Story by Karolina Chorvath
BARCELONA–It was something that had been a part of life since their youth but in the winter of 2006, Robert Jovani and his brother and sister, Sergi and Monsta, decided to make a radical change and devote their careers to developing a year-round business born of their father’s dream and their country’s rich food culture.
By the middle of 2008, the Jovani siblings had quit their jobs in order to help run the family’s cava winery business. Now Cava Berdié, the Jovanis’ vineyard on the periphery of Barcelona, produces 80,000 bottles a year on just over 17 acres of land.
“The opportunity to make a radical change in our life appeared… We worked and helped our father … it was very magical, very romantic, very hard [that] the three of us wanted to dedicate ourselves to it,” said Robert Jovani. Their decision paid off, because it coincided with what can be called a cava boom in Spain and around the world.
“The sales are improving every month.” said Jovani. “We [have begun] to surpass the records of sales in previous years.” His numbers track the same across the industry.
Cava, the Catalan region’s Spanish sparkling wine, is frequently compared to other sparkling wines such as Champagne and prosecco. And although it is the lesser-known product, its popularity is rising. According to Akthan Habbaba, head of agri-food at ICEX Spain Trade and Investment, which is part of Spain’s Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, when Spain first started exporting cava in the 1960s, its growers were only producing about 1 million bottles per year. In 2014, Spain exported 154 million bottles of cava. That’s a greater number of exports than France saw in Champagne last year, which was about 149 million bottles, according to The Comité Champagne, a trade group in France that represents the wine’s producers.
“The United Kingdom, United States and Belgium are a very nice market for us,” said Habbaba. “During the economic crisis the people discovered the cava. It is a quality product, less [in] price, and new in the market.”
Although cava is produced with the traditional Champenoise method, or in Spanish, Método Tradicional, it is mainly made with grapes indigenous to the Catalonian region of Spain. These grapes include xarel-lo, parellada, macabeu and monastrell, which are used to make white cava, and garnacha, which is used to make rosé. Sometimes other grapes such as chardonnay or pinot noir are added to the mixture. Xarel-lo is most commonly used for higher-end cavas because of its natural chemical compound that allows it to age while keeping its golden color.
“When Champagne is 7 years old, it has a more rusty look whereas xare-llo preserves its young hue,” said Rubén Pol Ramon, the sommelier at Disfrutar, a restaurant in Barcelona run by the former head chefs of elBulli, a world-famous Michelin 3-star restaurant.
Popping corks followed by the pouring of bubbling, golden drinks is often associated with celebration and luxury. However, Catalans drink cava for virtually any occasion at a lower price than other sparkling wines. The grapes indigenous to Catalonia contribute to the often drier taste and more versatile qualities of cava.
Although cava is well known in Spain, sparkling wines such as prosecco and Champagne are still seen as the more popular and upscale drinks. To some chefs and wine experts such as sommeliers who are trained in the nuances of cava, this can be frustrating.
“It’s shameful that Champagne is more popular than cava to be honest,” said Pol Ramon. “Cava strictly speaking is usually as good, if not better than a lot of Champagne and yet the price is three times cheaper.”
A point of reference: According to Lucy Bussell of Vintages – Adventures in Wine, a speciality wine store in Concord and Belmont, Mass., the lowest priced Champagne they offer is priced at $45 a bottle and the most expensive is priced at $195. In contrast, the lowest-priced bottle of cava is $17.99 and the most expensive bottle is $40.
Sparkling wines are regularly affiliated with not only higher prices but desserts. Chefs and avid cava drinkers say this is not the case with the Catalonian drink. At Disfrutar, a Mediterranean restaurant with the interior reflecting one of Dali’s paintings of Cadaques, cava is served regularly. Oriol Castro, co-owner and chef of Disfrutar and former head chef of elBulli said, “With a very good cava you can accentuate the food and accompany the flavors.”
Deborah Hansen, chef-owner and sommelier of Taberna de Haro in Boston, spent eight years living and owning a restaurant in Spain and works to show what the country has to offer through the food of her new restaurant. Hansen offers cava as the only selection of sparkling wine on her drink list.
“I’d say half of my guests know that cava is Spanish sparkling wine,” said Hansen. She said she purchases about 30 cases of cava a year and that number continues to increase. In fact, when she first opened the restaurant, she offered a list of six cavas. After growing interest from customers and her desire to showcase Spanish wine, she now offers 17 different brands of cavas.
Although the foreign market is strong and has continually been growing, the Spanish market increased in sales this year for the first time after a two-year decline, according to the Cava Regulatory Board, a council that works to supervise the production and quality of cava as well as providing statistics on exports and sales. Production is increasing, Habbaba said, but mass production doesn’t always equate to quality.
“Spain is the third producer of wine in the world behind France and Italy, but at the same time, we have the largest extension of vineyards in all of the world,” said Habbaba. “The majority of the focus in the exports of wine is not in bottled wine but in the bulk wine.”
According to Habbaba, Catalonia produces roughly 95 percent of cava in Spain. Only three companies are representing more than 75 percent of the cava that is being exported into the foreign market.
Hansen said the larger wineries, those that work on a scale of mass production, “completely skew” the taste of the cava. She compared them to factories. Hansen is more interested in what are considered “grower cavas” or cava wineries that grow their own grapes. Usually these wineries use minimal pesticides.
“When I talk about it being special, I’m not talking about the mass production,” said Hansen. “Mass production is old news. What’s new is smaller, growers doing new things in a more precise way. They realized there is a market for things that are exquisite and hand-crafted.”
Robert Jovani of Cava Berdié hopes to expand the business but said he wants to remain a smaller winery in order to keep it an establishment within the family.
“The opportunity of having your own business, of being able to work for yourself, the magic behind creating a product that others are then able to enjoy, you know…” said Jovani. “Being here you see that you’re creating wine from zero, and that wine will end up being drunk by people for celebrations, for a romantic night, to celebrate the birth of a child, by someone who has graduated, etc. Although we had other jobs, the fact of you being able to be the creator or the initiator of all these things makes this project very motivating.”
Jovani said Cava Berdié has a growing team to match the growing rate of production and sales. “In 2013 the sales were improving every month, not only the Christmas campaign but rather every month,” said Jovani. “In 2014…we ended the year very well. And the January, February and March of 2015 have been brilliant. We surpassed the records of 2014.”
As of now, Cava Berdié exports to eight countries including the United States and is working to open a wine and cava store in the center of Barcelona.
Champagne and prosecco still sell more bottles around the world than cava, but with recent harvest problems because of unusually wet seasons in Italy, and people continually watching their budgets, cava may continue its rise in popularity and could be seen as the versatile drink Hansen and sommeliers alike believe it is.
“I’d like to see us focus on the day-to-day drinking of it,” said Hansen. “Let’s do what Catalonians do and find a reason to celebrate. There’s always a reason to celebrate and drink cava.”