Before I left for Spain a couple weeks ago on a trip sponsored by Freixenet (pronounced fresh-eh-net*), which runs the largest sparkling wine facility in the world and exports 80% of Spain's cava, I asked Drinks editor Maggie what burning questions she thought Serious Eaters might have about cava. "Tell us how they get the bubbles in there!" she said. Bubbles, on it.
* Though I've heard it pronounced "frexy-net," "fresh-eh-neat," and "freaking-A."
Unlike prosecco, where carbon dioxide is usually added into big bulk tanks, cava gets its tiny bubbles in individual bottles from live yeast through the méthode champenoise, the same way Champagne is made. It's one of the oldest methods for making sparkling wine.
How does it work? First let's back up to the grapes.
The grapes used in cava include parellada, which grows in northeastern Spain in Catalonia and provides a fresh, floral aroma; macabeo, grown mostly in the Rioja region, is full of good acidity; and xarel-lo, also found mostly in Catalonia, gives the cava its body and ripe fruit flavors. Depending on the cava, the percentages of these grapes will vary. (And if it's a rose cava, then red grapes are mixed in.)
The juice first goes through a primary fermentation to become wine.
Then it's time for a second fermentation. Yeast and sugar are added to each bottle of wine (and Freixenet has been using the same yeast culture since the 1960s). The wine is left to ferment en tirage, a process where the yeast consumes the sugar, its food, to create carbon dioxide. Once the yeast has gobbled up all that sugar and the bubbles are formed, there's still a yeast deposit in the bottle's neck. Getting rid of this (who'd want to drink that?) requires a process called riddling.
The bottles are rotated daily until all the yeast slowly settles in the cap of the bottle, becoming a plug-like stopper. Once it has, the yeast is disgorged by freezing the necks of the bottles in a brine solution to eject that sediment.
To top off the bottle of now-sparkling, yeast-free wine, the winemakers will add dosage. The dosage is a mixture of wine and sugar that will determine if the cava will be brut nature, brut, sec, semiseco, or dulce—the spectrum of drier to sweeter.
While cava may lack the distinction of its more celebrated fizzy friend Champagne, it's usually a more wallet-friendly option for an anynight pour. Very light, crisp, refreshing, and drinkable. And since, like Champers, it's also made via the méthode champenoise, some say it has more depth and nuanced flavors than Prosecco.
Ah, the science of bubbles. On my tour of the Freixenet headquarters, located just 35-ish miles from Barcelona in a town caled Sant Sadurni d' Anoia, we walked through the caves and breathed in the wine-infused air. The company produces over 200 million bottles of cava per year, the majority of which (70 to 80 percent) is sold during December and January, prime holiday merrymaking time.
Do you save bubbles for celebratory occasions, or drink an affordable bottle of cava on an average weeknight too?