Contrary to earlier announcements, sparkling wines included in the new Cava de Paraje Calificado category will not reach the market in time for Christmas. On a positive note, however, attention has shifted towards quality rather than quantity, a factor that has traditionally been associated to Spain’s best-known bubbly.
Over the past weeks, some of the names of those applying to be part of the new high-end Cava category have been revealed. A dozen producers, including well-known names such as Recaredo, Gramona, Juvé y Camps, Codorníu or Freixenet, have submitted their proposals both to the Regulatory Board’s technical department and to an international tasting committee which met on December 2nd. Their verdicts are pending approval by the Ministry of Agriculture and will eventually be published in Spain’s Official Gazette.
The new category acknowledges the singularity of "a smaller area” called paraje and for the first time links Cava to terroir. In an appellation which covers a vast territory spanning from Catalonia (northeast Spain), Aragón and La Rioja to Extremadura (southeast Spain) and including grape varieties grown in all those areas, Cava and terroir were rarely mentioned together.
I wasn’t surprised when a producer ironically remarked a few days ago that there is almost the same distance between Champagne and Penedès in Catalonia (where 95% of Cava is produced) than between Penedès and Almendralejo in Extremadura. As Jaume Gramona, president of Cavas Gramona, puts it: “We cannot skip the sad reality that our DO is not connected to a specific territory". But he is pleased with the fact that the new category will help to “bring quality status to an ill-conceived appellation.”
Francisco de la Rosa from Cavas Torelló, who has submitted Gran Torelló and Torelló 225 to the new category, agrees: “The most important thing is that we are working to have a top tier appellation even if the total amount of high-end cava may represent just 150,000 bottles out of a total production of 240 million bottles.”
According to Meritxell Juvé form Juvé y Camps, Cava de Paraje is great news and she is happy to join the category. “The message of high-quality Cava has not got through”, she says. “We already have the Gran Reserva category but consumers are not aware of the enormous amount of work behind it in terms of selecting grapes and stocking bottles for extended aging periods.”
The work has not been in vain. The traceability needed for Gran Reserva styles (vintage Cavas aged for at least 30 months) has provided the three-year background required by the new category. Aging times for Cava de Paraje have risen to three years (36 months) as it is the case with vintage Champagne.
Despite being described as a “minor area”, the extension of a paraje is limitless which has paved the way for proposals ranging from small parcels comprising one or two hectares to large extensions of land.
Turó d’en Mota from Recaredo is a notable example of a pure, small single-vineyard Cava. A terroir-driven sparkling wine, it comes from a one hectare plot with distinctive features in terms of soil, exposure and the age of the vines. After 100 months under lees, the first 1999 vintage was released in 2008 at €100, a price tag which was unheard of for a Cava at the time. With 60 months of aging, Sabaté i Coca Reserva Familiar 2008 grapes are sourced from Terroja (red soil), a plot in the Bitlles valley covering five hectares of which only two have been submitted as Paraje. The soil presents a high concentration of iron over a chalky crust with abundant carbonate nodules. Other Cavas such as Sumarroca's Núria Claverol Homenatge or Alta Alella's Mirgin also come from very specific vineyards.
Grapes for La Capella, by Juvé y Camps, are sourced from a vineyard with 7.1Ha bearing this name. Only a small area, planted mainly with bush vines, is used for Juve y Camps top Cava but since the whole vineyard shares the same profile —shallow soils rich in calcium carbonate, shale and magnesium— they have requested the Paraje classification for the whole extension.
Gramona, an specialist in aging Cava for extended periods, has submitted two larger sites: an 18-hectare site, known as L’Origin, encircling the winery where grapes for III Lustros, Celler Batlle and Enoteca are grown (these three cavas are in fact the same wine aged for eight, 10 and 14 years respectively); and six hectares comprised in Mas Scorpí, whose grapes are destined to the Argent range which includes a Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs and a rosé made from Pinot Noir. They expect to add new hectares in the future as other plots meet the vine age requirement of 10 years.
Torelló’s approach is very similar. Their Paraje is called Can Martí and comprises 23 hectares with distinctive features. According to Francisco de la Rosa, “in the past the sea extended as far as this point at the feet of the Montserrat mountain; now our soils prevent vines from sucking water; plants really have to strive here.” Recaredo has submitted a second site with almost 20 hectares comprising vineyards surrounding Turó d’en Mota. It is called Serral del Vell and its grapes are the basis of their Brut de Brut.
A third type of Paraje is trickier to define: non-adjoining vineyards like those submitted by Recaredo. Their third Paraje, named after the founder Josep Mata Capellades, comprises three plots in three different vineyards with a maximum distance of 3.5km between them; all of them share similar soil features and are planted in low areas. Although the grapes destined to the Reserva Particular are grown in six hectares, as many as 19ha have been submitted for consideration.
Núria Claverol Blanc de Negres is also a blend of two Sumarroca vineyards —one planted with Pinot Noir, the other one with Chardonnay— located one kilometre apart but planted on similar soils.
Regardless of size and location, producers must prove the ownership of their Paraje and submit a detailed technical report including soils analysis as well as the trademark registration of the site’s name. According to Francisco González, technical director in the Cava Regulatory Board, the Paraje “is a unique notion of a producer and its wine”. Nothing to do with a Burgundian cru where different producers can grow their individual space within a vineyard and stamp its name on the label.
The Paraje can be anywhere within the boundaries of the DO. In fact, three areas outside Penedès have submitted applications. Two of them are from Codorníu; they belong to its new Ars Collecta range, which includes three single-vineyard Cavas. While Finca La Fideuera is a 100% Xarel.lo from Penedès, the other two are sourced from continental climate sites with different soils: clay on Finca La Pleta in el Segrià (Lleida) and slate on Finca Els Tros Nou in Serralada de Prades, in the district of Conca de Barberà in Tarragona. The third application comes from Alta Alella, whose winery a few kilometers north of Barcelona (DO Alella) overlooks the sea. Owner Josep María Pujol-Busquets defends the uniqueness of this area with its granitic soils (sauló) which provide great drainage. His Paraje is Torrent de Vallcirera, a two-hectare plot nestled in the lower area of the estate where grapes reach high acidity levels for his top Cava Mirgin.
Alta Alella has pioneered organic growing and also makes natural wines in separate facilities within the estate. Pujol-Busquets, together with Gramona and Recaredo, both of which also follow biodynamics, would have loved to see organic growing as a requisite for the new high-end Cava category. In fact other producers applying for the Paraje classification like Torelló, Castellroig or Sumarroca have already become organic while Juve y Camps is in the process of converting. Claror Gran Reserva, submitted by Vins El Cep, is the first biodynamic wine in the history of the DO Cava.
But while organic growing is compulsory in Classic Penedès (a sub-category within DO Penedès for unhappy Cava producers or those willing to have more freedom in terms of grapes and winemaking), it is not a requisite for Cava de Paraje.
The issue of grape varieties was also controversial. Many producers saw an opportunity to go local and highlight the difference with other sparkling wines worldwide, but eventually all the grapes admitted by the DO will also be allowed in Cava de Paraje. Positions in this regard vary notably from Recaredo’s (all foreign varieties are being uprooted from their vineyards) to Codorníu’s long-standing tradition of using international grapes or Gramona’s in-between choice: indigenous and foreign grapes are grown in their estates but they are never blended together (they in fact have two separate Cava ranges).
Heading north to Alella, Josep María Pujol-Busquets is a staunch defender of Chardonnay for its excellent adaptation to the region —so much so that he includes it in the Mirgin blend. “It helps with the size of the bubbles, pushes aging times further and conveys the personality of our terroir,” he claims. “We don’t understand great wines as varietal wines, but as terroir-driven wines”.
Two of Codorníu’s single-vineyard Cavas are also made from foreign grapes: Chardonnay in Finca La Pleta and Pinot Noir in Finca El Tros Nou.
Those interested in the Cava grape debate are advised to read Andrew Jefford’s defence of local varieties arguing that they are better adapted to the site. The extremely dry 2016 vintage confirms this view in many areas of Penedès. While Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and even Macabeo suffered considerably from drought, Xarel.lo performed much better.
Xarel.lo is becoming a cult grape in Penedès and not just for Cava. For quite some time, Gramona has publicised studies proving that Xarel.lo has a remarkably high resveratrol content which makes it especially suitable for extended Cava aging. Around 75% Xarel.lo goes in the blend of their top range including III Lustros, Celler Batlle and Enoteca.
After increasing the amount of Xarel.lo in their iconic Gran Juvé, Juvé y Camps decided to rely exclusively on this grape for its ultra-premium Finca La Capella, launched in 2014 with the highest price tag (€60) on their records. Aside from Finca La Capella and Turó d 'en Mota, single-varietal Xarel.los applying for the high-end category include Finca La Fideuera (Codorníu), Sabaté i Coca Reserva de la Familia (Castellroig) and Núria Claverol Homenatge Finca Peretes (Sumarroca). Grapes for the latter are sourced from a bucolic site next to the Romanic chapel of Santa Creu de Creixà in a estate formerly owned by the Marquis of Monistrol. Planted in the 1960s, it has distinctive limestone soils formed by aerial sedimentation which differ significantly from the rest of surrounding parcels.
Other producers such as Torelló or Vins El Cep stick to the traditional blend of Macabeo-Xarel.lo-Parellada while Freixenet’s Casa Sala shows the spirit of Alt Penedès by relying on the light-bodied, subtle Parellada, the area’s most widely grown grape. Even if this grape is rarely used in extended Cava aging, Freixenet keeps it under lees for seven years with Parellada accounting for as much as 75% in the 2005 vintage. Grapes are sourced form a 1.5ha plot located at 347m above sea level and blended with Macabeo from a 1.3ha plot grown at 280m.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture has received all the paperwork, ratification is still pending due to political issues in Spain —the new government was finally sworn in October after two general elections and long negotiations.
No doubt the process has been diligent and demanding. In addition to the DO’s specifications, grapes must be harvested by hand (picking is monitored both at the start and end), wines cannot be acidified and bottles on stacks or stored sur pointe are not allowed to be transferred or sold.
“We tasted blind and individually first, then exchanged opinions in order to develop the concept”, told me Pedro Ballesteros MW, a member of the tasting committee. “It was a very interesting process indeed.” Ballesteros highlighted the diversity and uniqueness of the Cavas presented to the committee. He believes Cava de Paraje “is a commitment to quality”, but he also noted that it should not necessarily be the only or the best model for high-quality Cava.
Cava de Paraje is exclusively open to producers who vinify 85% of their base wines, but this requirement will not settle old claims demanding additional information on the label: some would like Cava to follow the example of Champagne and distinguish between vine growers, producers who purchase grapes and companies which buy base wines or bottles sur pointe.
Regardless of this, the new classification is likely to become a useful tool to raise awareness about quality Cava and those producers with interesting stories to tell and who have yet to gain international recognition. All will be revealed in a short number of years.