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Is Paraje the saviour of Cava?

When the historic Cava company of Raventós I Blanc left the Cava DO five years ago, Pepe Raventos’ declaration of independence didn’t go down too well locally. His reasons for going it alone however were based on a widely acknowledged truth: that Cava deserved its cheap and not particularly cheerful image because the industry had devalued the Cava currency by paying bottom dollar for grapes and failing to strive for sufficient quality (main picture: Cava up from the cellar).

As well-known as Cava is today, it’s often too well-known for the wrong reasons. It lacks, status, image or prestige, anything indeed by which it could be compared with Champagne or the impressive sparkling wines emerging from England and the New World. When you think about it, it’s hard to understand why it’s allowed itself to be seen as a cheap alternative to Champagne and on the same level, lower even, than Prosecco (below: Bruno Colomer, Codorníu's winemaker).

Given that Cava is in essence a Catalonian product whose identity derives from production by the Champagne method from indigenous grape varieties grown in limestone soils, it should be capable of  exciting individual expression. The problem is, as Andrew Jefford summed up last year in a  typically perceptive article, that ‘Cava has become, since the DO was granted back in 1986, not so much a wine as a commodity.  Few consumers understand just how fine Cava can be, nor how intimate a relation with terroir it is capable of expressing’.

As the image of Spanish wine in the world has improved over the past few years however, thanks in part to a unique gastronomy exported throughout the world by its confident chefs, the Consejo Regulador for Cava has finally grasped the nettle with proposals for a major reappraisal of Cava’s image. Known as Cava de Paraje the proposal is based on a quality approach, created, according to the chairman of the Cava Regulatory Board, Pedro Bonet, to do justice to its potential excellence and ‘to place cavas at the top of the quality wine pyramid’.

In order to achieve this, the CRDO del Cava (Cava Regulatory Board) states that Cava del Paraje – single estate cava –  must conform to a stricter set of requirements than apply to Cava.

It must:

come from vineyards that must be at least 10 years old (not hard);

come from vineyards owned by the company;

be separately fermented for at least three harvests;

not be acidified and must have a natural finished acidity level of 5.5 g/l compared to Cava’s 5 g/l;

yield a maximum output of 8,000 kg per hectare and be hand harvested;

be fermented at the estate by companies vinifying 85% or more of their own wines;

be within a maximum yield of 48 hectolitres per hectare;

be aged in bottle for a minimum of 36 months;

be approved by a committee of international tasters.

Tempting as it is to put Paraje in the terroir box, Paraje (pronounced as near as I can get it as purrarchay, the ch being soft as in ‘och aye’) is actually both a a broader and narrower concept than terroir, if that’s not a contradiction, referring to the individual  landscapes capable of producing quality Cava. As Pedro Bonet says, ‘it’s really a single vineyard, a specific small place, an original piece of land’ (below: Raventos I Blanc's De La Finca).

Even if producers have different ideas of what actually constitutes a Paraje, most of Cava’s top players such as Gramona and Recaredo are in favour of the new scheme, although only 33 producers qualify thanks to the rule requiring the majority of the grapes vinified to come from their own estate. Codorníu too backs it, having recently launched its fine Ars Collecta single vineyard series of Finca La Pleta (Chardonnay), 2007 Finca El Tros Nous (Pinot Noir), Finca La Fideuera (Xarel-lo) and 456 (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Xarel.lo), the latter the pinnacle of the Ars Collecta project.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pepe Raventos thinks it’s a piece of sticking plaster that’s unlikely to restore Cava’s quality image. Ironically, his own excellent 2013 I Blanc De la Finca, made only from indigenous Xarel.lo, Macabeu and Parellada, falls squarely within the expression of the sort of fine, nuanced, mineral Cava that Paraje is aiming for. Time will of course tell if Cava de Paraje Calificado will succeed or not, but for the time being, it’s a positive and ambitious move which should be acknowledged as a significant step in the direction towards improved quality, not to mention a real opportunity to communicate what Cava at its finest and most individual is capable of.