Xavier Gramona is the gentle warrior taking up the fight for top-end Cava to the consumer. June Lee examines why Gramona might be your sparkling wine of choice in 2019.
Xavier Gramona from Cava Gramona
The urban slicker, white-haired fifth-generation owner of Gramona is pacifist by nature, but he’s been leading a quest to improve Cava’s image for almost two decades. Xavier Gramona, 59, is a man of philosophy, who chooses his words with care and spends a good 10 minutes probing the merits of character versus personality. Just like his exemplary aged sparkling wines that can cost up to US$150, he’s not in a rush to reveal himself.
Sparkling wine in the traditional method of Champagne was made in Spain since the 1860s. It was often referred to as champán, a practice that ceased after 1972 when the Consejo Regulador de los Vinos Espumosos (Regulatory Council of Sparkling Wines) established the use of the word ‘cava’ instead to avoid dispute with France. Cava simply means caves or cellars, referring to the storage areas
where the wine is aged before it turns into a sparkling wine due to secondary fermentation in the bottle.
The problem for producers like Xavier is that his biodynamic, handcrafted and artisanal Cavas share the same shelf space as $5 options, preventing the industry from moving away from its cheap image. While the Council in 2017 announced a new designation of Cava de Paraje Calificado, akin to a grand cru-like labelling for specific terroir-driven Cava, the initiative hasn’t gone far enough for some producers.
That’s why Xavier, along with producers Llopart, Nadal, Recaredo, Sabaté i Coca and Torelló, have formed a new initiative called Corpinnat. The name means “born in the heart of Penedès”, and they have banded together to set strict quality standards with emphasis on single vineyards. Whether or not this means a move away from Spain’s denominación de origen (DO) system is the next step – and what the ramifications are for customers.
A bond with nature
Born in Barcelona but with ties to Sant Sadurni d’anoia, the centre of the sparkling wine region of Alt Penedes, Catalonia, Xavier didn’t come to the family business until the age of 35, due to circumstances which he doesn’t divulge. Once he left the corporate world, he found his mission in life in revitalising the industry.
Together with his winemaker cousin Jaume Gramona, they set out to reaffirm what their great-grandfather Pau Batlle made 130 years ago when he aged the Xarel-lo wine, which was confirmed by Josep Lluís and Bartomeu Gramona in the 1950s after the house had adopted its official name, Gramona. They also oversaw the costly conversion of their organic farming to biodynamic. They are now one of, if not the largest, biodynamic sparkling wine producers in Spain, with a production of 600,000 bottles a year, similar to the size of Krug. He explains, “After you apply years of antibiotics, the vine is no longer self-sufficient, it’s not able to defend itself against infections or disease on its own. Our vineyards have animal life that was lost before, with worms, arachnids and microbiotics making up the healthy soil.” Gramona also uses natural yeast that gives the wine personality, as opposed to the genetics of the vine which makes up its character. In harmony, the wines have a distinct, generous and complex profile, which does not need much addition of dosage, thanks to the natural subtlety of the acids of their grapes.
Artisans of time
The other factor is Xarel-lo, one of the three traditional, endemic grapes used in Cava production. While Parellada can be oxidative and Macabeo is an in-between of the two, Xarel-lo is claimed to be high in resveratrol, a natural phenol in grapes which appears to give the wine a longer ageing window while imbuing more balance, elegance and nutty, toasty flavours, thanks to naturally occurring benzaldehyde. At first, the local critics scoffed when Gramona released a 10-year-aged Cava, but with accolades coming in from the U.K. and U.S., the same critics were emboldened to embrace the new style. The Enoteca Brut Nature 2000 was named 2017 Best Wine in Spain in the La Guia Peñin wine guide.
Xavier and Jaume are already thinking of the next generation who will take over the winery, which made it easier to decide on issues such as going biodynamic that will put them in good stead in future. After all, for some of the bottled 2018 vintages, it will be 15 years before it’s ready to be released – some things just can’t be rushed.