Never before have we enjoyed Cavas as varied and interesting as we do right now. However, there is an increasing uneasiness in the sector as several producers have decided to abandon the appellation in recent times.
Well-known producer Raventós i Blanc left in November 2012 to work under the name Conca del Riu Anoia, which has no official geographic designation so far. Others have joined Clàssic Penedès, a new category for sparkling wines within the DO Penedès that was launched last month. And just a few days ago in Madrid, Pedro Bonet, president of the Cava regulatory board (who is also a member of the Board of Directors and Freixenet’s Dircom) announced the creation of a new classification called “cava de paraje calificado” (a single vineyard sparkling wine) in order to recognize high quality cavas coming from specific terroirs.
In addition, cava producers from Requena (Valencia) have created an association to highlight the distinctive characteristics of grapes intended for cava and grown in the highlands of Levante. The rest of Spain is also thirsty for bubbles. In Rías Baixas for instance a competition has been held to find a name and design the corporate image for sparkling wines made from Albariño. Beside Rías Baixas and Penedès, sparkling wines are also produced in appellations like Rueda, Alella, Costers del Segre, La Mancha or Cigales - all of them employ the so called “traditional method” that involves a second fermentation in bottle.
Sparkling wines are going through good times. According to the latest data from the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), the category has grown 40% in the last 10 years -just between 2012 and 2013 production increased by 11% to reach 17.6 million hectolitres. Nowadays, six out of 100 bottles of wine produced in the world are fizzy. Four countries (France, Italy, Germany and Spain) account for 74% of the market with varying results. Thanks to Champagne’s higher prices, France represents 18% of the volume but takes as much as 53% in value; in contrast Spain produces 21% but only accounts for 9% in terms of value.
More than 240 million bottles of cava were sold in 2013, of which nearly 66% (160 million bottles), were exported. With 40 million bottles, Germany is Cava’s first market, followed by the UK (roughly 30 million), Belgium (27.2 million) and the US (17.8 million).
No other Spanish sparkling wine can even dream of approaching these numbers. What about competing in terms of quality? Top Cava producers have been working hard to age their wines far longer in order to gain complexity and to stand the test of time. In fact, Gramona has released an Enoteque Cava with 12 years of aging.
Overall sales for Cava Gran Reserva (with 30 months’ aging) totalled 4.5 million bottles in 2013 and Reservas (15 months) reached 25 million. Undoubtedly, most cava plays in the lower leagues. Value drove export volumes helped by technologically-led companies like Freixenet which currently accounts for a very high percentage of the whole Cava category. But since Spanish sparkling wines are associated to low prices, it’s really hard for top producers to export ultra-premium brands.
In this regard, Pedro Bonet, president of the DO Cava, believes that "there aren’t more premium Cavas because companies have not done their job. Brands have entered the lower end of the market because when a DO has a consolidated volume, these things happen. There is always someone who is cheaper."
Another hindrance for Cava, at least from a conceptual point of view, is the jumbled geographical dispersion of the appellation across different Spanish regions, as a result of historical factors and specific claims. Although 95% of production is concentrated in the Penedès area, as confirmed by Pedro Bonet, Cava can be produced in certain areas of Álava, La Rioja, Zaragoza, Badajoz and Valencia, and a handful of very specific wineries elsewhere. Cava (as Rioja) is a supra-regional appellation under the auspices of Magrama (the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture).
Is it legal to mix grapes from Requena, Almendralejo and Penedès? The answer is yes. In fact, this is one of the arguments employed by members of the newly formed Clàssic Penedès to stress the defense of a specific territory.
So far, Clàssic Penedès brings together 14 producers (among them Albet i Noya, Mas Comptal, Loxarel, Colet, AT Roca and Torre del Veguer) who are committed to quality standards, at some points higher than those established for Cava. To start with, the minimum aging time required is 15 months compared to 9 in the case of Cava. This automatically turns all Clàssics Penedès sparkling wines into Reservas. Secondly, the vintage and the disgorgement date must be shown on the label.
Eventually (due by 2018) all grapes will have to come from certified organic farming. Foreign varieties are expected to be gradually dropped, so only local grapes used in the Penedès appellation will make their way to the bottle. Besides Macabeo, Xarel.lo, Parellada and Subirat Parent that are used for Cava, Clàssic Penedès will employ White Grenache and Malvasia from Sitges. As for red grapes, Sumoll will be the new kid on the block next to Garnacha and Monastrell. Could these new varieties help to establish differences with Cava? We will have to wait and see the choices made by these sparkling producers working under the Penedès appellation whose current output stands at about 600,000 bottles.
Agustí Torelló Sibill comes from a well-known dynasty of cava producers. Under the Agustí Torelló Mata brand his family produces Kripta, which has achieved international recognition. He has recently launched Cellers AT Roca along with sons Agustí and Jordi, but instead of the DO Cava, he has opted to join Clàssic Penedès. Agustí, who was a member of the Cava regulatory board for eight years and one of the founders of Pymecave (the association of small cava producers), summarizes his disagreement: “Small wineries like us wanted to establish sub-areas; the big ones didn’t”. He thinks that “cava has been unable to adapt to the times” so it works as an “undefined” category. That’s why his current goal is “to make sparkling wine with character, thanks to our grape varieties and terroir”.
Raventós i Blanc may have chosen the hardest path: they left the DO and went solo. Owner Pepe Raventós wrote on his blog: “We think there is a chance for honest wines, coming from an estate with a specific climate and local grape varieties grown through a demanding, precise and respectful viticulture”.
The recent announcement by the president of the DO Cava to create a "cava de paraje calificado" (a single vineyard sparkling wine) could be an answer in order to establish an upper category for Cava. Perhaps it could also prevent important wineries from leaving the DO. Mr Bonet, who nevertheless rejected any moves in this regard, said that "the goal is to add prestige to Cava, improve its image and obtain higher added value”.
Pending approval by the Ministry of Agriculture, not too much information has been revealed about this new classification. Bonet pointed out that it wouldn’t involve a terroir classification, working instead as a kind of recognition for outstanding cavas coming from single estates. He also hinted that several well-known brands would already fulfill the necessary requirements for accessing this high-quality label.
No doubt Recaredo's Turó d'en Mota, aged for 10 years, would be on the list. Owner Ton Mata believes that this Cava, which comes from a biodynamic single vineyard, deserves a recognition for its high quality. But he also points out: "We can't make great Cava without previously defining our appellation. I don't think it's right for a producer who buys head down bottles to also produce a single-vineyard Cava".
Mata would like Cava to share the distinctions made in Champagne between winegrowers who produce their own wines (récolectant-manipulant) and big houses that buy grapes and wines (négociant-manipulant). He is particularly concerned about the fact that right now they don't have "a powerful collective brand that backs up our wines; and besides Cava is an appellation without a clear origin because it's not a physical and compact location on a map".
I couldn’t resist asking Pepe Raventós whether this “cava de paraje calificado” could bring him back into the DO. “I do not see the return of Raventos i Blanc to Cava. I really love Cava and I believe it’s the best value sparkling in the world, but this is not our choice. We are currently working more comfortably without having to argue, excuse or compare us to other wines. At the end, sales are the result of traveling and showing our wines worldwide”, Raventós concluded.
Claims on territory do not only come from outside the appellation but also from within. The establishment of the Requena’s Cava Producers Association has drawn the attention to this region which stands in contrast to Penedès and boasts quality but, most importantly, a high productive potential.
With over 20,000 hectares of vineyards, of which 10-15% are devoted to Cava, Requena is one of the largest wine-growing towns in Spain. Most of the surface is planted with Bobal, but higher prices for white grapes destined to Cava are boosting the restructuring of vineyards. Local producers rely mainly on Chardonnay and Macabeo with Pinot Noir starting to be planted; for rosés they favour Garnacha. Located on a vast plateau at an altitude ranging between 700 and 900 metres, temperature fluctuations between day and night are a bonus for the production of sparkling wines.
The association includes eight wineries currently accounting for 4.5-5 million bottles of cava, with some brands already featuring high scores by Spanish wine critics, notably those from Bodegas Hispano Suizas and Pago de Tharsys. The largest producer in the area, Unión Vinícola del Este, has Freixenet as a major shareholder.
Next week we will publish a selection of Cavas and Spanish sparkling wines that will show the diversity in this category. Apart from proving the ability of Cava to be aged for eight or even 10 years, there are many trends worth watching. A detailed approach to vine growing and grape varieties has broadened the range of options. Xarel.lo may be crowned as the new queen of Cava, but Pinot Noir is here to stay and no doubt it will broaden blending options. And rosés have performed a noticeable change. The truth is that there have never been as many sparkling options in Spain as there are today.
On a political level, disagreements could be positive as far as they create competition and lead to a qualitative improvement in the category that should ultimately benefit wine lovers. As always, the most important thing is that as the range of grape varieties, terroirs and winemaking options broadens, everything should be clearly stated on the label.