We Need To Talk About Cava
12th April 2023
Has Cava got an image problem in the UK and what can be done about it? Martin Higginson, Cava Educator investigates why Spain’s premier sparkling wine has such a hard time competing in the UK market.
What would be your first thoughts when asked about Cava? Chances are that the words ‘great value’ and perhaps even ‘cheap’ will appear ahead of ‘quality’. And therein lies the issue that I’ve come across when helping a top-end Cava producer to get a toehold into the UK market.
Let me explain. I run a wine education and tasting organisation called Suffolk Wine Academy. I’ve always had a thing for Spanish wines and over the past few years have become an official Educator for Rioja and Sherry. Last year I decided to take the Cava Academy course run by the Cava DO to become a Cava Educator too, and a really good online-based course it is. As part of the course I was sent a mixture of 6 quality Cavas which highlighted different regions and styles of the wine.
Amongst them was Aviñyo ‘La Ticota’ Gran Reserva, a wine which in my opinion was definitely the pick of the bunch. I wanted to taste more. Lots of searching indicated that it was not possible to buy the wine in the UK and so I directly contacted Aviñyo in Spain, and to cut a long story short they invited me to Catalonia to see their operation and to perhaps help them get their wines into the UK. I was very impressed, but I’m not a wine importer, I don’t sell wine, so I tried contacting a number of people in the wine trade to see what their thoughts were about bringing a quality, high-end Cava into the UK.
In short, their answers were quite similar; “there’s no market”, “Cava is only seen as a cheap wine”, and “the public won’t pay more than £15 for a bottle of Cava”. They’d all tasted samples of the wines Aviñyo had sent me and everyone agreed that they, and particularly the ‘La Ticota’ were excellent but all doubted the possibility of them gaining success in the UK.
Over the past few years Cava DO have concentrated on regulating two aspects of Cava, designating areas of production – the ‘Cava Region’, and levels of quality determined by method of production and ageing. There are 4 main regions of production, Comtats de Barcelona in Catalonia where 95% of all Cava is produced, Ebro Valley which includes some personal favourite Cavas made in Rioja, and two smaller regions, the Levante Zone near Valencia and Viñedos de Almendralejo in South Western Spain near to the border with Portugal.
All Cava is made using the Traditional Method where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, a fact that I’m often surprised is big news to many drinkers who are amazed that it’s made in the same way as Champagne! The new classification has two main levels depending on the length of time that the wine is left on the lees to age & develop those all-important flavours in the bottle. Cava de Guarda is the youngest wine, spending a minimum of 9 months ageing in the bottle. Cava de Guarda Superior is the higher quality and is split into three categories, the first two using category names familiar to those already used to Spanish wines; Reserva, wines with a minimum of 18 months ageing, and Gran Reserva, complex wines resulting from more than 30 months in the bottle (this is the classification of the Aviñyo ‘La Ticota’ previously mentioned). The highest level is Guarda Superior de Paraje Calificado, very special wines of great quality from specific single vineyards.
There are still only around 20 Cavas in this category and most cost hundreds of pounds per bottle. Unsurprisingly I’ve not come across any to taste in the UK.
But, and it’s a big BUT….. the words ‘quality Cava’ do not seem to be something that the UK is familiar with. Is it due to Cava’s drive in the past 20 years or so to provide big brand-named low-cost wines, deliberately never attempting to place themselves anywhere near to competing with even basic, low-level supermarket-brand Champagne? If so then it must be said that the exercise must be classed as a failure. Perhaps the Spanish (but let’s be honest none of us) envisaged the incredible growth and success that Prosecco has experienced in the past 15 years. Cava DO insist that Cava and Prosecco are totally different wines produced in different ways. Well, that does have some truth in it, but tell that to the millions of Prosecco buyers in the UK! Do they care about methods of production? The marketing of Prosecco as a wine and specific Prosecco brands has certainly paid dividends. The UK is still Cava’s #4 export destination accounting for almost 20 million bottles in 2021 and that’s with virtually no marketing bar that of a few of the big brands. Impressive, but Prosecco sales in the same year were over 130 million! Wine writers and retailers are all telling us that people are upgrading their wine spend, that even the average consumer is willing to spend more so long as the quality justifies it.
So how can consumers of quality sparkling wines in the UK get to hear about, taste, and ultimately buy top quality Cava in the UK? It’s a classic Catch-22 scenario; importers won’t bring it here unless they see a demand for it, but consumers won’t create that demand until they get to try it. What to do? As a Cava Educator I try to spread the word about quality Cava, but without the product being available to drinkers (or even to me in order to show it to retailers, restaurateurs, and ultimately the public) I’m always pushing a very large bottle up a very steep hill!
Which brings me back to Aviñyo Gran Reserva ‘La Ticota’. What more can I do to get this great wine available to UK drinkers? Can the readers of Glass of Bubbly help with suggestions and advice? Are there any importers out there who are interested? I strongly believe that there is a market out there for quality Cava. Am I right? I’d love to hear from you!
Martin founded the Suffolk Wine Academy, based in Bury St Edmunds in 2016. He is an Approved WSET Educator and also a recognised Educator for the Spanish wine regions of Rioja, Sherry & Cava.