Cava vs. Champagne - What Is the Difference?
When celebrating, we often want to open a bottle of fizz. To many, sparkling wine is synonymous with success and celebration, but there appears to be a hierarchy to which is used for a given occasion. Cava might be appropriate to celebrate the end of a tiring work week, but we seem to want to save champagne for grander occasions such as an engagement. Why is one seen as being better than the other? And why does champagne often have a much higher price tag than cava?
At oneHOWTO, we ask what is the difference between cava vs. champagne? We look at the different production methods of cava and champagne, discover how appellation affects our perception and help you choose which is best for you.
Production and appellation of cava vs. champagne
Most wines are subject to appellation. This is a legal definition which indicates where the grapes for a wine were grown and other factors which determine the wine ‘type’. For example, if you want to drink a Rioja, Burgundy or Barolo, it will have to meet certain requirements for them to be sold under these names.
Cava and champagne are two appellations. Their names do not derive from the grapes used in their production, but from their appellations. Sparkling wine which meets the requirements to be sold under the name champagne must be from the La Champagne region in France. Cava is not the name of a region, but from the cellars or caves (Spanish: 'cavas') in which they are made. However, the term ‘cava’ can still only be used if it meets the appellation requirements.
Here we look at the differences between cava vs. champagne in terms of geographical location:
- Champagne: comes from the region of La Champagne which is located in the northeast of France, with the city of Reims being considered the cradle of Champagne.
- Cava: the denomination cava refers to sparkling wines produced, according to the traditional method, in different municipalities of the so-called 'Cava Region', which encompasses areas of Catalonia. These are mainly the Penedés area and also areas of the Basque Country, Navarra, the Valencian Community, La Rioja, Aragon and Extremadura.
For this reason, one main difference between champagne and cava is that cava can be made in a larger and more diverse geographical area. In saying this, 95% of cava wine production occurs in Catalonia.
In addition to the origin of the name, the type of grape used in the production of cava and champagne can make a difference. This is because the specific varietal of grapes greatly influence their flavor.
To understand the differences between cava vs. champagne, we need to look at the grapes used in their production:
- Cava: production of cava sparkling wine uses exclusively white varietals of grape. Specifically, the most commonly used grapes are Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel·lo.
- Champagne: the main grape used to make Champagne is the white Chardonnay varietal. This is combined with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes that are more associated with red wine. The characteristics of each varietal of grape, especially its sugar composition, is partly what determines the nuances of flavor that differentiate a Spanish cava from French champagne.
Although white cava and champagne is most common, you can find varieties of rosé cava and champagne. This pink coloration is derived from the use of red grapes in the maceration process, although some champagne production may use a little red wine itself.
The grape varietal is not the only factor which determines flavor of sparkling wine. Terroir is the French word used to describe the environmental factors which influence a wine's flavor. This can be from the weather in the region, the type of land, farming practices and various other factors.
In La Champagne the climate is rather cold and has relatively frequent rain. This is very different from the temperatures under which grapes grow in the Mediterranean area as the latter are generally milder and drier. Also, the properties of the soil are different between cava and champagne regions. The soils of the French area are warmer and those of the Spanish areas somewhat more clayey.
These aspects influence the ripening process of the grape and its degree of sweetness at the time of harvest. This makes the cava have a slightly sweeter and fruitier flavor. On the other hand, champagne has a slightly more acid taste point, although we always need to take into account the different varietals and other factors.
There are no appreciable differences between champagne and cava in terms of the production process. Both drinks are made following the traditional method (‘Méthode Champenoise’, i.e. the champagne method of fermentation which is a two phase process).
The main difference in terms of elaboration between the two wines lies in the fact that it is common for champagne production to mix grapes from different additions, something that does not happen with cava. Furthermore, there is sometimes a difference in the ‘Liqueur d’expédition’ addition. This is the final addition of sugar to complete the process. This is usually a delicate combination of sugars that reduce acidity to the final product.
Finally, the aging time in the bottle until the sparkling wine is ready for consumption is usually somewhat shorter in the case of cava compared to champagne.
The grape varieties from which cava and champagne are made is a clear difference between the wines. As we have already pointed out, champagne contains grapes that are also used in different types of red wine.
The red grape provides a greater amount of tannins. These are polyphenols that give the wine a somewhat dry flavor and a slight bitterness. Expert palates know how to appreciate this subtle difference between cava and champagne. These experts are who determine, to a large extent, the qualities of a given wine due to the particularities in terms of aroma, flavor and even nuances of tonalities between the two wines.
Quality and price
The eternal dilemma about whether cava or champagne is better is nonsensical. Both are sparkling wines which need to meet a minimum level of quality to be sold under these names. Some of them are better quality than others, but even these wines will differ according to the tastes of the individual. It is perfectly possible for you to enjoy a cheap bottle of champagne over an expensive bottle of cava and vice versa.
If you are wondering whether cava or champagne is more expensive, this is also variable. In general, champagne is sold at higher prices globally, but this will depend on the market. Cava has gained position in the market over recent years and prices have become more equal. You can buy both very cheap and very expensive champagne and the same goes for cava. It is also possible to buy sparkling wines from other areas of the world which do not have the reputation of either cava or champagne, but which are incredibly delicious in their own right.
No sparkling wine is objectively better than another. The flavor and quality will depend on the grape varieties, production method, terroir and the other factors mentioned. Another important factor is the culture around wine buying. the term ‘champagne’ is used as a synonym of the best of the best (e.g. a certain type of cheese may be considered ‘the champagne’ of cheese). Cava may not have the same connotations in our culture, but the quality of the wine speaks for itself.
To know more about the quality of wine, take a look at our related articles on how to tell the age of wine and how to tell if a wine is bad.
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