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Jefford on Monday: Cava fights back

Andrew Jefford travels to Catalonia to discover how the new category of Cava de Paraje will work.

Here’s the problem.  Cheap Cava is called – Cava.  And Gramona’s 2000 Enoteca Brut Nature, which London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd lists at £160 a bottle at present, is called – Cava.

The cheap fizz is world-famous.  The fine sparkling wine, as yet, is not.

Cava has no Grands Crus or Premiers Crus, no sub-regions, no recognised system of Cuvées de Prestige, no marketing expression for the creative tension between big houses and small grower-producers.  There is just – Cava.

Cava vineyards overlooked by the Montserrat mountain range

Cava vineyards overlooked by the Montserrat mountain range. Credit: Consejo Regulador del Cava.

It doesn’t even have to be grown and made in its Catalonian heartland, using indigenous varieties and the distinctive limestone soils of the Penedès hills.  The 2015 list of Cava producers (241 of them altogether) contains addresses all over Spain, from Extremadura to Spain’s Basque regions, and including Rioja; the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (though not, curiously, Pinot Meunier) are included in the list of approved varieties.  The DO is a young one, dating only from 1986; production dazzlingly efficient.   The result is that Cava has become, since the DO was granted back in 1986, not so much a wine as a commodity.  Few consumers understand just how fine Cava can be, nor how intimate a relation with terroir it is capable of expressing.  They buy it, as often as not, when they want a cheap alternative to Champagne.

limeston, cava

Limestone pebbles typically found in Cava vineyards. Credit: Gramona

“In all wines,” points out Pedro Bonet Ferrer, President of the Consejo Regulador for Cava, “there is a premium category.  It’s necessary for the image, and for the logic of quality, too.  The quality pyramid must have a top.”  The Cava pyramid does indeed have a top, but it is shrouded in mist.

The first step in rectifying this is to create a framework by which  excellence can be articulated.  In June this year, the Cava authorities finally presented a scheme intended to do that.

It’s called Cava de Paraje.  Paraje is generally translated as ‘site’ or ‘place’, though it can also mean something a little larger; ‘landscape’, for example.  “Some people are trying to say it is ‘single estate’,” says Pedro Bonet, “but it’s really a single vineyard, a specific small place, an original piece of land.”  The other terms which were considered but rejected included heredad (estate), finca (farm), parcela (parcel) and pago (vineyard – the most logical alternative, but already trademarked by Marqués de Griñón).

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The official rules mentioned at launch included a maximum yield of 8,000 kg/ha or 48 hl/ha; 36 months ageing in bottle; only vintage wines and only Brut styles (or dryer); a rather feeble vine-age requirement of 10 years; an approval process for the parcels themselves; and a tasting requirement for the base wines and finished wines.  When I visited the region recently, though, some other intriguing requirements came to light.

Xarel-lo grapes, cava, Recaredo

Xarel-lo grapes at Recaredo ahead of the 2016 harvest. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

The most important of these is that Cava del Paraje can only be claimed by companies vinifying most (85 per cent) of their own base wines.  Those who buy substantially from others will be ineligible, and this may exclude many existing Cava companies from the scheme.  Any vineyard proposed for Paraje must be wholly owned by the company, and have been separately fermented for at least three harvests.  The wine cannot be acidified (as normal Cava can), and it must have a natural finished acidity level of 5.5 g/l (measured in tartaric), whereas the minimum acidity level for normal Cava has recently been reduced to 5 g/l.

Moreover Pedro Bonet fought hard in Madrid to ensure that Cava de Paraje has become Spain’s third ‘Calificado’ DO, after Rioja and Priorat – but significantly the ‘Calificado’ part must obligatorily be used with the Cava de Paraje formula (it qualifies the masculine noun ‘paraje’ and not – as in Rioja and Priorat’s cases — the feminine noun ‘denominación’, which is why it ends in ‘o’ and not ‘a’).  That may seem a bureaucratic nuance to outside observers, but it is freighted with significance within the Spanish wine scene itself.

I asked Pedro Bonet why Cava del Paraje Calificado wasn’t restricted to indigenous varieties alone.  “We talked a lot about that, and that was the principle, the spirit.  But since the other varieties are already included in the DO, we decided that it wasn’t legally possible.”  So why not go all the way and create a new DO with new rules?  He smiled.  “Yes …  But that would mean that Cava itself would become ‘ordinary’, a second-class category, and that would not be right.”

Ton Mata of Recaredo, cava

Ton Mata of Recaredo. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

I chatted to those with most to gain or lose from the new rules – in other words those struggling to produce the highest quality Cava.  “It’s something welcome,” said Ton Mata of Recaredo.  “Though it’s not exactly what I’d like, because I am very ambitious.  My dream is an appellation for sparkling wines from our area alone, but it’s not an easy dream — Cava is also produced 1,000 km to the west of here.  On all of the rest of the points I agree – but the Consejo must work hard at defining what they understand as a paraje.”

Jaume Gramona, too, is fully behind the scheme, and even backs the inclusion of the non-indigenous varieties.  “I studied for five years in Burgundy and I am convinced that for sparkling wine these French varieties can be very good.  The difference with the indigenous varieties is that you don’t always get a result.  This year we hoped to declare a Chardonnay for Paraje but we’ve realised we can’t do it; the quality just isn’t good enough.”  Codorníu, whose colossal vineyard holdings (the company owns 3,500 ha) gives it the chance to be a significant Cava de Paraje player, is also a big backer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and campaigned unsuccessfully to have a minimum natural acid level of 7.5 g/l.

The site definitions will be key, and a curious system seems to be in place for their approval, requiring the producer to ‘defend’ the site before a panel which includes Spanish wine experts and journalists, like a kind of PhD viva.  What seems evident at this stage is that even the key producers have different notions of what a paraje might be.  Recaredo’s Turó d’En Mota, acknowledged by Pedro Bonet as an inspiration for the scheme, is less than a hectare in size, and the company has some other small single sites that it intends to submit for approval in due course.  That’s the classic model – a Catalan equivalent, let’s say, to the Burgundian ‘climat’, or to Clos du Mesnil. Gramona, by contrast, intends to ask for a single paraje named ‘de Origen Gramona’ for all of the wines the family will submit for the scheme (from a total of 30 ha): a sort of Bordeaux ‘grand vin’ paradigm, albeit from a smaller set of vineyards.

It also has to be acknowledged that ‘Paraje’ isn’t the easiest Spanish word for non-native speakers to pronounce (the ‘j’ makes the same sound that Scots speakers produce when they say the word ‘loch’, and is not remotely pronounced like the standard English ‘j’).  ‘Pago’ would have been much easier.

Well, one can always quibble.  My view is that this is the best official news about Cava in my lifetime: a long overdue measure that finally brings producers the chance to communicate the extraordinary finesse, intricacy, refinement and, yes, pronounced ‘minerality’ which these wines are capable of expressing.

I’ll return to this subject a little later this year with a piece on the taste of Cava itself which will, I hope, explain why wines like Recaredo’s and Gramona’s amply merit their high prices, how ‘terroir transmission’ can reach unrivalled levels in fine Catalan sparkling wine — and why I still have misgivings about the use of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Cava de Paraje Calificado.

More Andrew Jefford columns:

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