Cava, the product
The vast majority of people don’t know what Cava is. Wine geeks regard it as a bargain sparkling wine and a pocket-friendly alternative to Champagne. A telling marketing study is to contrast Cava against the market leader for sparkling wine. Over decades, the Champenoise have spent millions (perhaps, billions) of marketing dollars building their brand by associating their product with luxury, success, and celebration.
Conversely, Cava is seen as a commodity wine, filling the price band between $10-$25 (CAD), battling for bargain sparkling supremacy with California, Italy & Australia. Over $25, the cheaper Champagne brands appear, and dominate all higher price points.
In order to be called Cava, the sparkling wine must be made in the Traditional Method (like Champagne), must meet minimum ageing requirements, and must come from one of eight allowed regions through Spain. While the majority is made in its spiritual home of Cataluña, Cava can come from regions as climactically diverse as Castilla y León or Rioja. However, 95% of Cava is produced in the Penedes region of Cataluña, so these lax origin rules do not seem detrimental on the surface.
A tale of two producers
It was with great interest that we ventured into this oft-neglected region. A quick 40 minute train ride from Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona and we were in the heart of Cava country, in the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. After hopping off the train, we were immediately confronted by the Freixenet campus with its numerous buildings and factories. However, we would return to visit here later in the day as our first visit was a brisk jaunt from the station.
Cava Recaredo was founded in 1878, and is still family-owned and operated with the third generation at the helm. They have one of the most intensely manual processes I’ve seen in the industry, and value their traditions for the quality produced. They practice minimal intervention in the vineyard, strictly avoiding herbicides and insecticides. After grubbing up old vines and before replanting with new vines, the soils are revitalized by years of chick pea farming (which they also sell locally). All labour and harvesting is done by hand.
In the cellar, there is a mixture of barrel and stainless steel usage for the first fermentation. For the second fermentation, a real cork stopper is used to seal the bottle (as done at Bollinger). The bottles are riddled (remuaged) by hand. Finally, and this was such a treat to witness first hand, the disgorgement is done by hand (disgorgement a la volée).
The winemaking also follows a minimalist approach. There is no dosage; they let the grapes speak for themselves. This is a bold move, because if the base material is not top quality, there is no sugar to mask it with. There is also no multi-vintage blending; all bottlings are single-vintage. Another bold move but perhaps detrimental to the development of a signature house style?
Paradoxically, after tasting through several of the wines, a house style became evident. In several blends where Xarel·lo was dominant, there was a purity of fruit, supported by intense earthiness, complex nuttiness, minerality, and a backbone of lively acidity. A purity of the classic Spanish Cava varieties and a purity of the Penedes region. A house style of minimalism.
After an amazing lunch at the local La Cava d’en Sergi, with a bottle of Cava Recaredo to wash it down, we set off to see the other side of Cava. Freixenet are the largest exporter of Cava in the world. Their famous Christmas TV spots have featured celebrities such as Shakira, Antonio Banderas, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, and Kim Basinger. We set off on a large group tour of about 50 people, rushed through a multimedia presentation on production, complete with an in-house vanity film short. This was a stark contrast to our previous tour which was about 2 hours of one-on-one time with Cava Recaredo’s visit co-ordinator. We were shown impressive factory floors full of fermentation vats, holding vats, racks of filled bottles, endless amounts of gyropalletes (mechanical riddlers), and more bottle stock then you can imagine. This is a serious operation.
Now, there’s something to be said for size, scale, and volume. In fact, I’m sure the people of Penedes care more for Freixenet’s success (and the jobs and economic activity they bring to the region) than Cava Recaredo. However, I will say this: Freixenet’s Cava was pretty dire after what we’d tasted at Cava Recaredo. Sugary, and simple. To be fair, the tour sampling was tastings of their entry-level Cava and there was several bottles of expensive stuff that we could have paid for. However, it’s clear that’s not what Freixenet cared for us to taste. They are happy to sell heaps of Cordon Negro (at $15/bottle), and leave the higher price points to the Champenoise.
Decanter.com recently published an article about Penedes sparkling producers deserting the Cava DO for its detrimental image. Two weeks later, another article was published stating Raventos i Blanc had quit the Cava appellation. Their reasoning is fairly simple: the “Cava” brand image adds nothing to the product value. There is a crisis amongst Cava producers who have a unique story to tell, in a sector dominated by the marketing giants of Freixenet and Cordoniu who thrive on €2/bottle supermarket volume.
Can you blame them? This is much like the image crisis that Australia as a whole is seeking to reverse through its A+ initiative. They are changing the conversation away from cheap plonk and onto the unique and diverse regions, styles and wineries throughout Oz. Rebuild the brand image, rebuild the price points.
In the meantime, we’re going to open a bottle of Cava Recaredo, invite over some friends, and introduce them to the wonders of proper Cava.