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What’s Behind the Biggest Breakup in Sparkling Wine?

Disagreements between Cava producers and the region's regulatory board have left deep fractures

James Lawrence By August 17, 2021
A horse working a Gramona vineyard. Photo courtesy of Gramona.

Contemporary Spanish sparkling wine is a hotbed of division and acrimony. It got there by making wines that were value-focused.

Cava, Spain’s signature fizz, is often called a reliably good value, which is often code for high volume and low-quality Champagne imitation. This is one-third right and two-thirds wrong.

Cava at a glance

The Penedès region, south of Barcelona, is where over 95% of Cava has been made since the 19th century. The Cava name was coined in the 1970s, when producers started to differentiate their wines from Champagne by using the now-protected term, which simply means cellar or cave. The most impressive of these subterranean cellars belong to Spain’s two sparkling behemoths: Codorníu and Freixenet, whose brands are found in supermarkets worldwide. 

The wines are well made, with a bottle of Codorníu Cava offering full-bodied, earthy complexity, without the piercing acidity of Champagne. The industry also benefits from a flexible regulatory framework, as winemakers can stick to Spain’s three indigenous varieties of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada, or they can mix it up by throwing some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into the vat; the warm Mediterranean climate ripens red and white grapes to flavors of fennel, honeysuckle, and lemon sherbet. The only non-negotiable is that all Cava sparkles. 

Cava’s image was built by its two giants, and Freixenet’s entry-level offering is often sold for less than $12 in retail. Both companies also have higher-priced brands, while many smaller wineries make deluxe cuvées. Unfortunately, they struggled to win over high-spending consumers in the early 2000s, due to Cava’s stubborn associations with cut-price fizz. This eventually led to a critical mass of premium labels renouncing their allegiance to the Cava brand and starting afresh. 

From the perspective of quality-orientated producers, the problem has always been one word: value. The mere utterance of the term, even in hushed tones, sets their teeth on edge. Growers across the Iberian Peninsula have been attempting to disentangle themselves from this perception for over 20 years.

The breakaways

For ex-Cava brands like Raventós i Blanc, a succession from the appellation seemed like the best solution.

“Cava’s cheap image simply didn’t fit in with what we wanted to produce and achieve at Raventós,” says owner Pepe Raventós, who left in 2012. “For this reason, we decided to start from the beginning and create a new premium designation for our wines.” 

The firm’s decision was a poignant one, as his ancestor, Josep Raventós i Blanc, was the first individual to make bottle-fermented sparkling wine out of Cava’s three indigenous varieties.

In January 2019, another nine of Catalunya’s top sparkling wine brands left the Cava appellation to build up a new designation from scratch, including Gramona, Llopart, Nadal, Recaredo, Sabaté i Coca, Torelló, and Mas Candí. Two more labels have since joined their ranks, adopting the name Corpinnat

“It was initially a very difficult decision, but ultimately I feel that for the moment, Gramona is in a stronger position if our sparkling wines are not marketed as Cava,” says Gramona’s owner Xavier Gramona. “There was a lot of tension floating around when we announced the succession, and I’m sure that some producers are very disappointed with us. However, you have to understand that this didn’t come out of nowhere — the sad truth is that many consumers still won’t accept that Cava can be a high-quality sparkling wine.”

Entrance to the Gramona winery. Photo courtesy of Gramona.

Their departure has left the Penedès wine community with its own version of the culture war. According to Gramona, several others have recently stated their intention to jump ship and join Corpinnat’s ranks. Other key houses, like Vilarnau and Juvé y Camps, have condemned the move. “We would never consider abandoning the term Cava,” says CEO Meritxell Juvé. “We believe that it’s a mistake to divide the region.”

As is typical in any matrimonial split, one party is more keen to seek a reconciliation, and the Cava authorities have announced an unprecedented shake-up of their quality regulations. New tiers of aged wines include Cava de Guarda Superior, aged for at least 18 months before sale. The grapes for this higher tier must come from organic vineyards. In addition, new vineyard zoning plans have been unveiled.

The authorities have also faced a backlash against their decision to place temporary limits on the volume of grapes harvested in 2021, in response to falling sales and a surplus of unwanted wine. These high-level boardroom decisions continue to hurt the region’s smaller farmers, many of whom depend on the big houses for their livelihood.

“I deeply regret losing some of our finest wineries, but I will work hard to bring them back,” says Cava president, Javier Pagés Font. “Having different appellations may lead to confusion. That’s why we believe that being united would be the best for the sector,” adds director of communication, Patrícia Correia.

Cava president, Javier Pagés Font. Photo courtesy of Cava Consejo Regulador.

Gramona is not convinced. “In the past, we’ve had some positive discussions with the appellation president, Javier Pages,” he admits. “However, there is no strong desire among our members to return. Although we’ve naturally been affected by the pandemic, Corpinnat is steaming ahead.”

In truth, close neighbors in Penedès may elect to belong to a different brand, but they’re often working with the same grape varieties, while embracing organic methods and a philosophy of long-aging before release. The divide between Corpinnat and Cava is often merely a name. 

5 Spanish sparkling wines to try:

Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava NV ($9)

Spain’s most iconic sparkling label continues to offer value, sorry Cava, in spades. Notes of citrus, fennel, and butter add up to a delicious and very moreish bottle of bubbly. 

Anna Codorniu Blanc de Blancs Reserva NV ($12)

A refreshing and aromatic sparkling wine made from a blend of locally-grown Chardonnay and indigenous varieties. It displays lovely, honeyed red fruit characteristics and a long finish. 

bottle of Gramona Celler Batlle Cuvée Gran Reserva 2007

Gramona Celler Batlle Cuvée Gran Reserva 2007 ($89)

Gramona is a star sparkling producer, crafting some of the best bubbly in the Penedès region. Their top wine is a complex blend of breeding and finesse that can age for 30 years, plus.

Agusti Torelló Mata Kripta Brut Cava Brut Penedès 2018 ($90)

Respected house, Agusti Torelló Mata, produces a good range of Cavas across all price points, but their deluxe vintage cuvée, Kripta, is truly exceptional. Expect complex, rich notes of citrus, fig, red fruits, and honey.

bottle of Raceredo Turó d’en Mota Corpinnat Gran Reserva 2007

Recaredo Turó d’en Mota Corpinnat Gran Reserva 2007 ($185)

Recaredo is a 100% biodynamic and family-owned wine business. The firm’s signature prestige cuvee, Turó d’en Mota, is possibly the finest sparkling wine being made in Spain today. Based solely on the Xarel-lo grape, it offers a complex nose of quince, fennel, forest floor, and citrus. Concentrated and powerfully structured, this is built to last.