibill of AT Roca, which is at the vanguard of Clàssic Penedès.
So to recap: Spain’s most famous sparkling wine went from having a simple four-letter name to now being labeled as Corpinnat or Clàssic Penedès or possibly even Conca del Riu Anoia. Whoomp (or whoot), there it is … a lot confusion.
When I was recently in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, the town 45 minutes west of Barcelona that sits at the center of cava production, the producers all seemed very aware of how puzzling the various labels might be in the marketplace.
“Yes, I know it’s confusing now,” says Ton Mata. “I’m not proud of that, but cava was stuck. We had to do something. I hope in the future we can all join in one prestige project.”
“I believe Corpinnat and Clàssic Penedès can work together. We are different places, but I think we will eventually arrive in the same place,” says Torelló.
To be fair, there has always been confusion surrounding the name cava, which is itself a relatively recent term. Until the 1980s, most called Catalonian sparkling wine “Xampany” (pronounce the X as if saying shah). You can still find sparkling wine listed as Xampany in some of Barcelona’s old wine bars. When Spain joined the EU in 1986, France objected to the use of Xampany for obvious reasons. So “cava” (the Spanish word for cave or cellar) came into usage.
Traditionally, cava is made from three white grapes: Macabeu (aka Viura), Parellada, and Xarel·lo. While the vast majority is a blend, some of the Corpinnat producers have begun exploring single-varietal bottlings. There has been a particular focus on Xarel·lo, the most uniquely Catalan variety (with its unique Catalan spelling, that is not a typo). Xarel·lo (pronounced shah-rell-lo) has high acidity, low pH, and one of the highest levels of the antioxidant resveratrol. There is almost no Xarel·lo planted outside of Catalonia.
“Nobody knows how long a Xarel·lo can age. They used to think Xarel·lo was too rustic and too strong. No one ever did more than 40 percent in a blend. Why didn’t we look at this grape and give it the importance it deserves?” says Ton Mata. Recaredo was the first to do it when they released the legendary 1999 Turó d’en Mota in 2008. They are now in the process of selecting Xarel·lo exceptional vines and using those cuttings when they plant new vineyards.
Of course, even with all the rebellion in the Catalan air, some very good producers have decided to stick with the Cava D.O. At Mata i Coloma, winemaker Pere Mata sees no reason to leave. “Why? I love cava,” says Mata (there are a lot of Matas in the region). “People say Freixenet and Codorníu are cheap and give a bad image to cava. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Because of these companies, everyone knows cava. They allow me to go into the market and say ‘Mine is better and it’s a little more expensive.’” Besides, he says, “cava has to fight with prosecco. That’s the competition.”
Where will all the Cava Drama eventually go? No one really knows. “The Cava D.O. would definitely love to have Corpinnat back,” says López, a possibility that’s still not out of the question in coming years.
I’ve always believed good Spanish sparkling might take its place next to other, more coveted sparkling wines. Maybe at a natural bar alongside the pet nats from the cool natty winemakers. Maybe on a restaurant wine list alongside the grower Champagne. Maybe at a wedding, to be sipped on the dance floor as the DJ pumps out “Whoomp! (There It Is)”—or “Whoot, There It is” as the case may be.