Spain's sparkling wine may not quite have the cachet of Champagne, but more and more people are looking at it as a serious alternative , as Christian Davis reports
27 August, 2008
Cava wants to be, needs to be and increasingly is being taken seriously. For the uninitiated, it has in been sold on its reputation as cheap Spanish fizz - not to be taken seriously but a great start to festivities if Champagne proved too expensive. But, as with so many other sectors , consumers are better informed and looking for more quality and differentiation. Empowered with knowledge, they show more discernment and wish to be seen to demonstrate it.
Spanish winemakers became aware of sparkling wine through Catal an cork producers who were supplying Champagne producers. The cava pioneers were experimenting in the early 19th century and, unsurprisingly, the product was called Xampán (Champán in Castilian).
The Champenois stopped the use of that word with the creation of the EEC and the name cava, which is Spanish for "underground cellar", was adopted.
Josep Raventós I Fatjó is widely acknowledged as the first winemaker to produce cava on a commercial scale. His family owned Codorníu , one of the giants of cava - along with rival Freixenet.
The Institut del Cava, which represents producers, sees Spain as "the first country in the world to have a sparkling wine which is a serious competitor to Champagne in both quality and price". So how do the Spaniards drink it?
Maria del Mar Torres, director of the Institute, says: "In Spain, things have changed over the past few years. Traditionally, cava was consumed at Christmas or for special celebrations. More and more premium cavas are consumed to mix and match with food and nowadays we can find high quality cavas on the wine lists of the best restaurants, competing with the Champagnes."
Luis Sierra-Rey, Codorníu's marketing director, says: "The cava market in Spain is much consolidated. General growth is quite stable. However, the Spanish consumer is searching for higher quality when purchasing a cava."
Silvia Alias, spokeswoman for Pimecava (Asociación Patronal de Pymes del Cava - pime is the Catal an name for smaller sized companies), the break-away association representing 80 ( of 270 in total ) small-to-medium sized producers, believes the trend is increasingly to link cava with food and gastronomy, moving it away from its image as just a celebratory drink.
The association, whose members' average production is approximately 600,000 bottles of cava a year, targets the hotel, restaurant and catering or foodservice sector, promoting cava as a "great wine" that has had a secondary fermentation. Up against sector leviathans Freixenet and Codorníu, Pimecava members concentrate on the traditional, indigenous grape varieties.
Josep Puig, a director of Parxet, which makes its cava in the Alella region close to the Mediterranean coast north of Barcelona, sees the domestic market as stable at around 100 million bottles a year. But he says there is a shift to more premium expressions. "Exporting strategies have been heavily based on extremely low prices," he says.
The main markets for cava are Germany, the UK, the US and Japan. According to the Conse jo Regulador del Cava, the Freixenet group alone accounts for 68 per cent of cava exports (2006). It calls itself the world's largest producer and exporter of "traditional method" sparkling lines, exporting to 150 countries.
Codorníu, which claims to possess the biggest area of owned vineyards in Spain with some 3,000 ha, boasts a presence in 90 countries. It has nine overseas sales offices and exports account for 25 per cent of sales.
Sales director Joan Castell believes that international consumers are also looking for better quality and cava with "added value". Known to be favouring the inclusion of Chardonnay in its cuvées, it recently introduced a brut rosé extension of its Anna de Codorníu, made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
At Parxet, Puig reports that the company has started to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in its vineyards, which to date have principally been given over to a more typical mix of Xarel -lo with some Macabeo and Parellada.
While traditionalists and purists ba lk at the increasing use of international varieties, Institute director del Mar Torres says the new law that allows the use of Pinot Noir in white cavas "will increase the diversity without spoiling our own identity because the terroir is all-important and Pinot Noir produced in our region is totally different from Pinot produced somewhere else".
As with almost everywhere else in the world, demand for ros é wines is on the increase. Del Mar Torres says ros é cavas are "living in a sweet moment" with production increasing year on year. Out of a total annual production of 222 million bottles, approximately 20 million are rosés.
While cava has always lived in the shadow of Champagne, with better winemaking and emboldened producers it is starting to have the confidence to come out and show what it can do. In addition, as the Champagne producers appear to struggle to meet demand, cava is ideally placed step in and take it on .
----=== Cava facts ===Cava is made in the traditional method (métode tradicional) like Champagne, with a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and is made in specified areas regulated by the Consejo Regulador de la Denominación Cava. There are 160 municipalities in seven regions but the heartland in the Middle Penedès region around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, close to Barcelona in Catalonia , accounts for 85 per cent of cava.
Most cava is made from three grape varieties: Mac abeo (also Viura) for crispness and a fresh, fruity acidity; Xarel -lo (also Pansà Blanca) for ripeness, body and structure; and Parellada - creamy, soft texture, hints of citrus and a delicate aroma. A typical blend would be 50 per cent Macabeo, 30 per cent Xarel-lo and 20 per cent Parellada. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two of the principal grapes of Champagne which were used by the early experimenters, are increasingly being planted and used in the blends. Following a new law last February, Pinot Noir can now be used in white cavas as well as rosés.----
=== Exports cava: 2006 ===Country Bottles: 75cl % Bottles/2005
Germany 45,840,276 -18.51
United Kingdom 31,112,149 6.29
United States 13,327,188 4.25
Japan 4,772,037 27.00
Belgium and Luxembourg 4,125,953 35.26
Switzerland 2,820,523 -24.75
The Netherlands 2,310,624 -2.55
Sweden 2,152,101 13.13
France 2,064,065 32.63
Canada 1,964,877 -3.52
Finland 1,510,316 9.40
Denmark 1,255,603 -8.16
Italy 1,233,024 -8.58
Source: Consejo Regulador del Cava