In the low, arid hills to the west of Barcelona, a storm is brewing amid the bodegas and palm trees of the Penedès. These days, Cava is contentious.
Cava is Spain’s most famous sparkling wine. Like Champagne, it’s made by the méthode traditionnelle, a labour-intensive process of vinification and aging. Catalunya’s Penedès region is home to ninety five percent of production; the white grapes Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada traditionally dominate the blend.
Today’s disquiet is really all the fault of the French. The Penedès’ slopes were planted with traditional red varietals until phyloxera decimated the vineyards of Champagne in the 1800s, sending panicked winemakers in search of new sites where they could make sparkling wine. The red vines were ripped up and white ones went in. White grapes now make up 95% of the planting and Cava is the region’s best-known export.
Cava is currently recognized with a DO, or Denominación de Origen, a mark of quality and origin applied to most respected wine regions, such as Margaux or Chianti, which carries a strict set of rules. Unusually, however, the Cava DO is not geographically limited to one part of Spain; the majority might come from the Penedès, but Cava can be made as far away as Valencia or Rioja. The regulations governing the production of Cava are also reasonably lax, especially when compared to Champagne. Cavas can be aged on their lees for just nine months (Champagne requires twelve), and a high volume of juice can be extracted from the grapes, leading to less intense flavours.
The resulting variation in style and quality is vast. Even in the Penedès, Cavas range from the ubiquitous black bottles of Friexent to premium wines from boutique enterprises. The higher-end producers are struggling. How can they distinguish their quality product, and justify the higher price, when it’s sold under the same name as €2 plonk?
This lack of regulation has finally pushed some producers too far. Fed up with being tarnished by a poor reputation, they are leaving the Cava DO and no longer able to use the word “Cava” to describe their sparkling wines. I visited the pioneering winery Albet i Noya who are now joining this growing trend. It’s been a hard decision, but ultimately they feel it will benefit their brand, making it clear that their refined sparklers – some aged for up to thirty months – have little in common with the lower end of the market.
Do you agree? Do you think producers are making the right decision by leaving? What assumptions do you make about the quality of Cava on sale in the UK?
(Interestingly, Albet i Noya are also undertaking a project to DNA test old vines they’ve discovered. So far, they’re commercially producing two brand new varietals: the red Belat is wonderful if you can get your hands on a bottle.)