“Despite their quality and pedigree, to date consumers are still not yet willing to pay for good Spanish cava the way they would for French champagne. So we have to position our prices accordingly.”
It’s a surprisingly frank admission by Codorníu’s Singapore-based brand ambassador Paco Gago, who made that confession as he was hosting a tasting workshop for some of the city’s leading bespoke bartenders. And he may know something about the challenges faced in the market – Catalonia, Spain-based Codorníu, for those of us who haven’t heard of the brand, is actually the world’s fifth-oldest winery, as well as the world’s largest producer of sparkling wine. That’s right, Codorníu actually makes more sparkling wine – Cava, as it is known in Spain – than any other winery in the world, including all the French champagne producers you can care to name.
Codorníu’s heritage goes all the way back to the 16th century when it first planted its vineyards in 1551 – just a few years before Queen Mary I of England married Spain’s Prince Philip, for those of you who are history buffs – and started making still wine. The term cava itself was only coined in 1872; Codorníu’s Josep Raventós’ visits to the Champagne region of France inspired him to create a sparkling wine based on traditional champagne making methods.
Cava literally means “cave” in Spanish; it refers to the storage of the bubbly in cool natural or artificial underground chambers to mature the product. Fun fact: Codorníu ages its cava in around 30 kilometres of caves on their premises; that’s roughly the distance between Woodlands to Orchard Road. That’s a lot of bubbly.
But first a little rudimentary information about the fundamental difference between champagne and cava. The base of the traditional blend of grape varietals in the making of champagne is of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, all of which are native to the region in which it derived its name; it also has to adhere to the “Méthode Champenoise”, a specific way of making the sparkling wine such that the bubbles in champagne occur naturally from the wine continuing to ferment in the bottle. Cava, on the other hand, uses native Spanish grape varietals and employs the Spanish version of “Méthode Champenoise”, which they call “Método Tradicional” (traditional method).
Today Codorníu has some 3,000 hectares under vine, the largest in Europe. It’s still run by the same family that first founded it, spanning 18 generations and making it Spain’s oldest family-run corporation.
Despite all that pedigree, Gago’s remark about consumers’ unwillingness to pay for good cava rings painfully true in almost every market. The only time that people were willing to pay a hefty premium for cava was during the mid-1800s when phylloxera – an insect that fed on root vines – decimated vineyards across France and sending demand (and prices) for cava through the (cave) roof.
Codorníu’s large size may also be seen as a disadvantage for consumers who prefer supporting small vineyards, despite its constant innovation throughout the ages. They were first, for example, to grow Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo grapes.
They were also first to use international varietals, such as the first Chardonnay cava in 1984, the first mono-varietal pink cava with Pinot Noir in 2001, and also created the first Blanc de Noirs, a white cava made from red Pinot Noir grapes in 2008.
Time will tell if cava will ever attain the lofty prestige champagnes currently occupy; to that end Gago and his colleagues have their work cut out for them.
Some of Codorníu’s extensive range:
The Codorníu Clásico owes its name to the classic cava created by Josep Raventós when he first made the first bottles of cava in 1872. Made with local Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo grape varietals from the Penedès region of Catalonia, Spain. Available in Brut, Dry and Semi-Sec; aged for 12 months on average.
Codorníu Anna Blanc de Blancs
Over 15 months of aging gives the Anna Blanc de Blancs (white of whites) an integrated and creamy palate with big fruity notes that makes it easy for matching with most cuisines. Possibly the first to employ fully 100% Chardonnay grapes in a sparkling wine.
Gran Codorníu Pinot Noir Vintage
First made in 2009, this mono-varietal rosé employs 100% Pinot Noir grapes from some of the oldest Pinot Noir vineyards in the Conca de Barberà region of central Catalonia. At least 15 months of aging, with exact length varying by vintage.
Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina
Made to pay homage to the queen of Spain, who bestowed the title of “Suppler to the Royal Household” upon Codorníu in 1897. It’s the first Blanc de Noirs cava – using Pinot Noir grapes to create a white cava – and undergoes at least 20 months of cellaring.