Cava a diminishing style, or a new beginning?
Cava is often seen as a lower quality sparkling wine that falls far behind the likes of Champagne. With the level of quality often being compromised in order to match the small price the UK demands, it can be hard for Cava producers to make any money from their product. The meteoric rise of Prosecco has also challenged Cava's position. The former is now the UK's most popular style of sparkling wine, eclipsing Champagne in 2015. Our market is the largest in the world for Prosecco, with the UK drinking and paying more than any other country, including Italy. This is a huge challenge for the Cava producers as our market has traditionally been prosperous. In recent years the Cava appellation has taken blows with winemakers turning their backs on the DO, however, the introduction of the Cava de Paraje Califaco may be the quality leap forward this sparkling wine requires.
Cava is made in the ‘traditional method' in the same way as Cremant and Champagne. While the latter is made in the designated area of Champagne, France, Cava is produced in Spain. Unlike nearly all the other wine appellations the Cava DO covers a large area including the likes of Valencia, Aragon, Castilla y Leon and La Rioja. The vast majority, around 95%, is produced in Penedès, Catalonia. This is one of the major difficulties that Cava faces both in terms of marketing and in controlling the quality of Cava production. Although the appellation is closely governed it's a difficult task monitoring all of the different estates. Many believe that a significant reduction in size is required to improve Cava's image, this would be centred around the main town, Sant Sadurní d'Anoia where the majority of the big producers are based. However, this movement would isolate both grape growers and winemakers outside this area who rely on the Cava label to receive sales.
The appellation is currently facing a larger problem. Many producers are deciding whether to stay or leave the DO. The likes of Raventos I Blanc have already left in order to market their quality wine without the Cava label. Those that have left say that the description Cava only damages their quality brand. The export market is now overly familiar with cheap, poorer quality Cava and is not willing to change their minds. The supermarkets heavily control this and dictate to the producers the price they will pay. While Prosecco dominates the UK market, it is also made using the cheaper ‘tank method’, giving better margins. The process of producing Cava requires expensive facilities and much more time ageing the wines, therefore, it can be hard for producers to cover these costs. By leaving the appellation many believe they will be able to sell their wines differently without being plunged into the lower price Cava category. If too many producers leave it could significantly damage the reputation of the sparkling wine, it is incredibly important that the appellation works together in order to resolve the issues and improve the overall marketing of the wines. Many of the producers who have left the DO, including Raventos I Blanc, have suggested the creation of a new appellation, ‘Conca del Riu Anoia', with a much smaller area and stricter controls this could rival the original DO. One of the most important arrangements of the proposed new appellation would be a significant increase in the price paid per kilogram for quality grapes. This would benefit grape growers and potentially improve the quality of wine for the consumers. The wines would, therefore, demand a higher price bracket removing the style of wine from the bargain category.
This leads to another issue with the Cava appellation, historically there were no quality levels in terms of vineyard location or winemaking skill. All Cava estates were on an equal level. Unless a customer knows the individual vineyard's wines then it is very difficult to determine quality. In 2015 the President of the Cava DO, Pere Bonet, launched Cava de Paraje Calificado in order to distinguish the highest quality, single estate Cava.
Only a limited number of single estates were selected. These included ‘Can Sala' for Freixenet the largest Cava producer, and three estates for Condornui (La Pleta, El Tros Nou and La Fideuera). The single estates were selected due to their outstanding terroir and winemaking practices. The regulations surrounding the wines are very strict and thoroughly checked. The estates must vinify a minimum of 85% of their own wines, only Brut, Brut Nature or Extra Brut sweetness categories are allowed, the vines must be over 10 years old, the maximum yield is 8000 kg/hectare and the wines must not be acidified. Another regulation is that all Cava must be vintage dated and be aged on its lees for at least 36 months. This is six months longer than the current stipulations for a Gran Reserva Cava.
Many believe the introduction of the Cava de Paraje Calificado is a huge leap forward for both quality Cava and the appellation as a whole. It allows the consumers to distinguish between regular Cava and premium wine, in much the same way as a Grand Cru typically does.
The problems surrounding Cava may, in fact, be deeper than the appellation, rules and quality of the wine. The entire image is dominated by two main brands; Freiexnet and Condornui. Together these make a significant proportion of all the Cava produced and therefore can govern the wines direction. When Condornui introduced the international variety Chardonnay into their Anna range other followed suit and trends like this have been seen throughout the history of Cava. It could be argued that these two market heavyweights must lead the way in promoting both the image of Cava and the quality of the wine.
Cava has a long history and throughout this period it has witnessed both highs and lows. The recent decisions from both the producers and those governing the appellation are likely to have a profound impact on Cava itself. Hopefully, the wines image can recover in the UK market and quality can once again become the producer's top importance.