Cata­lan’s high-end cava takes on French cham­pagne


Af­ter decades of ris­ing ex­ports, pro­duc­ers of Cata­lan cava are brim­ming with con­fi­dence and have their eyes set on tak­ing on the “king” of sparkling wine — French cham­pagne.

Cava, which is pro­duced in the Alt Penedes re­gion of north­east­ern Spain, an area of rolling hills about a half hour’s drive south of Barcelona, be­gan seek­ing new mar­kets three decades ago by of­fer­ing good value for money.

Ex­ports of cava soared from just 10 mil­lion bot­tles in 1980 to 154.7 mil­lion bot­tles in 2014, the sixth con­sec­u­tive year that for­eign sales of the drink ex­ceeded those of French cham­pagne. By com­par­i­son in 2014 France ex­ported 144.9 mil­lion bot­tles of cham­pagne.

But of all the bot­tles ex­ported last year, only eight mil­lion were high­end re­serve cavas that pro­duc­ers now want to de­velop.

“Cava is be­gin­ning a sec­ond stage. We con­quered the world with stan­dard cavas. Now we are go­ing to con­quer it again with su­pe­rior qual­ity cavas,” the head of the the as­so­ci­a­tion of small and medium sized cava pro­duc­ers, Pere Guil­era, told AFP.

Guil­era only pro­duces high­end cavas — some 30,000 bot­tles an­nu­ally of which 20 per­cent are ex­ported — at a small fam­ily owned win­ery housed in an old farm­house sur­rounded by vine­yards near the town of Sant Sadurni d’Anoia.

The pro­duc­tion re­quires a care­ful se­lec­tion of grapes and a long age­ing process of up to 12 years to cre­ate a “rich and har­mo­nious aroma, fine bub­ble and a smooth tex­ture” with a “smooth and slightly fruity” taste, said Guil­era.

A bot­tle of re­serve cava costs around 20 eu­ros (US$22), three times less than a bot­tle of cham­pagne of a sim­i­lar qual­ity.

“We are of­fer­ing qual­ity at very

low prices,” said Guil­era.

Eye­ing Asian Mar­ket

Wine­grow­ers want to re­po­si­tion cava, whose name is de­rived for the Cata­lan word for cel­lar, by build­ing on the strength gained dur­ing Spain’s eco­nomic down­turn.

With the do­mes­tic mar­ket stag­nant pro­duc­ers fo­cused on boost­ing sales abroad and in 2012 they ex­ported a record 161 mil­lion bot­tles.

“Cava still has some way to go to im­prove its im­age in the high-end,” said Pe­dro Bonet, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor at Freix­enet, the world leader in sparkling wines.

“We have been work­ing on this for the last few years and bit by bit it is bear­ing fruit. It re­quires time, in­vest­ment and care­ful stag­ing,” he added.

Freix­enet has boosted sales of its high-end cavas in re­cent years such as its award-win­ning Casa Sala, which is made us­ing tech­niques from 150 years ago, in­clud­ing an au­then­tic mam­moth wooden press.

Freix­enet is fo­cus­ing its ex­pan­sion on emerg­ing mar­kets and es­pe­cially in Asia where cus­tomers “value qual­ity and are will­ing to pay a price for it,” said Bonet.

Ja­pan for ex­am­ple is the fifth­biggest im­porter of cava but when it comes to high-end cava it is the sec­ond-big­gest im­porter.

The coun­try is the main mar­ket for the Oriol Rosell win­ery, which ex­ports half of its an­nual pro­duc­tion of 300,000 bot­tles.

The ma­jor­ity of its sales are on the low-end of the value chain, young cavas with an age­ing process of just 12 months.

Win­ery Tourism

“Cava con­tin­ues to be seen, at the in­ter­na­tional level, as a cheap prod­uct,” said the win­ery’s oe­nol­o­gist, Salvi Mo­liner.

“You have to find qual­ity prod­ucts and qual­ity mar­kets but to­day it con­tin­ues to be eas­ier to sell younger cava.”

To change this im­age the as­so­ci­a­tion of small and medium sized cava pro­duc­ers is pro­mot­ing the drink at con­gresses and among opin­ion mak­ers in English speak­ing na­tions.

It is also work­ing to pro­mote tourism in the cava mak­ing re­gion by tak­ing ad­van­tage of its prox­im­ity to Barcelona, one of Europe’s most vis­ited cities.

“Our visi­tors are our best pro­mot­ers. We treat them well, they tell their friends about cava when they re­turn home. It is not fast but it is more last­ing,” said Guil­era, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s head.

The as­so­ci­a­tion has set an am­bi­tious goal: to boost sales of high­end cavas by 40 per­cent within a decade.

“It re­quires a great col­lec­tive ef­fort but it is pos­si­ble given the high qual­ity of the prod­uct we make,” Guil­era said.


Bunches of grapes hang on a vine of the Segura Vi­u­das vine­yard, in Sant Sadurni D’anoia, near Barcelona, Spain, July 7.

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