Winemaking

How Cava is produced: The magic of a precise and unique method

What makes the unique personality of Cava stand out from other sparkling wines? The answer is, how it is made. The process follows the traditional method, or “méthode champenoise”, and is mainly characterised by a second fermentation in the same bottle which the consumer will choose from the shelf. This method both guarantees and defines the high quality of Cava.

Cava viñedo

The vineyard

Cava viñedo

Where quality starts

The vineyard is where the production process starts. While it is similar to wine initially, numerous factors make Cava unique and singular.

The first of these is choosing when to harvest the grapes, ensuring a good level of acidity to enable the future aging and double fermentation of what will become Cava. Once the collected grapes have been taken to the winery, the clusters are taken off their stems and the fruit is separated from its stalk. Then the grapes are gently pressed, with a maximum yield of 66%: this ensures that the must (grape juice) obtained is high quality, and suitable for subsequent aging in the bottle.

Alcoholic fermentation

The starting point for a wine with special characteristics

The grape musts, separated by individual variety, are clarified, preparing them for the next stage: alcoholic fermentation, when they are transformed into so-called base wines. In this step, yeast is introduced for the first time; the type most typically used is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The process is carried out under carefully controlled temperature conditions, ensuring the correct fermentation of the grapes, which will be converted into wine of 9.5-11.5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Once the first fermentation has been completed, the wine is racked again, to separate the solid material, or sediment, deposited at the bottom during this stage of production.

Blending or coupage

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The first step to Cava’s identity

Blending, or coupage in French, is especially important in that it determines the proportion of each base wine in the final product - the first identifying mark. This, along with two other factors - the length of aging, and the dosage - are key in creating the final character of Cava.

Each winery will often seek to create a specific style of Cava, in terms of which base wines are used, thereby lending their brand its own personality, while also ensuring quality and continuity, year after year.

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Cava bodega

And then the bubbles are born...

Cava bodega

The second fermentation in the bottle

So how do the bubbles appear? Is it really a natural process? The second fermentation is undoubtedly the stage that best defines Cava, and which lends the product its magical aura. Although it seems incredible, the secret that makes Cava so special, and which differentiates the product from other sparkling wines, is that the famous bubbles are formed inside the bottle.

Everything starts with the tirage. Once the base wines have been blended, they are bottled in what will be their final container, the same one which the Cava lover will choose from the shelf. In order for those marvellous bubbles to be “born”, the producer must add licor de tiraje (tirage liqueur) which provides further sustenance to the yeast, thereby starting a new, second, fermentation.

Cava bodega

But as well as converting the added sugar into alcohol, this addition produces carbon dioxide in an endogenous and natural way. This gas does not disappear, thanks to the bottle being tightly sealed, and remains as an integral element of the Cava.

So what is licor de tiraje? It is simply a blend of base wine, yeast, and sugar (in the form chosen by the producer: sucrose, concentrated grape must, rectified concentrated grape must, or partially fermented grape must).

During this second fermentation, the bottles stay in a horizontal position, traditionally known as en rima, and start their aging process. The bottles are usually sealed with a crown cap which shows the bottling date and number of the bottler. These two pieces of information allow traceability of the process and guarantee its quality.

After some months, a minimum of nine for the wine to be called Cava, the yeast remains which have finished their lifecycle, are deposited at the bottom of the bottle.

Cava bodega

The aging period

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The Cava must be in contact with its lees, or yeast while aging

an essential rest

Throughout the aging process, the position of the bottle allows the Cava to remain in contact with the lees. These dead yeast cells contribute to the aromatic complexity and final creaminess.

In order for this process to take place, the bottles must remain completely still, in a dark, quiet environment, and with constant humidity and temperature levels, during the aging period.

Depending on how long the producer decides that the Cava should be aged for, the bottle will be a Cava de Guarda, Reserva or Gran Reserva, from a minimum nine months up to triple figures. The shorter the time, the fresher and more bubbly the Cava, whereas Cavas that have aged longer have more aromatic complexity and integrated bubbles.

Minimum aging periods

Cava (de Guarda): 9 months

Cava Reserva (Guarda Superior) : 15 months

Cava Gran Reserva (Guarda Superior): 30 months

Cavas de Paraje Calificado (Guarda Superior): 36 months

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The Cava must be in contact with its lees, or yeast while aging
Cava bodega
Cava bodega

The versatility of Cava is one of its most prized assets, thanks to the variety of styles and aging periods. When a Cava is aged for longer than 18 months, a phenomenon exclusive to quality sparkling wine occurs: autolysis.

A slow and complex chemical process, this consists of enzymes breaking down the dead yeast (lees), producing proteins, volatile compounds and fatty acids, among others. Autolysis also lends the Cava de Guarda Superior aromas of dried fruit, toast, pastries, toffee, caramel etc, aromas which intensify as the Cava ages. This process also produces a rounder mouthfeel, as well as preventing the wine from deteriorating during the aging process.

Riddling

Removido manual
Manual “riddling”, or turning of the bottles

the ancient, artisanal technique

When the winemaker judges that the Cava is ready to be consumed, the aging process ends and the next stage takes place: riddling. This ancient and artisanal technique consists of moving the dead yeast sediments towards the neck of the bottle. Every day, the person in charge moves each bottle, which is held in a pupitre (cage), an eighth of a turn, until it is in a vertical position, with the neck down. The objective is for the Cava to end up completely clear and bright, without losing the carbon dioxide gas inside the bottle - those precious bubbles.

Traditionally in the past riddling was done manually, but for some years now it has been a mechanised job, thanks to machines called gyropalettes, which reduce the time taken for this stage to just a few days.

Removido manual
Manual “riddling”, or turning of the bottles
Degüelle manual
Removing the cap manually, or “disgorgement

Disgorgement

Degüelle manual

the moment of truth

Disgorgement is the operation of uncorking the bottle to remove the sediment, and also the moment when the decision is made to finish the aging process. Like riddling, this process was carried out by hand for years, but new techniques have allowed the process to be improved without affecting the final quality of the product.

Usually the neck of the bottle is frozen, in a vertical upside-down position, so that the ice block formed catches the sediments accumulated above the crown cap.

Then the bottle is opened, either manually or mechanically. This causes the interior pressure to expel the ice formed, leaving the contents clean and shining.

Types of Cava

The dosage or licor de expedición

the final decision

Once the Cava has been disgorged, the liquid lost during the operation must be replaced. This is also a key moment for deciding what type of Cava it will be sold as. Once the second fermentation is complete, the wine has no sugar left, as it has been consumed by the yeast.

But sugar can be added by the winemaker, using the so-called licor de expedición (expedition liqueur). This mixture of wine and sugar will define, depending on the quantity used, the final type of Cava:

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0-3 G/L
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0-6 G/L
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Max.12 G/L
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12-17 G/L
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17-32 G/L
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32-50 G/L
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+50 G/L

Adding the cork, foil cap and label

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Once the licor de expedición has been added (if the winemaker decides to add it), and the small quantity of Cava expelled after disgorgement has been replenished, the next stage is to seal the bottle. The cork is inserted using pressurisation and, in order to avoid the interior pressure pushing it out, a wire cage is attached to the top of the bottle neck. When the correct label has been added, indicating the type of Cava contained in the bottle, it is ready to be consumed and enjoyed by whoever buys it.

Cheers!

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