Last fall, Marta Casas joined fellow wine students for a two-day sparkling wine seminar in Austria, in preparation for the Diploma in Wines from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Following a handful of blind tastings, she heard many students comment negatively about why one or two of the wines may or may not have been Cava, the traditional method sparkling wine of Spain. The descriptions of how they perceived Cava as a lower-quality wine felt to her like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“I was very sad,” says Casas. “But this is the truth of what we have in the market.”
It was particularly jarring for the Spanish native because, when she’s not studying to deepen her global wine knowledge, she’s making Cava in the Penedès region of Catalonia. More than two decades ago, Casas and her sister-in-law María Elena Jiménez married into the Cusiné family, which has been making wine under the name Parés Baltà for three generations. Soon after, the two sisters-in-law studied enology and took over as the head winemakers for the brand. They have since garnered a reputation for their exceptional traditional method sparkling wines.
It would be one thing if Casas’s fellow students had been commenting on one specific experience with Cava, but they were clearly speaking in generalities. Confident in the quality wines Parés Baltà and many other producers are making, she left the class with a renewed drive to help reshape what people think about Cava.
In truth, Cava has had a bit of an identity crisis in the past decade. For years, Cava’s reputation has hovered somewhere between that of Prosecco and that of Champagne, with the category boasting low prices for wines produced in the same method as Champagne. But these high-volume wines have often been deemed generic at best and perfect for breakfast cocktails at worst.
The Cava Regulatory Board (Consejo Regulador del Cava), has confronted this long-held, problematic image with the release of a new set of vineyard and production regulations and labeling requirements made official in January 2022. These new standards emphasize quality measures in both the vineyard and the cellar, along with defining a more approachable designation of origin—and it seems this renewed focus on changing the perception of Spain’s sparkling wines has already been effective.
To understand the need for these changes, it’s important to become familiar with Cava’s history. Traditional method sparkling wines have been made in Spain since the late 19th century, beginning in the Catalonian town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, near Barcelona. Here, José Raventós, the head of the family-owned Codorníu, made his first bottles of traditional method sparkling wine after a visit to France in 1872. Raventós was joined in 1914 by Pedro Ferrer and Dolores Sala, who founded Freixenet, now the largest sparkling wine producer in the world. (Codorníu is also among the largest sparkling brands globally.) Growth in the style would ultimately be interrupted by the onset of phylloxera in the late 1880s. In the case of Cava, however, it was fortunate, as many red grape vineyards were ripped up and, eventually, replaced with the white grapes Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel·lo, the three primary grape varieties for the country’s sparkling wines.
For years, these sparkling wines were referred to informally as Champaña, but, in the late 1960s, the term Cava (Spanish for “cellar” or “wine cave”) was adopted. The name became official in Spanish law in 1972 as a protected denomination for sparkling wines made by the traditional method. In 1986, the EU deemed it a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), defined as a traditional method sparkling wine based on the style of the wine rather than its place of origin. That’s because, even though more than 95% of Cava is produced in the Penedès region, it is also made in municipalities in Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, Navarra, La Rioja, Extremadura, and Basque Country.
Despite the sense of cohesion historically within the Cava category, there has been significant fragmentation in the past decade. Though Cava’s history owes much to the pioneering families behind Codorníu and Freixenet, these two producers, along with a few others, account for more than 80% of Cava production. Most of these wines are mass-produced from blended bulk wine and globally distributed at value-driven prices. Many in the industry believe this imbalance between large companies and smaller boutique producers has diluted the Cava brand and prevented it from achieving the premium status it deserves. The response has been the establishment of three separate classifications that have splintered off DO Cava, beginning in 2012: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, and Corpinnat.
The first to break from DO Cava was Pepe Raventós, the winemaker of Raventós i Blanc, who established Conca del Riu Anoia in 2012. The name is a reference to a river basin between the Anoia and Foix Rivers in the Penedès region. The wines must use 100% organic, indigenous grapes from vineyards that are a minimum of 10 years of age. Wines must age on the lees for at least 18 months. To date, the Raventós i Blanc winery is the only producer following this designation, which has no legal recognition.
In 2013, 17 Cava producers left DO Cava and formed a subclassification of the Penedès DO, called Clàssic Penedès, as an EU-approved designation for Spanish sparkling wine. This was the first such designation outside DO Cava. The primary goal of Clàssic Penedès was to establish a premium sparkling wine category, with a focus on terroir specificity, organic production, and tighter restrictions on production, all within the region of Penedès.
The DO rules require organic grapes, rather than purchased still wine, for production, which must take place on the estate. In addition to indigenous varieties, Clàssic Penedès wines can include international grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, though few producers use them. Wines must age for a minimum of 15 months, reaching the reserva level, though many producers exceed this minimum. The back label specifies vintage-only production and the date of disgorgement. Winemakers are permitted to use the traditional or ancestral method.
Geographically the smallest of the three sparkling regulating bodies, Clàssic Penedès spans only 4,000 hectares within three zones: Penedès Superior encompasses inland, higher elevations; Penedès Central includes the middle plain area; and Penedès Marítim covers the coastal area just south of Barcelona. The DO has defined 10 growing areas with distinct mesoclimates within these zones.
For some, Clàssic Penedès did not go far enough in terms of addressing quality and aging requirements or reflecting regionality.
Ton Mata, the third-generation owner and winemaker of Recaredo, explains, “You can find Cava made in many places all around Spain. It could be from Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, where we are located in Catalunya, or it could be from Extremadura, more than 1,000 kilometers to the west. It’s not a real geographic appellation.” Mata has been vocal with the DO about the lack of a sense of place for decades. “I have tried my whole life to produce real terroir wines. We asked for subzones, but for many years that was not allowed.”
Recaredo is one of six producers who withdrew from DO Cava in 2015 to create the Association of Wine Producers and Growers Corpinnat, or Corpinnat, meaning “heart of Penedès.” This private entity has its own set of regulations for viticulture and production and was officially recognized by the EU in 2017. Today, there are 11 members. Wines can include only indigenous grapes that are 100% organic. The wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months before release, though many producers opt for much longer. As of 2021, producers can also make ancestral method wines. The organization allows for labeling with one of seven subzones: Alta Penedès, Alta Camp, Anoia, Baix Llobregat, Baix Penedès, Garraf, and Tarragonès. Altogether, the producers in the association farm about 23,000 hectares of vineyard.
Each of the stipulations put into place is intended to guide Corpinnat producers to make high-quality, terroir-driven wines. Marketing and sales efforts center around the culinary appeal of the wines, focusing specifically on higher-end restaurants and retail sites.
“Any place in the wine world with prestige has rigorous standards that wineries must follow,” says Mata. “This was our way of providing a guarantee of what we’re producing and where it is from.”
The Corpinnat members are Can Descregut, Can Feixes, Gramona, Júlia Bernet, Llopart, Mas Candí, Nadal, Pardas, Recaredo, Sabaté i Coca, and Torelló, a list that includes some of Spain’s most illustrious sparkling wine producers.
The prestige behind this collective group doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of consumer recognition. Corpinnat is a hot topic among wine professionals and sommeliers, and the wines have a cult following. But it’s hard enough finding average consumers who know and understand Cava, much less those who understand an internal political divide that now means some wines they may be familiar with are no longer called Cava.
With the defection of some of the region’s top producers in the past decade, many remaining wineries were faced with the decision of deepening the divide in the name of quality or sticking with the history, heritage, and brand awareness of Cava.
“It was like a divorce when they left,” says Casas of Parés Baltà. “It was a pity that we had this period of crisis. Yes, Cava’s reputation for quality in international markets was on the floor. It’s true. But it meant we needed to focus on the positives and take the chance to change things and focus on the future rather than the past.”
In many ways, the drastic measures of a few were enough to provoke a significant reevaluation of identity.
Krista Church, the general manager for Neighborhood Vintner, a high-end wine retailer and wine bar in Austin, says, “The Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, and Conca del Riu Anoia exit from the DO seems to have thrown down the gauntlet with the message ‘Step it up, or languish.’”
Like many wine professionals, Church has watched for the past few years to see how the DO would respond. “Cava DO producers seem to have split into two camps,” she says. “Those trying to compete in the market with Prosecco and those leaning into a fine-wine angle, emphasizing traditional method production. The latter is still putting a lot of power behind incentive pricing and marketing for on-premise, which has been a very successful strategy. There’s a big market divide in price point that reflects it.”
The Consejo, led by the board president Javier Pagés, was tasked with evaluating and redefining the standards of the DO. Through formal surveys and queries, the Consejo sought feedback from consumers, retailers, suppliers, journalists, sommeliers, and wine professionals in various markets, including the UK, Belgium, and the US.
“We discovered that people felt time and quality go together for good wine,” says Pagés, “that aging the wines longer was associated with higher quality.” He also discovered the importance of origin for consumers and trade. “We understand that sometimes Cava has been viewed as an easy sparkling wine, but not a premium wine, despite the investment and care behind it. We plan to focus on changing that perception."
Following the research phase, Pagés worked with DO members to introduce a new set of more rigorous standards. The Consejo also took note of the stipulations that had been most important to the members who had split from the appellation and incorporated them into the planning. The Consejo established a new naming system with two separate tiers. Cava de Guarda, the younger and fresher style, has a minimum aging requirement of nine months on the lees from the date of tirage. For Cava de Guarda Superior, the quality level is more specifically indicated as reserva, gran reserva, or Paraje Calificado. In the vineyards, all grapes under the Guarda Superior tier must be hand-harvested, and grapes must come from vineyards with a minimum of 10 years of age. The maximum yield for Guarda Superior wines is 10,000 kilograms of grapes per hectare. A few of the aging requirements have changed as well. Reserva wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months on the lees from the date of tirage, rather than 15 as in the past, and for gran reserva, the minimum is 30 months. For all Guarda Superior wines, a vintage date and date of disgorgement must be listed.
The two tiers satisfy the goals of both the value-driven producers and the premium- and quality-minded producers. The fresher, younger Cava de Guarda category continues to allow for the large production of lower-priced Cava, with fewer guidelines around the use of organic methods, yields, the use of purchased grapes and wine, and the place of origin. The Cava de Guarda Superior designation gives producers the opportunity to highlight premium wines that are of interest to trade and consumers seeking a higher level of wine quality.
“Some of the larger wineries were less concerned with adding an origin or zone to their wines, whereas other producers feel the origin, area, and vineyard [are] good to emphasize,” says Pagés. “Similarly, some of the larger wineries were less interested in the Guarda Superior category, because it required longer aging, yield limitations, and further restrictions on ecological vineyards. For them, that was costly and something they didn’t feel the need for. But eventually, they went along with it and felt they could profit from that. Some of these larger wineries also make premium wines and can market different tiers of wine.”
To aid in consumer awareness, the foil labeling on these Cava bottles is color coded: the Cava de Guarda category is green, reserva, silver, gran reserva, gold, and Paraje Calificado, antique gold). These elements may seem confusing at first, but it‘s a risk the Consejo was willing to take. “I am confident that with time, they will [be recognized],” says Pagés.
As the name Paraje Calificado, meaning “qualified location,” suggests, these wines come from specific sites within an estate that the DO has identified, through a rigorous application and auditing process, as having significant uniqueness and distinction. This category was introduced in 2017 to spotlight quality within the appellation. The vineyards must be at least 10 years old, with a maximum yield of 8,000 kilograms per hectare; the grapes must be hand-harvested; and the wines must be produced at the estate. Wines within this category are aged for a minimum of 36 months, and often longer.
Authentication is awarded after a panel of experts taste and analyze the wines and approve them as representative of a singular location and its unique landscape. Currently, there are 10 vineyard parcels, spread across eight sites owned by six producers, that have the Paraje Calificado designation. They are La Capella, from Juvé & Camps; El Tros Nou, La Pleta, and La Fideuera, from Codorníu; Can Sala (two separate parcels), from Vins Família Ferrer de Freixenet; Vallcirera (two separate parcels), from Alta Alella; Can Bas, from Pere Ventura; and Can Prats, from Vins El Cep.
In time, more vineyards may be granted the Paraje Calificado designation, but the process to achieve it is rigorous. “It is a difficult process,” says Pagés. “There are several applicants who are looking to get approval, but we are not increasing the number at the moment. It would be great if we could accept more, but we do not want to do that by lowering the threshold.”
Drawing on the efforts of both Clàssic Penedès and Corpinnat to communicate place of origin to consumers, the Consejo has defined four geographic zones for production, some with smaller subzones to better identify regional specificity. These geographic indicators must be used on Cava de Guarda Superior labels. The four zones are Comtats de Barcelona, which encompasses the Cavas of the region of Catalonia (with the subzones Valls d’Anoia-Foix, Serra de Mar, Conca del Gaià, Serra de Prades, and Pla de Ponent); Ebro Valley (with the subzones Alto Ebro and Valle del Cierzo); Viñedos de Almendralejo; and Levante.
“Now, you can distinguish Cava by zone or subzone, which for some, is important,” says Pagés. “Especially because different varieties grow better in some areas than others, which allows consumers to begin to know what the different areas can achieve.”
There is also an elaborador integral (integral producer) label designation, which identifies wineries with the DO that maintain control of the entire vineyard and production process, rather than purchasing grapes or wine elsewhere.
DO Cava now has the most demanding regulations in the world for sparkling wine. The effort would not have been possible without the collaboration of the more than 200 DO members who affirmed the three-year process of gathering information and solidifying a plan, united in the goal of raising the perception of Cava in the market.
“I love the idea of more specificity within the DO and sustainable production initiatives,” says Church, who carries a range of Spanish sparklers, including Cava, Corpinnat, and Raventós i Blanc. “Every win in that fight is important. I’d rather have more information on the wine I’m enjoying than less. At first, I fear consumers may get lost, but I think it will invigorate the region and set the framework for more transparent winemaking. Having Cava on the label will ultimately build confidence and recognition that the other designations lack."
As time begins to reveal the successes and pitfalls of the new standards, Pagés feels confident that the DO can adjust. He says, “Just as we were able to create something, if something goes really wrong, we can modify things as needed.”
For four generations, Juvé & Camps has been at the forefront of quality Cava, with a viticultural history that dates back a few more generations. From the beginning, long-aged Cava has been the primary focus for the Juvé family. A medium-sized producer of nearly two million bottles annually, Juvé & Camps is a primary producer of gran reservabrut nature Cava for the DO. Before the new regulations were set forth, Juvé & Camps had already established a protocol for organics and regenerative farming practices, with a desire to produce wines reflective of their origin.
Meritxell Juvé, the president of the winery, says, “We have always prioritized quality over quantity. The fact that the DO Cava has taken these measures is a plus for us and shows a firm commitment to offer the quality and traceability in each bottle of Cava. This will be very important for the consumer as they become more familiar with the wines and the subzones of the regions.”
For José María Ferrer, the owner of Vins Família Ferrer, the new regulations check the necessary boxes. “It’s important to segment the different quality levels and give consumers an understanding of where the wine comes from,” says Ferrer. “I think this will give a huge jump in the perception.”
Ferrer’s opinion is unique in that it is informed by both the large and small producer’s perspectives. His grandparents, Pedro Ferrer and Dolores Sala, were Freixenet’s founders. Freixenet grew substantially throughout the 20th century but remained a family operation until 2018, when it was sold to the German sparkling wine producer Henkell & Co. Sektkellerei KG. Ferrer’s father held onto some company shares, maintained 43% ownership, and retained full ownership of the historic buildings and La Freixeneda property. The vineyard is over 200 hectares in size, with more than 95% devoted to grapes sold to other producers. But the Ferrer family retains about 5% for its own production, with three small family wineries under the Vins Família Ferrer brand. The family plot includes some vines over 60 years old, including the Can Sala vineyard, designated as a Paraje Calificado. Together, the three wineries produce about 50,000 bottles annually; Freixenet’s annual sales exceeded 71 million bottles for 2022.
Growing up in such a prominent family in the Cava industry, Ferrer has seen the challenges faced by the DO. “Cava has always been in the hands of the big producers, and I think they did a lot to gain global recognition,” he says. “But the only way they were able to enter the international market in the 1960s and ’70s was to position themselves at the lower end. Since that time, Cava hasn’t taken advantage of how the name was growing and didn’t differentiate the levels of quality available. Instead, the wines became known as generic.”
But for Ferrer, leaving the DO was never an option. “I understand why others felt they had to leave,” he says. “They felt DO Cava was not protecting the quality of the higher-end wines. But I think it’s damaging. When there is no unity, you cannot reshape a message of quality to the consumer. The funny thing is, many consumers still call it all Cava. They don’t know what Corpinnat is. They just know the sparkling wine from Spain is Cava. But now, I think DO Cava is starting to do the right thing. I hope maybe they will see the unity we have and eventually come back to the DO.”
Overall, the DO sold more than 250 million bottles in 2021, one of the highest figures in its history. (By comparison, Champagne sold 320 million bottles in the same year.) With such demand, DO members are already optimistic about what lies ahead. Pagés notes that the sense of community among producers has made a positive impact. “Vineyards and cellars are working together regarding cellar and vineyard practices,” he says. “They are all working toward ecological transitions together, which is helping them work faster toward the regulations we have in place. We already have 14 wineries with the elaborador integral distinction that have created a sort of club to share ideas, whereas before they were working alone.”
At Austin’s Neighborhood Vintner wine shop, the proof is in the Cava sales. Church says, “The most requested by-the-case buy is Sumarroca Gran Reserva Brut Nature 2018. A guest bought one bottle from us a while back and now picks up a case every week. Every time he comes in, he gets one to share with other guests at the bar. It has spread like wildfire in the neighborhood."
Marta Casas of Parés Baltà is confident in the bright future of Cava. “It’s our opportunity to go to the market and to show what we can do,” she says. “That we are not just inexpensive, high-volume wine, but also premium, high-quality wines. It is a hard job, and it will take time. It’s easier to build a house from the ground than it is to remodel it and try to keep some of what was once there, but I believe we can do it, and we have our wine to back this up.”
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Clàssic Penedès (website). Accessed March 9, 2023. https://www.dopenedes.cat/en/classicpenedes.php.
Corpinnat (website). Accessed March 9, 2023. https://www.corpinnat.com/en/.
D.O. Cava (website). Accessed March 9, 2023. https://www.cava.wine.
Fantastic piece! Thank you so much.
Jessica.. excellent... thank you very much!