In recent years, there has been a great deal of pushback against Spain’s Denomination of Origin bodies, accused by many of moving too slowly to modify outdated restrictions. Earlier this year, 150 winemakers and journalists working in Spanish wine signed a manifesto calling upon the DO bodies to work in pursuit of terroir-driven wines. Some wineries have gone so far as to leave their DO, most notably Artadi, which left DOCa Rioja last year.
What may not have gotten as much attention from English-speaking media was the creation of Clàssic Penedès, essentially a sub-classification within DO Penedès for sparkling wines produced in the region. This is a rather surprising development, as most sparkling wines for DO Cava are produced in Penedès.
It is reasonable enough to question the new classification. Champagne, Prosecco, and, indeed, Cava are famous among European sparkling wines. Why abandon such a well-known brand? Three of the producers behind the movement are DO Penedès President Josep Maria of Albet i Noya, Sergi Colet of Colet and Agustí Torelló of AT Roca. Their simple answer is that they believe the Cava brand has been diluted. These days, the common association of the name is more with cheap bubbly than craft wine. Anyone working in restaurants can attest to this: for affordable fizz, turn to Cava or Prosecco. Both have raced to capture the bottom end of the market while Champagne beams down from above in bemusement.
Approximately 95% of the sparkling wines produced under DO Cava are from three massive producers, the big two being Freixenet and Cordorníu. In Spain, 90% of Cava sells for less than 10 euros retail. As Agustí puts it, “There are two leagues of Cava: excellent and poor quality.” And there are indeed excellent Cavas out there, especially in the higher end. Recaredo, Juvé y Camps, Mestres and Gramona all come to mind. But the vast, vast proportion of the overall production is simply blended wine sourced from any number of vineyards, villages, or even other parts of Spain, including seven regions outside of Catalonia.
Champagne and Cava have roughly the same production area, but there are nearly 5,000 producers in Champagne, whereas in Cava, there are only 287, illustrating even more starkly the industrial aspect of this type of sparkling wine. (As an ironic aside, despite their typical disdain for Spanish wine as lacking finesse, the French drink over 5 million bottles of Spanish Cava, whereas Spaniards drink 3.5 million bottles of Champagne!)
It's for this reason that the Clàssic Penedès producers decided to strike out on their own, a move even they admit is extremely risky. Currently, there are 17 producers who have joined their ranks, four of whom previously made wines under DO Cava. The classification was officially established in 2013, but if a prior vintage meets the requirements, it also can be released as Clàssic Penedès.
Considering this sub-classification of Penedès alongside DO Cava, the question must be asked: how do these sparkling wines differ from one another? The most basic difference is that Cava identifies a process, while Clàssic Penedès (“Clàssic” for short) is the name for sparkling wines from a specific region.
The list of regulations that define Clàssic is lengthy and quite stringent—considerably more so than with Cava. The first and most notable item is that any vineyard producing grapes for Clàssic must be certified organic. While some 55% of all producers in DO Penedès are certified organic, this restriction makes them the first sparkling wine classification in the world to require that wine be produced entirely from organic grapes.
Clàssic producers cannot buy in their wine. Fermentation, disgorging, dosage, and all other aspects of production must happen within their own registered premises. This is significant, as about 80% of the wine produced by the large wineries in DO Cava is bought from other wineries that vinify it for them.
The minimum length of time prior to release of Clàssic, starting with initial fermentation, is 15 months, making every wine a Reserva in terms of Cava’s traditional naming scheme. For Cava, the minimum is just nine months. Several years ago, it was discovered that Freixenet wasn't even meeting this requirement and was fined over 2 million euros as a result. Clàssic Penedès producers recognize that the 15-month requirement makes for risky business, as they can't turn around a vintage for sale the next year. However, they believe it to be crucial, allowing the wines to develop fully.
For Clàssic, no non-vintage years are permitted. Every wine sold is a vintage wine. The date of disgorgement must be identified on the label as well.
Dosage levels fall in line with what have become the general guidelines for sparkling wines. As Catalan and French are more closely related languages than Spanish and French, the domestic labels will be familiar to anyone who knows Champagne:
0-3 grams per liter
0-6 grams per liter
7-12 grams per liter
12-20 grams per liter
17-35 grams per liter
33-50 grams per liter
50+ grams per liter
The labels are another item to address, as to the casual observer, it may be difficult to distinguish between Clàssic and Cava. Initially, the labels just stated “Clàssic Penedès” on the front. This is being augmented with a new back label that states both “DO Penedès” and “Clàssic Penedès.” In time, winemakers may choose to name one of the new subzones of Penedès. Subzones are where things start to get complicated, as they apply to both still wines and these sparkling wines.
Penedès is a rather large region of some 54,000ha in total. Of this, 25,000ha is planted with vineyards. These are not all vineyards for Penedès wines, however, as a great majority of them go into DO Cava as well as DO Catalunya. The latter of these is a bit of a kitchen sink for Catalunya, covering the entire autonomous region and functioning considerably more like a Vino de la Tierra region despite its DO status. Ultimately, there are 4,000ha that actually fall under the auspice of DO Penedès.
Historically, there were and continue to be three delineated subzones that form bands across the region of Penedès: Penedès Superior (the more inland, higher elevation vineyards), Penedès Central (the mid-valley), and Penedès Marítim (the coastal areas). For some time, these designations have been considered woefully inadequate. First, they're confusing, as there are also the Alt Penedès and Baix Penedès administrative counties (Upper and Lower Penedès, respectively), but the Penedès subzones don't correspond with them at all. Second, they're simply far too big. For instance, there are parts of the Marítim zone that run from sea level up to 500m. No one seems that interested in talking about the subzones these days, as they now have created a new set of eight that are more accurate:
While this may seem like a lot to take in, especially as the subzones apply to both Clàssic and DO Penedès still wines, these new classifications provide a great deal more specificity when talking about points of origin in the region. The work on these classifications has been going on for over a decade, and it's just now that wines identified in this way are entering the market. While they are pushing ahead with instituting all of the subzones, each needs a winemaker leading the way and acting as a representative. Garraf/Ordal and Conca del Riu Anoia, where Albet i Noia has vineyards, have some of the most active wineries, so they will likely be first on the market.
Ultimately, Clàssic offers countless advantages in terms of a new sparkling wine brand: terroir specificity, organic production, the requirement that bottling be done by the producer, longer aging, and so on. Why would producers of Cava who meet the requirements refrain from joining Clàssic? Obviously, there is the justifiable concern that leaving such a well-known brand as Cava could cost them in terms of sales, but producers with the Clàssic profile who remain within Cava identify two other reasons.
The first is the name. Josep Maria, Sergi Colet and Agustí Torelló explain the choice of terminology: “They're classic wines from Penedès, essentially a return to the methods that our grandparents used before we went in a bad direction during the 1970s and 80s.” However, a winemaker who has refrained from joining the new classification notes that while he agrees with this philosophy, the name reminds him of the Crémant wines of France, and he sees it as a generic moniker without the strength of the term Cava.
The other concern is the permissiveness of the allowed grapes. Officially, the following grapes are permitted in the wine and on the label: Macabeu, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Subirat Parent, Malvasia de Sitges, Chardonnay, Muscat d'Alexandria, Red Grenache, Carignan, Sumoll, and Pinot Noir. However, smaller proportions of Chenin Blanc, Gewüztraminer, and Riesling are also permitted. The detractors believe these nontraditional grapes shouldn't be allowed, and that they take away from the overall premise and reason to have Clàssic in the first place. On the other side of the argument, winemakers insist that after a 10-year study on the grapes, they found them to be fully suitable to Penedès, which is, after all, a mix of Continental and Mediterranean climates.
It seems that those who choose to stay with Cava ultimately do so because they feel safer within this brand despite what it has come to signify. Josep Maria confirmed that there are others who are on the verge of producing under Clàssic, so the 17 in existence may add to their ranks in the very near future.
While younger, budget-friendly sparkling wines from Spain are often little more than alcohol with fizz and a dose of acidity, here you can actually taste the soils, grapes, and style of the winemaker. Also, despite the ability to add other grapes, it seems producers are most often sticking to a blend of the Penedès stalwarts: Xarel·lo, Parellada, and Macabeu.
Can Morral del Molí Brut Nature 2013 11.5% Pale straw in color. Lime peel, smooth chalkiness, medium acidity in the nose, undertones of vanilla cream. Medium-plus acidity and medium body, long finish, citric notes and creaminess follow through.
Castell de Pujades Aymar Brut Nature 2013 11.5%Straw color, strong, stony mineral notes, biscuit, juicy peach. Medium-plus acidity and body, full, strong mouthfeel, medium finish.
Mas Bertran Balma Brut Nature 2012 12%Pale straw in color, lemon pith, granitic minerality, rounded vanilla butter. Medium body and acidity but excellent balance and a lingering—yet not potent—finish. Very even handed, integrated, and subtle.
Mas Comtal Joan Milà Brut Nature 2012 12.5%Lemon in color. Lemon pith, light almonds, minor vanilla, and buttery cream. More green fruit notes in the body. Medium acidity and body, medium-minus finish.
Clos Lentiscus Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature 2012 12.5%A natural wine producer that uses the honey from their own beehives for the liqueur de tirage. Fully Malvasia based. Pale lemon in color. Honey, white blossoms, fresh lemon zest, melon, medium-plus acidity, bright and lively.
Albet i Noya Brut 21 2012 12.5%Pale straw in color. Notes of the lees, white blossoms, white pear. Light red apple notes in the body, medium-plus body, medium acidity, medium finish. Holds a great deal of singular character.
Loxarel MM Brut Nature 2009 12%Another natural producer that doesn't use sulfites. Straw in color. Cider notes alongside young red apple, cured pear. Medium-plus body with medium acidity, and short finish although good stick in the mouth. Begs for food pairings.
AT Roca Brut Rosat Reserva 2013 12%Very light cherry blush in the glass. Very light red cherry, cured red apple, strawberry, chalkiness, and a tiny hint of wild sage. Touch sweet on the palate as is typical of Brut, medium in both body and acidity, medium finish. Nice option for fattier seafood.
Colet Navazos Extra Brut 2012 12.5%Made in a partnership with Equipo Navazos of Sherry fame. Pale lemon with a hint of green. Chalky, lemon pith, hint of forest floor, and red fruits. Medium in body and acidity, very balanced across the palate, fluid, intentional. Medium-plus finish.
Torre del Veguer Brut Nature 2014 12.5%With a base of Muscat. Lemon in color. Definite grapey Muscat notes in the nose but controlled and not syrupy, with crisper, green fruit aspects coming out more. Medium body and medium-plus acidity. Bright and lively on the palate. Short finish.
A note on the dosage chart: for Brut, shouldn't the residual sugar be 0-12 g/l rather than 07-12g/l?
It's definitely a very well-revised regulation for our modern times. As the gang I was talking to told me, "In the past, Spanish wine was simply defined as Red = Rioja, White = Penedès, Rosé = Navarra, Sparkling = Cava (from wherever) and Sherry = The British. It's an excellent direction and while there are those in Cava who insist that change should have happened from within that DO, I have no idea how that would have been possible given how the dominant three producers have their businesses constructed.