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The D.O. Cava Learns From Mark Twain

by Andrew Chalk

Mark Twain famously popularized the saying, “There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” That may describe the experience reading the Global Report 2023 issued by the D.O. Cava, the regulatory body for Cava, Spain’s most famous style of sparkling wine.

The press release accompanying it trumpets: 

Cava Achieves Record Sales Milestone: Nearly 252 Million Bottles Sold Domestically in 2023”. 

Overall sales experienced a commendable growth rate of 1.09%, driven primarily by a robust 4.02% surge in the domestic market.

This is all gushy to the superficial. But another way to phrase the same data is “Exports fell”. A four percent increase in domestic sales but only a one percent increase in total sales implies that exports (the other part of sales) decreased. 

In fact, a dive into the sales breakdown on page 11 of the report reveals that all of that decrease was exports outside the European Union (EU). EU sales actually rose 3.76% from the previous year. Sales outside the EU fell 5.2%. The US, Cava's third largest export market, fell a much larger 13.48%. Japan (seventh), fell 12.93%. Both of those numbers are in the same range as ninth largest, Russia, at 13.75%, and Russia was under sanctions for invading Ukraine. Certainly, some countries saw healthy Cava sales growth: the UK (4th) was up 5.38%, and Germany (1st) up 4.14%, but the overall picture was negative outside the EU.

If this situation were a one-off it would not be of lasting significance. However, the bad news goes much deeper. As recounted by respected Spanish wine writer Miquel Hudin, a group of producers split off the DO in 2019 to form Corpinnat, and they were nine of the highest quality producers. Raventos i Blanc had already left in 2012. Shortly after, a new type of Spanish sparkling wine Classic Penedès was formed in the heartland of Cava production.         

Inside DO Cava there is the stench of the political structure of a rotten borough. The three largest producers control 90% of production (and 1.5% of producers). Since 2018, DO Cava has seen an 8.5% loss in the number of member wineries. Since 2009 it has been 33%.

This is an organization that is rotting. 

The US state of Cava sales reflects the long-term crisis. In 2000 it was one of three styles of sparkling wine poised for huge growth in the market. The others being Champagne (from France) and Prosecco (from Italy). Through 2010, sales grew and it was on a par with the other two. Since then, Champagne has continued to grow and its position as the best sparkling wine in the world is unassailed. Prosecco has grown even faster, starting as the cheap and cheerful alternative sparkling to Champagne and priced about the same as Cava. But expanding its quality spectrum and expressing each quality level much more clearly than Cava did, despite retaining the Italian language for all the terms. 

Now it appears Prosecco is poised to start nipping at the heels of low-priced Champagne, and domestic producers are increasingly important as they increase quality. Cava is an also-ran. The DO’s response has been to reorganize quality destinations and mandate organic production for Cava de Guarda Superior designated wines. It feels the latter, this mandated agricultural sclerosis, will enhance Cava’s reputation.

In fact, the quality of the product is higher than ever, but it appears to be in spite of, rather than because of, the DO. With the producer split already in place there does not seem to be the marketing heft to get those product improvements into the public consciousness in a way that can compete with Champagne or Prosecco. A grim outlook for Cava producers indeed.   



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