Cava fights back

Spain’s sparklers could be starting to claw their way out from under the shadow of Prosecco, reports Sarah Jane Evans MW

Prosecco. Let’s get that word out in the open. Every investigation of cava has to have a view on prosecco. This, after all, is the wine that gives cava producers bad dreams. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that cava was where prosecco is now. Then cava was the first choice for girls’ nights in, weddings, baby showers and a great value champagne substitute for cocktails. I’m going to argue that cava has the potential to be so much more than prosecco.

Cava, worth £118.7m (all stats Cava Institute) is the third largest sparkling wine behind prosecco (£396.5m) and champagne (£249m) in the UK off-trade. It’s very easy to see where it all went wrong. The short-termist strategy that put volume before value and sales before quality was bound to go pop in the end. Can it ever claw back its quality and regain its reputation and its sales?

The latest smoke signals from the Cava Institute aren’t promising. Domestic sales may be up and in exports the trends may be positive, but this is “with the exception of Belgium and the UK, which are showing a reduction in sales due to price policies”.  Given that the UK has been cava’s top export market, this is serious news.

Cava remains very big numbers – there are plenty of bottles sold to satisfy its 244 producers. But the race to the bottom has ended with some seriously poor wines. Traditional cava has a depressing list of disabilities – grown so much further south than Champagne, most grapes come from warm areas and lack the crisp acidity we have come to expect from a quality traditional method sparkling. With a minimum age of nine months, the young wines hardly have a chance to develop any secondary characteristics. That has, until recently, meant an aroma which wandered somewhere between pears and burnt rubber.

Cava Rosado as it used to be, whether from Trepat or Monastrell, deep-coloured and sturdy, is never going to compete with ethereal rosé champagnes (Rosado is currently 20% of UK off-trade cava). And once it won a reputation for being cheap then no sensible independent merchant or sommelier is going to want to give it space. As for consumers, who is going to dare to be seen with cava when prosecco – there, it’s that P word again – is softer, frothier, and fruitier. What’s more it’s cheap, but with none of the low-rent stigma belonging to cava.

That’s enough of the bad news. I am a Spain nut, and a devout believer in the second coming of sherry, another problematic category. Just as for sherry, I believe there is potential for cava to re-establish itself. It works in similar ways – through rediscovering uniqueness, history, quality and then marketing the wines intelligently to provide new appeal to sommeliers, independents and consumers.


Cava is made by the traditional method, like Champagne. Prosecco isn’t. This is what can give its complexity – though it does make it more expensive to produce, even with the astonishing mechanisation installed so early in the great cava enterprises. The first sparkling was made in 1872, but the cava DO was not created until 1986. Because there were a few people already making traditional method sparkling outside Penedès, they were included in the DO. Thus cava is one of the rare denominations in the world that cannot relate to a geographical origin, or lay claim to terroir – a sense of place. That is a clear obstacle to reputation in these days when we want to focus on artisan production from single vineyards. 

That’s where Raventós i Blanc is an interesting case. Pepe Raventós is fiercely committed to quality and identity and left the cava DO to set up Conca del Ríu Anoia. His latest blanc de noirs, Textures de Pedra, is named after the stony soils. A further group of traditional method producers has set up Clássic Penedès, equally with tighter regulations on quality.


This is all about the wine trade needing to tell a story to sell a wine. With a few noble exceptions, prosecco doesn’t have a story, but it has the glamour of Brand Italy behind it. Cava has plenty of stories but up until now has not felt the need or had the confidence to tell them. With a strong domestic market, Spanish consumers knew what their cava was all about. In the cold world of export, that education is lacking.

Cava has history and should flaunt it. Codorníu likes to say it has been in the business since 1551, even if Raventós claims to be half a century older. Says Mike Damian, managing director of Freixenet UK: “All our cavas tell a story. At the premium end Reserva Real celebrates the king’s visit to the winery in 1887. Casa Sala Brut Nature Gran Reserva is traditionally produced at the old villa where the Freixenet story began.” Vilarnau dates its estate back to the 12th century.

There are stories to tell about families too. Take Juvé y Camps, which recently relaunched in the UK and whose hilltop winery has terrific views of the mystic jagged mountain of Montserrat. Or Vallformosa, or the organic Castellroig.


Improve the wine and the customers will come back – though given the damage to cava’s reputation that will take work. At cava’s second largest producer, Codorníu, winemaker Bruno Colomer and his team can convince the incredulous. Their experimentation has culminated in the super-premium Gran Cru project. Importantly, that learning is now cascading down to improve the winemaking of the mainstream brands, and is apparent in the quality of the recently launched Cuvée Barcelona.

Improving wine quality starts in the vineyard. Producers are seeking out cooler inland sites at higher altitudes. They are becoming expert at managing picking times. Time spent on lees is also being considered more carefully.  At the top end, all producers are far exceeding the minimum requirements for cava. 

In Penedès – the focus in any discussion of cava – there has been a return to the classic varieties of Xarel.lo, Parellada and Macabeo. Nowhere else in the world makes sparkling wine with these varieties. The first one – pronounced sharell–oh – is undergoing a renaissance with producers returning to single varietal Xarel.lo cavas and still wines. While the arrival of Chardonnay made a difference to many cavas, sharpening them up, improving the acidity, the latest Xarel.los prove that the local varieties can do it all.

The latest figures show that the decline in cava sales has slowed. Pete Fairclough, brand manager at Kingsland Drinks, which is involved in both cava (including Conde de Caralt) and prosecco, suggests this may be a result of the decline in prosecco supply. A bonus is the consequent rise in prices. As a result of this “we see great potential for growth in the on-trade and off-trade”.

Traditionally, mainstream cava – and most particularly Freixenet with its Christmas advertising, as long-awaited as James Bond or Waitrose Christmas ads – relied on plenty of expensive, above-the-line marketing.

Now’s the time to look beyond them to the niche categories, with lots of specialist interest to sommeliers and independents. 

Recaredo is a must-try – 100% biodynamic, 100% hand-disgorged, thrillingly fresh. Gramona is the grandee of cava, its richer styles making it the Bollinger of cavas. For those interested in natural wines, then Josep Mitjans at Loxarel makes wine in amphoras. His 109 sparkling is aged for 109 months on the lees.

Cava should do more to consolidate itself with chefs and restaurants. Freixenet is using food matching as a marketing theme this year. A Catalan sparkling starred at a memorable meal I enjoyed at San Sebastian’s Mugaritz. It was a niche choice – Colet-Navazos, where the liqueur d’expedition is sherry – but a perfect one. Cava and these Catalan sparklings provide some singular choices.

Of course it’s not just all about top-end appeal. Codorníu, in addition to its fine wines, is looking at covering all areas, hence Zero, its first no-alcohol product. Its organic, from its Ecológica vineyard, has been “a huge success” in Scandinavia and central Europe and is now arriving in the UK. And, just to make sure it can make inroads to the prosecco- drinking millennials, there’s Albariño Frizz and Verdejo Frizz at just 5.5% abv.

Overall, there’s plenty of promise for cava in 2016. The straightforward approach is to get opinion formers in the trade and customers to taste the good wines. The radical solution to cava’s image problems is to start by changing its name. It’s not an original idea. A senior figure in cava was the one who suggested it to me. He believes ‘cava’ has been a mistake and that it should have a regional name for the DO. Well, it’s never too late.  

Sarah Jane Evans MW is a member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros de Vino.