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'Cava-and-not-Cava'

Posted on October 12 2020

'Cava-and-not-Cava'

Or ‘The Many Names of Quality Spanish Fizz (most of which are actually Catalan)

By Scott Wasley - Importer and Ambassador of Spanish & Portuguese wines in Australia

How to refer to the sparkling wines of Spain?

It’s a trickier question than one might think, at first ... If asked: “tell me about Spanish sparkling wine?” Most would probably go, “oh, you mean Cava?!” And for most that probably means an inexpensive, aspiration-free fizz along the lines of Prosecco and Loire sparklers.

For the most part, this gets the job done. Or does it? Before we get into the complexities underlying this question, let’s skim the surface of the Cava (1) idea.

Cava is dominated by large industrial producers – just three of them are responsible for 95% of production under the ‘Cava’ rubric. Taken quantitatively, Cava is inexpensive, aspiration-free fizz ... and this ‘brand’ of wine is currently fighting (and losing) a qualitative race to the bottom against ‘Prosecco’.

Cava can, however, be pretty damned fine fizz, and would-could-should be rated much more highly than its not-Champagne competitors ... were it not for that damned pesky 95 percentile.

So, what is a good Cava?

Typically, Cava is a Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine made in the same manner as Champagne. Apple-fruited and earthy, Cavas have a reasonably full, gentle spuma, and (2) are nicely shaped by easily digestible soft acidity.

Almost all Cavas are single vintage wines (the warmth of Penedès means the wines do not need so much ageing and blending for the acidity to be tamed (3). As most is consumed immediately, however it is common for Cavas at entry level price points to be released without vintage specification.

Cava takes its name from ‘caves’, in the form of natural underground cellars, as with historical Champagne. The term used in Spain to indicate that secondary fermentation and ageing take place in the same bottle as one consumes is ‘Mètode Tradicional’, and the process is identical to ‘Méthode Champenoise’. Not all Spanish Fizz is Cava Right now, there is much more than Cava production shaping a rapidly evolving Spanish fizzscape:

Firstly, Cava is far from a homogenous idea: despite the dominant market visibility of cheaper styles, there are also producers of quality, delicious (sometimes expensive) aspirational fizz. By aspirational, we mean not simply giving up the notion of excellence as a battle already-and-forever won by the Champenoise.

But, secondly, apart from DO (Denominació d'Origen) Cava, there are several (competing) appellations/identities under which quality sparklers can be released. Many questions exist about how best to represent the notion of quality:

- Does Cava need to be ‘fixed’?

- Can it be ‘fixed’, to meaningfully accommodate the industrial giants and their fairly awful wines and also to coherently promote quality, even prestige bubbles?

- Or do we need to define Cava as an entry/value idea and have another, premium rubric?

These are merely rhetorical questions by now. They could and should have been systematically addressed. Sadly that boat (planned, reasoned, future thinking) has sailed, and sunk. Meanwhile a miscellany of unsightly hulks clutter the harbour ...

(1) Cava (pronounced cahh-vuhh)

(2) The generic name is Vinos Espumosos – foamy wines.

(3) Acidity may be legally added. While Cava is not legally delimited to the Penedès pre-littoral, 99% comes from there.

What to call ‘Quality Spanish Fizz’

This is a mad battle between five ‘appellative’ contenders, none of which are remotely satisfying by themselves (there is no backable winner here), and together, they constitute a mess:

  1. There is, of course, Cava, as currently regulated by the control board of DO Cava. And there are four competing organisations challenging Cava’s right/ability to promote quality fizz (4)
  2. Within DO Cava, there is a rogue group called Corpinnat . Corpinnat is an EU-registered brand name shared by an egotistical band of six producers self-regulating for quality within DO Cava. Corpinnat imposes some marginal quality commitments above the norms of Cava while taking the safe option of still being able to use the umbrella of the Cava name. Wines labelled “Corpinnat” wafted (on a breeze of aftershave, hubris, corduroy and tweed) into the market in late 2018.
  3. DO Penedès (a table wine DO) has a sub-appellation called Clàssic Penedès, regulating quality fizz. This alternative to Cava as a quality-oriented association commenced in 2013 and by 2018 represented 16 producers. Like Corpinnat, the quality strictures of Clàssic Penedès are reasonable advances on the regulations of DO Cava, but are not entirely satisfactory.
  4. Meanwhile, a once-significant producer of quality Cava, Raventos i Blanc withdrew from DO Cava in 2012. They later declining to enter ‘Clàssic’ and have since also refused to join the Corpinnat mob. Instead, Raventos i Blanc started their own would-be appellation - Conca del Riu Anoia, which remains a crowd of one.
  5. Soon (from 2017 harvest) producers in DOCa Rioja will be authorised to release the first Viñedos Singulares Espumosos de Calidad: “Riojan single vineyard quality sparklings”. The qualitative regulations of this new appellation are similar to those of Corpinnat and Clàssic Penedès. The name, in its bureaucratic über-blandness, however, is even worse than its ultra-lame competitors’! The first 6 Riojan quality single vineyard sparklers enter the market at the end of 2019.

Leaving aside the new Riojan wines, the battle to harness the notion of Quality Spanish (albeit almost Leaving entirely Catalan) Sparkling is split between four competing “brands”: ‘Cava’, ‘Corpinnat, ‘Anoia’ and ‘Clàssic’. All of this within a single valley just south of Barcelona!

Why the left always loses

It’s worth underscoring the tragi-comic dimensions of this commotion. Some (older readers) will be familiar with the 1970s Monty Python film, “The Life of Brian”, which excoriates the tendency of The Left in politics to split on issues of ideological correctness, to thus approximate a rabble and hand victory to The Right. This was a key factor in how the Franco-catholic terror alliance prevailed 78 during and ruled after the Spanish Civil War.

The analogy is eerily relevant today.

In October 2017, Spain’s neo-fascist Prime Minister Rajoy (9), sent in the army to disrupt non-violent civilian protest by Catalan separatists in Barcelona. Rajoy then manipulated Spanish corporate law to facilitate a capital strike against Catalunya, which was gleefully embraced by the two giants of Cava production: Cordoniu and Freixenet: ‘Black Death (10)’ was now to be a Riojan brand! (11)

(4) Less germane to the quality conversation, there are a bunch of other sparkling types in Spain under various names including various Viña de Mesa and large regional appellations, irrelevancies like PetNats and more. Note also, another methodology, apart from Mètode Tradicional (Champenoise) is also legal.

This is ‘Ancestral’, which are un-disgorged wines given sparkle by closing the bottle during the primary alcoholic fermentation (a partial fermentation in normal vats is suspended then resumed in the tirage bottle), making a sparkling without sugars other than those of the fermented fruit.

(5) Calling something a ‘rogue group’ is normally political speak for “people we don’t like” ... which is exactly the case here (more on why I particularly dislike CORPINNAT follows, but the unpalatable name is somewhere to start)!

(6) Despite my quibble about the rubbish moniker, the separate appellation is a necessary, valid GI.

(7) The Ken Loach movie, ‘Land and Freedom’ (1995) is poignantly instructive on this point.

(8) See the last page for a brief parody, based on the Monty Python movie.

(9) This dirtbag was booted out of office in mid-2018, sadly not on account of his neo-facism, but for a rather more blandly Spanish reason altogether – common, everyday corruption!

(10) As a Melbourne waiter of my acquaintance habitually termed Freixenet’s cheap Cava brand, ‘Cordon Negro’!

(11) In the end, this threat was not acted upon.

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