The regulatory board of D.O. Cava in Catalunya, Spain, just announced sales figures for 2021. I take a look at the fascinating trends and surprising developments, many of which are tied to a new commercialization strategy announced in 2020. Areas to watch: organic production and higher-end categories of the Spanish sparkler, where terroir takes center stage.
Announcing 2021 sales and export figures today, a press release from the regulatory board of the D.O. Cava in Spain also pointed out intriguing trends and encouraging practices related to this most famous of Spanish sparkling wines. Domestic consumption in Spain recovered last year, but the real news here is that exports of wine from D.O. Cava’s 38,000 hectares of vineyards saw jaw-dropping growth. Sales of Cava made from certified organic grapes and finer, longer-aged wines constitute two categories representing Cava’s future and the board’s new strategy.
The larger Rioja DOCa, with almost 66,000 hectares of vineyards, and Cava are the denomination of origin wines that lead Spanish exports. Cava outdid itself in 2021 with 17.34%, overall growth and a sales volume of 252 million bottles. The real standouts posted figures way beyond this, however; organic Cava sales grew 65% and those of the new Guarda Superior category by an astounding 104.25%. Rioja, for comparison, had overall growth of 8.6% in 2021, with sales of Gran Reserva wines showing a 15.7% rise.
Cava is a sparkling wine that, since July 2020, is placed into two broad categories (although all Cava is made from the traditional double fermentation method, the same as for Champagnes). Cava de Guarda includes wines aged in the bottle for a minimum of nine months, showing a lighter flavor of fresh fruit and citrus accompanied by fast, lively bubbles in the glass. This is the lower level of Cava wines. Cava de Guarda Superior is the higher level, and this is where the growth occurred. Superior includes three levels of wine: Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Paraje Calificado. Reserva wines must have aged a minimum of 18 months in the bottle; for Gran Reserva this time period is extended to 30 months, though many go much longer than this. The resulting wines have much more character, including flavors associated with sophisticated aged sparkling wines, including tertiary aromas. Reservas can run the gamut of sweetness styles from Brut Nature and Extra Brut through Semi Seco (semi dry) and Dulce (sweet).
Cava de Paraje Calificado is wine tied to a single vineyard or area. This is the regulatory board’s answer to many of the D.O. winegrowers’ goals of expressing terroir or terruño in their wines. In fact, a few years ago some famous producers left the D.O. over such issues; and the regulatory board has responded quickly, thoughtfully, and strongly. Paraje Calificado wines represent a concrete place, unique in expression, and quite distinct from even the broad Gran Reserva category. Here high quality and uniqueness are combined. These superbly complex wines age for a minimum of 36 months in bottle, some much more. Additional requirements for achieving this qualification include vineyards planted over 10 years ago; a maximum yield of 8,000 Kg/Ha; only manual harvesting of grape bunches; wines made on the property and always with a vintage; a limited extraction of 48 Hl/Ha; and serious oversight with complete traceability from the vineyard to the final sales point. Thus the vanguard in terms of fine wine production is also the wave of the future for the regulatory board. “As a D.O. based on origin, on our vineyards, and on long aging,” said President Javier Pages today, “we have a serious responsibility and a unique opportunity to take the exceptional success of Cava to even greater heights.”
The international wine world has taken note. Exports constitute 71% of total Cava sales. The European Union countries like Cava--a lot--but with a little more three percent rise, overall the E.U. is not the growth market. By contrast, sales rises in what the board calls “third countries” was considerable at 30.43%. While sales to Japan grew 7.94%, the bubbliest pace was in places like Austria (65.54%), Brazil (37.69%), and Poland (27.35%).
The news that really caught my attention relates to organic wines. Part of the new regulations established 2025 as the year that the entire category of Guarda Superior wines (Reserva, Gran Reserva, Paraje Calificado) must be 100% organic. That’s coming up very soon!
The number of bottles of organic Cava now exceeds 22,797,356, with an impressive growth of 65.43% compared to 2020. This shows the 2020 regulation taking effect, as more and more producers achieve certified organic status, having changed their viticultural practices; thus the board refers to “a state of transition for certain winemakers in the Designation of Origin.” This is good for the wine and its consumers, the D.O., and the environment. The Guarda Superior segment contributed hugely to the overall growth in sales, with a remarkable figure of 104.25%, representing 42.09% of the total organic Cava category.
This is a targeted trajectory for sales growth and strengthening quality that comes not only from the regulatory board, but also from the winemakers and grape farmers. One can clearly see that the new segmentation and zoning, the strong focus on sustainability, and the attention to producing unique, expressive sparkling wines that rival the best of Champagne is quickly paying off. Gran Reserva and Paraje Calificado wines represent a huge value in comparison with the prices of Champagne wines.
More changes are afoot, including education campaigns. This year will also see the launch of the first quality seals under the new regulations, telling consumers about the Cava’s geographical origin and product segment, such as Guarda Superior.
Charlie Leary earned his PhD at Cornell University. He has served as a wine director for restaurants in New Orleans, southern France, Canada, Costa Rica and Panama since 1995. He is a certified Cava Educator and Expert and has studied wine through Washington State University, the Wine Scholar Guild, California Wine Institute, and the Rioja Academy.