Commanding winery prices as high as INR2,00,000 for Dominio de Pingus’ freshly release bottle, Spain has definitely emerged as the epicentre for quality wines in Europe. Their winemaking is an expression of deeply rooted tradition bonded with a modernistic approach. With such prestigious profile, one appellation has been long due for revision and now frustrating the producers. Chiseling off the repute of the wine-style and toying with the image of its brands, Cava DO has lately turned dramatic enough for the key players to finally leave the appellation.
This is when Serious winemaking began in the country when France turned to Catalonia for assistance, under the attack of Phylloxera catastrophe. Though viticulture was a regarded occupation in Penedes since early 18th century, crop wasn’t suited for winemaking. French introduced skill, knowledge, and adequate technology, inspiring the Spaniards for a better future in winemaking. Amongst many wine-styles, Champagne distinctly excited them. Although Catalonia produced sparkling wines since the early 18th Century, it were Francesc Gil and Domingo Soberano de Reus’s version of “Champagne”, presented at the Universal Expo of Paris in 1868, that gained the region some glory. However, some winemakers criticised them for lacking the essential Spanish accent. One man in Penedes decided to change the Spanish sparkling wines fate, giving them a true local identity – Jose Raventos.
BIRTH OF CAVA
While working for Frexinet, Jose Raventos often travelled through Europe promoting their still wines. During his visit to Champagne, he learnt winemaking meticulously, returning home to create a new entity mirroring this template. His new bubbly was based on two founding principles – showcasing local varietals’ versatility and expression of the place of origin. Thus, the wine was based on Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada, exhibiting the terroir of Sant Sadurni de Anoia, small village in the heart of Penedes. With secondary fermentation in bottles, followed by ageing on the lees, Raventos released his first bottle in 1872. Since then, the wine-style seared and reached new heights.
Cava swiftly became an irreplaceable entity, especially in the domestic market. By 1911, Cava was far more consumed locally than any foreign sparkling wine. By 1960, its consumption leaped to 40 million bottles, and by the end of 2014 it surpassed 225 million. Not many wine-styles can claim such dramatic growth and expansion. Cava DO is now a household name in many markets and India is catching up too.
Satiating the market demands has had its consequences too. Evidently, quality has been sacrificed and imaged tampered with, rendering it as an industrial product without much of its original identity intact. More and more varietals have been permitted to produce Cava DO. Champagne varietals have made a revival and increasing quantities of base wine are produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now. Though this makes them more acceptable on the international palates, the very idea of Cava’s foundation – expression of local varieties – is ignored. It’s imperative that with growing demand, the appellation’s boundary has been pushed far outside Penedes. Today, approximately 160 communes spanning over six regions can label their bottle-fermented and aged bubblies as Cava, thus rubbishing the very idea of expression of its soil, climatic influences, and terroir. By the end of 2014, there were 154 base wine producers. Surprisingly, 244 Cava DO brand owners were recorded, suggesting substantial disconnect between winegrowing and winemaking. A Cava label may actually have absolutely nothing to do with its branding company since it’s also allowed to buy as much as a quarter of stocks as finished wines from other producers. Cava now features in every major producer’s portfolio, being an easy cash-crop in any market.
THE THREE FACES OF CAVA DO
Currently, the Cava DO is extremely disfiguring, splitting it into three avatars. Big producers like Freixenet and Codorniu are truly responsible for the appellation’s global growth and setting the benchmark for base quality Cava DO. As a result, Cava varietals can be spotted everywhere in Spain, irrespective of their adaptability in the region, leaving the base crop market extremely competitive. Their dominance has kept the crop’s base price to bare minimum (Euro 0.2/kg), eventually favouring the producers’ pockets and aiding their profit margins.
Under such conditions, the founding family was deemed to be frustrated. Seeing the essence of Cava DO dilute and fall to such low grounds, Raventos family decided to leave the DO in 2012. They believe that Cava has become a volume-oriented DO lacking geographical distinction. They christened a new appellation, Conca del Riu Anoia, attempting to reincarnate Jose Raventos’s original principles. It has stricter and exponentially higher requirement for a company to qualify; like biodynamic viticultural certification, longer minimum bottle ageing, at least five times higher base price for the crop (Euro 1/kg), and stricter labelling specifications. Geographical limitations restricts the appellation to the producers in the valley surrounding the River Anoia, Cava’s authentic birthplace.
Albeit Raventos’s aggressive move, some producers are still hopeful and maintain their trust in the DO. One such family preserving their foundation approach is Bodegas Gramona. Since their inception in 1881, Gramona has held its position as top producer of Cava DO. Majority of their wines are still dominated by Xarel-lo and Macabeo and have finesse and amicability as their genesis. Cava’s diminishing brand name hasn’t affected Gramona’s consistent quality. However, company president, Xavier Gramona, agrees that Cava DO is in the land of nowhere, sandwiching the producers between Champagne and Prosecco.
Since 2012 many key producers have deserted the Cava DO, leaving the fate of the wine-style divided. At one end are the confident Conca del Riu Anoia producers seeking a qualitative revival and introduction of an unprecedented expression. They have a much difficult task to satiate their consumer’s high expectations who have rested their trust in this new move, and to educate the currant bulk markets to turn to a more responsible style. It will be a wait-and-watch play.
On the other side are the producers maintaining their stand within the Cava DO. Closely following the turbulent shakedown, appellation’s president, Josep Albet, shared the council’s intention to drastically shrink the appellation. Xavier Gramona stated that the Spanish parliament has approved a new legislation called Cava de Partage. It comes to the market to distinguish those Cavas made from a given terroir that specially excel in their quality: hand harvested, long aged wines with low dosage, and approved in an specialised blind tasting. Cava DO map may be redrawn and classified too.
ON THE LOOKOUT
Both moves, albeit their initial claims, are still under serious criticism and shall remain till they prove their admiration and passion while balancing the revised financial positioning of their wines. Needless to say, Cava DO enthusiasts will be hawking on these producers to finally deliver a more structured wine-style that it once was. With the quality and image re-instilled, markets will only grow. Xavier Gramona, when asked about his views on Indian market believes that a huge number of Indians are cultivating themselves in international cultures, in contact with western societies.it’s a mater of time that, given their willingness to taste good wines, they will turn to quality Cavas, especially at the right price. Raventos wines have been in the Indian market for a few years now and don’t notice much difference in sales since their exit from Cava DO, however do feel pressurised and restricted by the increasing taxes and duties.
Balancing tradition with innovation is a demanding task. With the Cava DO finally on its road to stability, it’ll be competitive to rewrite their definition. However, sometimes bridges must be crossed to find new horizons. Cava DO might be on its way to become the new-age ambassador of wine-style revivals. The ever-growing sparkling wine market shows no signs of taking a pause from the traditional templates and Cava will always be a formidable entity in that stream. Irrespective of the results, consumers will definitely receive the quality they deserve, at the right price, of course.