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Freixenet to produce declassified sparkling as severe drought hits Catalonia

The Cava powerhouse has been forced to find an alternative to meet demand in key export markets as Penedès grapples with extreme water shortage.

A European Drought Observatory map shows the Spanish Mediterranean coast swathed in orange and red, marking severe drought brought on by – according to a study published in Nature Geoscience – the most severe dry spell the Iberian Peninsula has experienced in the last 1,200 years. The lack of rainfall is causing a never-before-seen crisis in the Penedès region, home to around 95% of DO Cava production. Last year, some growers lost nearly 70% of their harvests; this year more vines than ever risk dying of thirst.

Map of current droughts in Europe. Credit: European Drought Observatory / © European Union

State of emergency

In February, Catalonia declared a state of emergency affecting six million people in Barcelona and 201 surrounding towns. Everything from watering a garden to using beach showers has been severely restricted, with hefty fines for those who don’t comply. Even street cleaning in the Catalonian capital has been paired down to a minimum. The Catalonian government also announced plans to send desalinated water from Valencia to Barcelona as an interim solution.

The restrictions also mandate that water for crop irrigation be reduced by 80%, threatening winegrowers already struggling with the lack of rain. Speaking to Catalonian daily La Vanguardia, Jaume Domènech of the agricultural union Joves Agricultors i Ramaders de Catalunya (JARC) said that there is a danger that a third of the vines in Alt and Baix Penedès will not bud this year. In total, it’s estimated that the drought will reduce production by 60 million bottles.

Struggle to meet demand

One of Cava’s biggest brands is especially feeling the effects of the drought. Cava giant Freixenet says it has been forced to produce a declassified sparkling wine for markets in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, as there are not enough DO Cava grapes to meet demand. ‘Freixenet Premium Sparkling Wine – Cuvée de España’ will be produced using the Charmat instead of the Traditional Method of sparkling production and will debut in August 2024. Josep Palau, production director at Freixenet, told business daily El Economista that ‘the sharp decrease in [grapes harvested] will have a massive impact on all markets in the world since this serious situation is not expected to be reversed in the short term.’

Cavas Freixenet, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Alt Penedès, Catalonia, Spain. Credit: Freixenet Copestick

The current crisis comes after a record year for DO Cava, with nearly 252 million bottles sold – 2.7 million more than in 2022 – and increases in Cava sales both in the domestic and key international markets. Spain accounts for 79% of Cava sales by value. The primary export markets by volume are Germany, the United States, Belgium and the United Kingdom, which rounded out Cava exports in fourth place with 16.8 million bottles in 2023.

With more frequent droughts expected in the years to come, DO Cava will face the challenge of managing stocks to meet steadily increasing demand. Cava’s regulatory council is currently studying extraordinary measures that would allow wineries to keep reserves of base wine over three years, from which they could make new Cava in so-called ‘bad years’. These exemptions would only apply to Cava de Guarda, the category with the shortest ageing and the highest volume. DO Cava’s president, Javier Pagés, assured that any measures taken would not affect the premium Cava de Guarda Superior categories (Reserva, Gran Reserva and Paraje Calificado).


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