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.