|All Cava must be aged in the bottle for at least 9 months, both Reserva and Gran Reserva are aged for longer. © Vinexpo|
It's made using the traditional method. It's a globally recognized style – although increasingly threatened by Prosecco – and has no shortage of money behind it. Its heartland Penedès (less than 50 minutes by car from Barcelona) boasts the prerequisites of beautiful scenery and a historic tradition of producing sparkling wine. So why, when the cards appear to be in order, is selling premium Cava such an uphill struggle?
The answer is, of course, image, or lack thereof. Indeed, every writer worth his or her salt has discussed Cava's ingrained image as the "cheap option", a sub-$14 Champagne trade-down and little else. "Despite our continued efforts, promotional activities and positive critical appraisal, selling Gramona as a premium sparkling wine is never easy," admits Ana Lidon, Gramona's export manager.
"Potential clients taste our wines, inform us that they love them, and then add that they doubt their ability to sell our bottles at the price asked."
And so it goes on. Some producers, such as Raventos I Blanc and Torres, have sidestepped the Cava designation altogether, while others have put their faith in the Cava de Paraje Calificado initiative. Whether this will make any real difference to the way Cava, or at least premium Cava, is perceived in export markets remains to be seen, but it's fair to say that the trade's response has been mixed.
"I don't think Paraje will make a huge difference," says leading wine buyer Christine Parkinson. "Cava doesn't have the strong positive associations of Prosecco or English sparkling wine, let alone Champagne and it's hard to find guests with strong feelings about it."
Even Codorniu CEO Javier Pages observed last year that "the Paraje initiative is a positive step forward, however, we are mistaken if we believe that simply introducing a new designation on a small percentage of labels will be enough to transform Cava's image."
"What's required is a significant investment in consumer and trade education, to convince the world that Cava can be a product of high quality."
Pepe Raventos is a harsher critic still. "I think Paraje is a terrible idea and won't make any difference – what fixes consumer perception is situated at the low end. It's like trying to offer a few blankets to the victims of great natural disaster and hoping everything will turn out okay", he says.
Some large producers, like Codorniu, have made efforts to move their wines upmarket.© Codorniu | Some large producers, like Codorniu, have made efforts to move their wines upmarket.
But just when you thought Cava was over unintelligible classifications, along came Corpinnat. The new initiative was announced last month in Cava's heartland – Sant Sadurní d'Anoia.
Six of the region's most quality-conscious growers – Gramona, Llopart, Nadal, Recaredo, Sabaté i Coca and Torelló – inaugurated the classification, which boasts a fully registered certification with the European Union and, as you'd expect, stipulates strict quality guidelines for its members.
"The idea of forming a private association arose during talks among Cava producers in 2012", says founding member Xavier Gramona.
"We were worried about Cava's global image, prices, and other issues all related to quality wines. But our main gripe was that the DO had been petitioned several times to organize the region into sub-zones, a request that was never granted."
Yet its founding members are quick to point out that their certification is in no way meant to compete with Cava de Paraje – in private, though, several individuals have admitted their ambivalent attitudes about the value of the Paraje initiative.
Moreover, according to Recaredo owner Ton Mata, its members have already reached out to 60 cellars in the region to see if they want to join, meaning friction between the growers and the Consejo Regulador may be inevitable.
However, its founders also underline the point that this is no copycat endeavor. Unlike Cava de Paraje, which focuses on single vineyards within the region, Corpinnat's remit is to "define a singular territory and origin", according to Gramona.
"Corpinnat's overriding goal is to allow the Cavas/sparkling wines belonging to a limited compact area inside the Penedès region to be recognized. On top of that, producers in the territory should be following some of the strictest quality regulations in the world. Our aim is that our labels will display the Corpinnant brand by the end of the year."
The regulations inherent to Corpinnant membership are numerous, but include a requirement that producers use only organically-grown grapes, pay a minimum price of €0.70 (.70 cents)/kg, and age their wines for a minimum of 18 months.
In addition, "indigenous" grapes are given top priority – 90 percent of the blend must constitute Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada, and Malvasia for the whites and Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Sumoll for the reds.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Trepat are relegated to a minor supporting role, despite strong evidence that they can add much to the region's output.
"We are trying to forge a definitive terroir-driven identity with wine lovers," says Gramona. "That means defending local grapes at all costs."
A cynic may suggest that such carefully crafted regulations – namely enforcing 100 percent organic grapes and largely excluding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – are designed to exclude Freixenet and Codorníu. It's hardly surprising – the blame for Cava's woes is usually thrown at the world's supermarkets in collaboration with the region's two largest firms.
But would they want to join Corpinnant, in any case?
"We firmly think every initiative which could help to raise the value of Cava's global image is positive", says Codorniu's communications manager Cristina Rodriguez.
"However, it is our commitment to quality and excellence which makes it really difficult for us to join this new association. Corpinnat only accepts producers whose wines are grown in vineyards from Penedés and we can not renounce our premium Cavas, which are grown in Paraje vineyards located in Costers del Segre or Conca de Barberà."
Yet in other ways Corpinnat is open to all comers – any traditional-method sparkling producer working to the guidelines in the delimited zone may potentially join, including ex-Cava producers such as Raventos I Blanc. The last time I spoke to Pepe Raventos, however, he was ambivalent about the idea, and instead was contemplating asking Recaredo to join Conca del Rui Anoia, with the view of eventually petitioning for IGP status.
Large companies like Freixenet no longer rely solely on Cava for their sales.© Aspasios | Large companies like Freixenet no longer rely solely on Cava for their sales.
Which brings us to the inevitable question – will Corpinnat make the slightest bit of difference to Cava's overall status?
A brief canvassing brings forth the usual range of opinions and observations, succinctly expressed by Spanish expert Parkinson.
"My reaction to the announcement regarding Corpinnat was fatigue, initially. I wasn't sure I wanted to read about another way of classifying Cava. Once I read through, however, I was somewhat more impressed," she says.
"There are some very positive qualifications for these wines, and some of them will appeal to consumers (all organic, a fair price paid for grapes etc).
Moreover, Corpinnat seems to be more in tune with the messages that consumers want to hear. It seems to have a core integrity as well as a sharp eye on the message. I wish the name itself was a little more appealing to British consumers, however. 'Corpinnat' is not particularly memorable, or meaningful to most people."
Of course, it's still very early days. Nevertheless, the vital question remains omnipresent in any discussion about Corpinnat – can Gramona and his compatriots forge a new, prestigious identity for Catalan sparkling wines that is largely free of any association with bargain-basement Cava?
Probably not. As a Cava aficionado, nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing the best wines of Penedès taken as seriously as Champagne, with (justifiably) high prices to match. Gramona's Celler Batlle, for example, is my all-time favorite fizz. Recaredo's Turó d'en Mota is joint first.
Yet this seems highly doubtful, certainly in the short/medium term. Most consumers aren't involved enough in the sparkling category to take notice of these efforts, while highly-involved consumers probably know a great deal about the hard work that goes into making premium Cava. Krug sells because of clever branding, not because every buyer can quote chapter and verse about reserves and Eric Lebel's blending ability. Indeed, they simply don't care.
Moreover, while New World sparkling wines such as Domaine Carneros are clearly the equal of Champagne in quality, they will never sell for as much as prestige cuvées, or be regarded by most consumers as "equals". Certainly in the UK, a market where Cava has lost volume, most consumers remain fixated on the "trading up or down" paradigm.
Why should Cava be any different?
"The majority of UK consumers still default automatically to Champagne, when budgets permit and there is an expectation that persists that other sparkling wines should be cheaper", agrees brand manager Fiona Mottershaw.
But what Gramona and other producers can do is to increase the sex appeal of their individual brands. Despite the difficulties involved, producers such as Recaredo have managed to sell higher-priced Cava in certain markets and successfully use the right distribution channels, although their success arguably has nothing to do with communicating the virtues of Cava itself.
"The ease of selling premium Cava varies from market to market. In some markets, like Scandinavia, premium Cava is selling well. Obviously there are some brands which focus on cheap, high-volume Cava but, again, that's the same in any other big appellation", says Patrice Lesclaux, export manager at Castillo Perelada.
"Promoting high-quality Cava is more about the brand itself, than the heritage of the Cava DO", adds Agustí Torelló Sibill, of Agustí Torelló Mata winery.
In addition, Codorniu has shown a real commitment to premiumization. The limited edition Ars Collecta Cavas are selling well in exclusive, high end restaurants, according to Cristina Rodriguez. "Codorníu is the only winery in Spain that has three Cavas, La Fideuera, El Tros Nou and La Pleta, included in the premium category of Cava de Paraje Calificado and we will maximize our efforts in continuing to be leaders in this category."
For as it stands, Cava is a success story, just not in the way that some producers would like. It will probably take a lifetime for consumers to habitually pay Champagne prices for a Spanish product that is not Champagne, despite the laudable ambitions of Corpinnant.
Comentario de / Coment of Wines Inform Assessors:
Es muy interesante ver la percepción del sector del cava y sus cambios -el elaborado en Catalunya supone la mayoría del producido en España- desde el exterior
Para entender lo que pasa habría que comprender la situación social española (campañas de boicot del cava catalán en el resto de España, angustia social acerca del futuro y que camino seguir, ...) y conocer las propias limitaciones del sector,de las empresas y de las personas.
El prestigio de un sector productivo depende de:
- El prestigio genérico de su país/zona de producción y para ello hace falta conocimiento y factores emocionales que vinculen al consumidor a sus productos -sería interesante saber si se consume más cava catalán en Escocia, País Vasco,...tras los problemas con el referendum sobre la independencia en Catalunya-
- El prestigio de los productores individuales deriva de su actitud, de saber explicarse y de quienes compran y consumen su producto.
Aquí tienen una cantidad de trabajo las bodegas, que pienso en su mayoría no están realizando adecuadamente
Wines Inform Assessors
It is very interesting to see the perception of the cava sector and its changes - the one produced in Catalonia, which accounts for the majority of that produced in Spain - from abroad
To understand what is happening we should understand the Spanish social situation (campaigns of boycott of the Catalan cava in the rest of Spain, social anguish about the future and which way to go, ...) and know the own limitations of the sector, of the companies and of the people.
The prestige of a productive sector depends on:
- The generic prestige of his country / production area and for this are needed knowledge and emotional factors that link the consumer to this products - it would be interesting to know if more Catalan cava is consumed in Scotland, Basque Country, ... after the problems with the referendum on independence in Catalonia-
- The prestige of individual producers derives from their attitude, to know how to explain themselves and from those who buy and consume his products. Here they have a lot of work for wineries that I think most of them are not doing properly
Wines Inform Assessors
Origin information: Wine-Searcher