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 from some premium 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 their production. Although the appellation is closely governed, it is a difficult task monitoring all of the different estates. Many believe that a significant reduction in size is required to improve Cava's image, which would be centred around the main town, Sant Sadurní d'Anoia where the majority of the big producers are situated. However, this movement would isolate both grape growers and winemakers outside this area who rely on the Cava label for their sales.
The appellation is also facing a larger problem. Many producers are deciding whether to stay or leave the DO. Notably, Raventos I Blanc have already left in order to market their quality wine without the Cava label. Those that have defected, believe that the description of ‘Cava’ only damages the quality of their brand.
The UK market is now overly familiar with inexpensive Cava. 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 higher margins. The process of producing Cava requires expensive facilities and an increased ageing time, therefore, it can be hard for smaller producers to cover these costs. By leaving the appellation, many believe they will be able to sell their sparkling wines differently without being plunged into the lower price Cava category. If too many producers leave, it will significantly damage the reputation of this sparkling wine. It is incredibly important that the members of the appellation work together in order to resolve these issues and improve their overall marketing.
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 with 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 sparkling wines should then demand a higher price, elevating the quality and reputation.
Historically, there was no regulation on vineyard location and unlike most premium wine regions no hierarchical quality system. All Cava estates were on an equal level. Unless the consumer knows the individual producer 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 extremely strict and thoroughly checked. The estates must vinify a minimum of 85% of their own wines. The vines must be over 10 years old, the maximum yield is 8000 kg/hectare and the wines must not be acidified. Brut, Brut Nature or Extra Brut are the only sweetness levels allowed. A further regulation is that it must be vintage dated and be aged on its lees for at least 36 months which is six months longer than the current stipulations for a Gran Reserva Cava.
Many believe the introduction of the Cava de Paraje Calificado was a huge leap forward for both the quality of Cava and the appellation as a whole. It allows the consumers to distinguish between regular Cava and premium sparkling wine, in much the same way as a Grand Cru would. However, this level of distinction has been in place for four years and little has changed in the minds of UK Cava consumers. It is a start but more needs to be done to enhance the overall image.
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; Freixenet 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 others followed suit. 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. Those governing the appellation have been quick to implement solutions to the problems but more needs to be achieved to convince the UK market and improve the overall image of Cava.