The future of Sparkling Wine in Catalonia

Since Josep Raventós first convinced his friends to invest in an adventurous replanting and rebuilding project in the 19th century, Catalonia has been the Spanish home of sparkling wine. With the vineyards of the Penedes devasted by phylloxera, Josep saw an opportunity to replant the higher ground with grapes better suited for sparkling wine production, with an intention of taking on the might of Champagne. An unlikely proposition, considering the warm Mediterranean sunshine, the complete lack of specific wine-making equipment and an entirely unproven market. Today Cava production stands at a cool 250 million bottles a year. Kudos, Josep.

Yet for all the success of Cava, all is not well along the Catalan coast. The lack of geographical specificity in the appellation (Cava from Extremadura, anyone?), the influx of international grapes, excessive yields and heavily imbalanced production to 3 giants of the industry are all worrying signs. Worse still, the constant disagreements between producers and the appellation have caused fragmentation, with no fewer than 5 separate classifications of sparkling wine now working separately in the same territory. On the surface, it´s looking like a terrible moment for the local industry and one not easily solved.

On the other hand, it might be exactly what the local industry and consumers desperately needed; a shake up. Cava has for so long been sold as a commodity on supermarket shelves, with its very best producers condemned to share the same name as €3.99 bottles of hastily produced fizz. One of the newer classifications, Corpinnat, consists of the cream of the crop; wineries with real history and a track record of producing consistently delicious wine and with a focus on indigenous grapes and long ageing. Another, Classic Penedes, has a focus on sustainable agriculture and allowing for flexibility and innovation under their appellation. Projects like Navazos-Colet exist here; adding Sherry as an element of dosage? It sounds crazy but it’s absolutely delicious! How about using raw honey as the fuel for the second fermentation? That too, and it works!

Regardless of whether it’s a focus on tradition or innovation, the future of sparkling wine in Catalunya inevitably lies in the premium end of the market, with room for both approaches. There is exceptional land here, carefully and responsibly tended for decades, with old vines of Xareŀlo, Macabeo and Paralleda at the heart of it all. Theres the experience of decades and the energy and creativity of youth. Most importantly, theres a desire to produce truly exceptional wines to rival the best in the world which is, of course, how it all started almost 150 years ago.

Xareŀlo as a still wine

Xareŀlo, like so many indigenous Spanish grapes, often flies beneath the radar of the international fine wine world. Native to Catalonia, Xareŀlo is probably best known for its role in Cava production, providing much of the refreshing acidity and crisp, green fruited and subtle herbal flavours to the base wines. However, for those in the know, it’s greatest expressions arguably come in the form of still wine.

You can find Xareŀlo all across Catalonia, including its predictably complicated synonyms. To the North in Alella, it’s known locally as Pansa Blanca, to Tarragona in the South as Cartoixà and as Premsal Blanc on the island of Mallorca, to name a few. However, few would argue that its spiritual home is in the Penedès wine region, a short drive from Barcelona. Xareŀlo thrives here, particularly at the higher altitudes of Penedès Superior where cooling breezes, deposits of limestone soils and old vines combine to create the perfect eco-system for quality grapes. Excitingly, the potential for Xareŀlo as a still wine has only just started to be realised, with few producers known outside of local circles.

In the vineyard, Xareŀlo has few defining factors; it neither ripens early or particularly late, it produces evenly formed bunches and perhaps most importantly, it performs well on a variety of different soil types. Is it any wonder that it’s beloved almost as much in the field as it is by winemakers? It has some sensitivity to poor fruit set and both downy and powdery mildew, though in the Mediterranean Springs of Catalunya, this is rarely an issue.

At its simplest Xareŀlo has a signature aroma of green apples, fresh herbs and a lemony, citrus character. Combined with the naturally high acidity levels of the grape, these fresh flavours make for a very refreshing wine. However, Xareŀlo also responds well to time in oak and many of the more ambitious wines have sought to pair the natural energy of the grape with extra depth and texture provided by a careful oak regime. Producers like Can Rafols del Caus have even experimented, with great success, with less aromatic woods such as chestnut whilst others have looked towards amphorae and clay vessels. It would take a very skilled blind taster to pick the best wines out of a line-up of quality White Burgundy, with the same undertow and verve found in some of the famous villages of the Côte d’Or, with perhaps the subtle, herbal character the main point of difference.

The charm of Xareŀlo won’t stay undiscovered forever. There’s a huge opportunity here for adventurous drinkers to explore, whether it be adding an extra dimension to a wine list or opening the eyes of their Francophile friends; serve a top bottle without revealing its identity, and see where people think it’s from! It’s a truly exciting time for fans of Spanish wine.

Why the goat?

Eagle eyed browsers have spotted a slightly disheveled looking goat in our logo and wondered why she was there. Well goats are very interesting creatures and can teach us a lot about our attitude to wine.

Goats are insatiably curious. They will poke and prod at everything within their environment. Often this prodding comes in the form of looking for weak links in their enclosures (if domesticated). Goats encourage us to engage and entertain our own sense of curiosity. These creatures are also amazingly intelligent. In the words of Alistair Cooke, “Curiosity is free-wheeling intelligence.” So often curiosity and intelligence go hand-in-hand (or, hoof-to-hoof in this case, lol). The goat is a grand reminder of this, and urges us to be inquisitive.

So why not try something “Different” today?

Hmm, well the aroma is very different…

Nature vs Nurture?

I was lucky enough to be given two books on wine for Christmas. At first glance you would think they come at things from totally opposite points of the spectrum. The first was Isabelle Legeron’s Natural Wine. This book gives a great introduction to wines that are created principally by nature. Here grape growers and winemakers choose to concentrate solely on creating the conditions where the processes that create wine can take place in the way nature dictates, rather than being made to bend to the knee of man. The second book was Jamie Goode’s Wine Science. Jamie documents the recent advances in our understanding of the processes of wine production. He makes the topic accessible in the way PhD-level authors rarely achieve, and gives some great insight into what is happening in the vineyard, the winery and even in the consumer’s life, and what therefore the wine industry can do to “nurture” wine.

I am a scientist, and my natural (pun intended) inclination is to look for the scientific explanation behind everything in the belief that with knowledge will come control. However, I am a physicist, and although the physical world is complicated, in the end it does come down to the application of some fairly simple rules. As I have grown older, it has become obvious to me that biological systems are almost infinitely more complicated, and our level of understanding much less developed.

So are the two approaches compatible? Well to give Jamie Goode credit, he addresses the question head on in paragraph 5 of the book, and dedicates whole sections to approaches such as biodynamic viticulture. The point that is often made in Wine Science, which also matches my personal experience, is that many great wines are produced with organic, biodynamic or natural wine philosophies. If scientists don’t like the “anti-science” feel of some of the explanations provided by natural wine advocates, then it is science’s job to explain why the results are often so good.

Perhaps the way to view these two books is this:- Natural Wine sets out the evidence for great winemaking under the benign control of Mother Nature, and Wine Science starts to lay the foundations to understanding what conditions Mother Nature needs to do her best work. In my view both books are worth a read, and are by no means incompatible approaches.

The Only Way is Ethics


I have been in business for over 30 years and in that time I have met the entire range of “business people”. Many I would happily trust in all matters, but sadly there are also too many that I would put in the “dodgy” category. Unfortunately the deregulated nature of the internet makes it harder to determine the good guys from the bad. One area in particular that incenses me is the area of “remunerated blogging”.

I love the idea that on the internet, anyone can easily publish their opinion and invite comment. Interesting bloggers and tweeters can build up a significant following that sometimes exceeds that of the established press. So far, so good. The problems can come when bloggers seek to “monetize” their followers. It is fine if you put a bit of Google advertising on your page, or offer an enhanced subscription service. Readers can tell the difference. Sadly though some bloggers write opinion pieces about a certain product in order to be rewarded by the producer in some way, and without telling the reader about the financial connection. Such behaviour is rightly not allowed in print media. However on the internet it is a veritable industry – “affiliate marketing”.

The answer is simple. If people want to blog for reward, they should just make sure the reader knows whether they are reading an opinion piece or what is, in effect, a paid advert.

That is why on this site any blog will only be tagged with “opinion” when we have no financial interest in the matter, and will be tagged “connected” when we have a direct financial interest in the subject being written about. That is the only ethical way to blog.