There are high hopes for “Cava de Paraje Calificado”, a new premium category for Spain’s best known sparkling wine which is expected to boost its quality. Several Masters of Wine and a good number of foreign wine journalists attended the official, relatively solemn launch which took place in Barcelona’s iconic concert hall Palau de la Música a couple of weeks ago.
The chairman of the Cava Regulatory Board, Pedro Bonet, expects the first new Cava bottles to reach the market before the end of the year. The new category will only include Cavas sourced from vineyards which are at least 10 years old and aged for 36 months, six more than the minimum established for the Gran Reserva category. Additionally, the new Cavas must have traceability records for three years but this shouldn’t be an issue since the Regulatory Board was already monitoring the Gran Reserva category.
Producers are asked to prove the uniqueness of their terroirs by submitting a detailed report including soil tests and analytical data. Thereafter wines will need to get the approval of a tasting panel of national and foreign experts including Spanish Master of Wine Pedro Ballesteros, sommelier and Jancis Robinson contributor Ferrán Centelles and his fellow wine writer Richard Hemming, La Vanguardia’s wine critic Ramón Francàs or the director of the Regulatory Board’s technical services Francisco Gonzalez.
“We have been explaining the category to both the wine press and the Masters of Wine for over two years,” says Bonet during a telephone interview. “Most of them agree it was about time that we did something to distinguish high quality Cavas. There will always be cheap Cava around, but we really need to upgrade the image of our sparkling wines,” he points out.
Bonet expects the new Cava de Paraje to retail on a level with standard Champagne and sell 1.5 million bottles in the medium term compared to annual production of 240 million bottles for the entire Cava category.
The new regulation vaguely establishes that all plots included in the paraje (setting) must be located either in the vicinity of the producers’ cellars or their pressing facilities in order to accommodate urban wineries in the category.
As expected, the new Paraje classification is open to all Cava producers regardless of where they are based —Cava can be producer in specific villages of La Rioja, Zaragoza, Badajoz or Valencia. “The appellation is for all Cava producers; all of them have the right to apply if they comply with the requirements,” confirms Pedro Bonet.
Jaume Gramona, co-owner of top producer Cavas Gramona, announced in the course of an encounter held in Logroño in late May that they will concur to the new category with their high-end Cavas, starting from III Lustros, which barely represent 55,000 bottles out of 700,000 bottles of total production. Ton Mata from Recaredo confirmed that three of their Cavas, Turó d'en Mota, Brut de Brut Finca Serral del Vell and Subtil, would fit the category and Bonet himself, who also works as communications director at Freixenet, admitted it would be logical for them to jump in with their top Casa Sala.
Despite the high expectations, most producers are aware that the new category won’t put an end to Cava’s recurrent problems. “The DO Cava is a complex, half-baked appellation with a serious handicap to export premium sparkling wines”, said Jaume Gramona at the meeting in Logroño. “Single-vineyards wines are not necessarily better, but provided they show the uniqueness of a defined area they may help to bring the idea of terroir to such a geographically dispersed appellation.”
Jaume Gramona made these statements at one of the round tables held during a seminar called “Classification of quality wines in Rioja: illusion or challenge for the future?”, an encounter organized by Diam to discuss the various zoning options for Spain’s leading appellation.
It was a very different atmosphere from the First Wine Growing Encounter held a few days earlier at Remelluri (Labastida, Rioja Alavesa). Most speakers acknowledged the existence of rifts in Spain’s first DOC and agreed that traditional aging categories (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) are not quality indications any more and that Spain is struggling to generate added-value, luxury products in the wine sector. Despite the shared voice, it became clear throughout the day that significant differences are still palpable among Rioja producers.
Small winegrowers championed a terroir-driven approach. Juan Carlos Sancha, who runs his own project in Baños del Río Tobía (Alto Najerilla Valley in southwest Rioja) and is a member of the Rioja Family Wineries association, said “oak has been the major quality actor in Rioja and all over Spain.” He insisted it was the time of terroir and of equate quality to soils. “We have to go back to our land and make wines from our vineyards”, Sancha concluded.
“It’s too early to talk about a classification”, explained Tom Puyaubert, a member of the maverick group of young producers Rioja’n’Roll. “It’d be much better to start zoning such a large appellation starting with village wines instead of putting the cart before the horse.” He considered it dramatic that many producers are registering traditional site names as brands thus depriving wine growers of the right to use them. “We long for the day when different producers can state the name of a site on their labels,” he said.
Members of Grupo Rioja, a business association with over 50 producers controlling around two thirds of Rioja wine sales, advocate for a single-vineyard category, similar to the one approved by Cava Regulatory Board. Diego Martínez Aroca, marketing manager at Finca Valpiedra, the sole winery in Rioja to be a member of the Grandes Pagos de España association, claimed the right to state on the label the single-vineyard status of their wines. “We champion geographical and qualitative distinctions,” he added.
One of the most conservative positions came from Barón de Ley manager Alex Tomé, also a member of Grupo Rioja. “The diamond should be polished, not cut,” he said figuratively. In his opinion Rioja is a successful model that creates value at all levels and so are the traditional aging categories, despite the fact that quality is not always satisfactory; in his view, efforts should be directed to "improve the model."
Íñigo Torres, chairman of the Strategic Plan Commission of Rioja’s Regulatory Board, offered the most realistic picture and announced that the single-vineyard approach was the most likely to go ahead. He also recommended caution and tried to prove with figures the difficulty of taking decisions in Rioja and the economic impact it entails. Torres added that work was under way to improve the traditional aging categories in a way that they could add real value. “However much we may want to be Burgundy, we are not,” he concluded.
DOQ Priorat (1,900 hectares) has been the sole appellation so far to make a classification following the French model of village and single-vineyard wines. But last month the board of the tiny Sierra de Salamanca appellation –with barely 90 hectares of vines— gave the go-ahead to develop village wines in the area.
Bierzo in Castilla y Léon (roughly 3,000 hectares) could be next. “We are working on a soil map as the first step for zoning in cooperation with the University of León and its deputy chancellor and geologist José Ramón Rodríguez,” explained the chairman of the Regulatory Board, Misericordia Bello, to SWL. “We haven’t submitted our draft to the regional government yet so I can’t offer details, but we are likely to start with village wines in the planned zoning phase.”
Larger scale zoning efforts are under way in Catalonia. In June 2016, Penedès finally approved a map with eight subareas. Montsant is following a similar path; six subareas have already been established and further tasting work is in progress to assess the style of each of them. Terra Alta created a zoning commission 10 months ago.
The single-vineyard category was clearly established by the Catalan government a long time ago. As opposed to other Spanish regions like Castilla La Mancha where a single estate can have its own DO, Vinos de Finca in Catalonia must belong to an appellation —such is the case of Clos Mogador and Mas de la Rosa in Priorat, Jean Leon in Penedès or Teixar in Montsant.
Other appellations like Campo de Borja in Aragón are currently studying their soils and wines, but it is still too early to know what kind of subareas or classifications could spring up in the future.
A commission led by Peter Sisseck has been set up in Ribera del Duero as a first step to establish different qualities in the area, yet the Dane winemaker behind Pingus is cautious and urges care: “Such a crucial issue cannot be decided in a rush.”
Sisseck champions “the defense of historic settings, the villages and unique vineyards”, but says it would be risky for appellations to do as they please as it could bring confusion to consumers. In this sense he thinks OIV guidelines for viticulture zoning could prove a good starting point for addressing the issue in a more comprehensive manner.
In Ribera del Duero “surface under vine has doubled in a relative short time and many new plantings have been done on highly productive soils”, Sisseck points out. In his opinion, almost 60% of grapes from Ribera could be destined to young or Roble reds leaving high quality vines and soil for premium wines; this way, wine growers could get paid higher prices for their grapes which would encouraged them to preserve old vineyards.
Meanwhile, disquiet reigns in the sector. Over the last few days we have learnt of new wines labelled outside of an appellation. Such is the case of Marqués de Riscal’s new white made from pre-phylloxera vines grown in Segovia. This Verdejo will be released under their top brand Barón de Chirel and under the VT Castilla y León indication. The same goes for Norrel Robertson MW wines in Calatayud which will be released outside a DO. The debate about the role of wine appellations in Spain and their effectiveness to ensure the singularity of vineyards and terroirs is far from finished.