01-02-2019 ~ 8 Comments

Corpinnat and the death of fine Cava?

At the end of January, the lucky wineries in Penedès, Catalunya were those out pruning their vines. Then there were others, dealing with heavy affairs that don’t happen every year, but perhaps once a generation. DO Cava gave an ultimatum to the newly-formed group Corpinnat to abandon all promotional aspects by the end of January. Instead of falling in line, nine of the best Cava producers made what must have been an extremely difficult decision on January 30th to announce that they were abandoning the DO Cava completely.

This decision didn’t come out of nowhere and in fact had been ruminating for many years as the discontent of those producing high-quality Cava wines had been steadily growing since the commodity-driven producers for which the DO has largely become known for had taken over. After all, what person who visits Barcelona and sees a bottle of basic Cava for 5€ in a shop would know that there’s a wealth of fine wine in the same appellation? The answer is few if none and this vast dichotomy of the brand had made it difficult if not nearly impossible to push a quality sparkling wine from within.

Growth without diversity

Through various mergers and other changes, the number of cellars in DO Cava declined 15% from a high of 269 in 2000 to 230 in 2017 while at the same time, production reached an all-time peak of 252 million bottles–an increase of 27% from the 198 million of 2000. The Big Three Cava producers, namely Freixenet, Codorníu, and García Carrión have arrived to a point where, while their exact amount of production is unknown, it’s estimated that they control 80-90% of DO Cava’s entire output. This is staggering and with it, there has grown an imbalance seen no more clearly than the president, Pere Bonet of Freixenet stepping down in 2018 to be replaced (after protracted negotiations) by Xavier Pagès of Cordoníu and thus control and direction continuing to be held by the mega-houses.

The weight of these giants created countless fractures in the foundation of Cava that were fully exposed to the wine-drinking public back in 2012 when quality producer Raventós i Blanc left DO Cava in what was then, the most staggering of wake-up calls. That the DO was to lose such a classic and esteemed Cava house showed that something needed to change. Yet, nothing did.

In 2013 came the creation of Clàssic Penedès within DO Penedès that offered another path for those producing quality sparkling wine who wished to leave DO Cava yet wanted to still find themselves within the embrace of a well-known DO. There were some that did indeed leave. Again, very little changed with this, but it seems that something of a seed was planted in that Cava needed something beyond the Gran Reserva category to stipulate the difference between a Cava that costs 5€ and one that costs 50€.

The paratges emerge

Thus, the foundation for what was to become Cava de Paratge (Paraje in Spanish) started to form. The thinking behind this initiative was to go the French route and create something akin to a Grand Cru scheme for Cava to promote noteworthy vineyards and the producers who held them. While initially delayed from being released in 2016, it was certified in 2017 and while they weren’t officially called “Grand Crus”, the intimation was there.

A typical emulation of the “Burgundian” pyramid of quality stacks up as: Regional, Village, Premier Cru, and then Grand Cru. The problem with the Paratge system is that it essentially skipped the two middle and quite crucial classification levels as they work to break down and understand the larger region in question. Thus, top vineyards were raised to the highest classification standard without having paved a discernible path through the woods as to how they arrived there. In essence, 12 individual paratge islands arose in the sea of Cava and while all the wines ranged from very good to great, it told the consumer very little as to why they should choose these over others that were cheaper.

It was a problematic way to define “terroir” but then this is an inherent issue with Cava as it’s a name for a winemaking process, not a geographic location as most appellations are. Cava is a vast, vast territory and while around 95% of it is within Catalunya, there’s 5% spread across other regions of Spain that were added when the DO was created simply because they were regions making sparkling wine at the time (the 1980s). Absolutely anywhere within this expanse of 38,000ha could a Paratge be formed. And again, as there was a leap straight up to Grand Cru, there was no understanding, nor defining of various territories, soils, or locales which was the key premise to the formation of paratges in the first place.

It appeared to be created in a hurry as a manner to placate those who focus on the finite details of creating fine sparkling wines within a specific and unique territory of Spain, but was then bent in order to allow the mega-producers the option to make wines within this scheme as well.

The birth of Corpinnat

Before the Cava de Paratge system was released in 2017, there were cellars such as Recaredo and Gramona who could see that a new framework was needed to understand a high-quality wine within the bounds of Cava. So, it was back in 2012 that they and eventually four other cellars (Nadal, Sabaté i Coca, Llopart, and Torelló) started to work on a much more rigid set of rules that was meant to be a familiar association for those looking to stipulate on their label that they were working to produce a different type of sparkling wine and to emphasize place over process.

This is one of the key aspects to what was eventually come to be known as Corpinnat in that a cellar didn’t have to be within DO Cava to use it. A DO Penedès cellar could use it or even a cellar that fell under the generic Spain-wide “Vi Escumós de Qualitat” certification. It was open to anyone who met the requirements–and was based in their tightly-defined region in the heart of Penedès.

Announced in April of 2018, their entire regulations encompass a 30-page document, but the most concise version is that they are “…sparkling wines made in the heart of the Penedès from 100% organic grapes harvested by hand and entirely vinified on the premises of the winery.”

Added into this is using a minimum of 90% of the “historic” grapes to the region, deigned as being: Xarel·lo, Macabeu, Parellada, Malvasia for white grapes and Grenache, Monastrell, Sumoll, and Xarel·lo Vermell for red grapes–if this seems strange, the red grapes are used almost exclusively for producing rosé sparkling wines but they are native to the region. Then there’s a minimum of 18 months aging as opposed to the basic nine months for DO Cava, under which 87% of Cava wines are released. One last bit that few people have picked up upon is the requirement to pay a minimum of 0.70€/kg for grapes which nearly doubles the current going rate of 0.40€/kg.

Lasting effects

Each of these requirements singularly might have been possible to meet for many Cava cellars, but as a whole they’re very difficult for many producers and for the Big Three producers, impossible. They rely too much on say, Chardonnay, or not farming organically, or buying in base wine, which is forbidden as a producer of Corpinnat as they must produce all their own wines in their premises (Clàssic Penedès also requires this.)

But it’s really the “heart of the Penedès” name and concept which is the most simple yet complicated aspect to what those in Corpinnat are attempting to create. While this initially sounds poetic, here is a defined territory which is NOT in accordance to that of DO Cava. Corpinnat marks a territory of about 22,000ha all within the interior “pocket” of Penedès which is protected from the humidity of the Mediterranean by a small chain of mountains and sees large changes in diurnal temperatures. All told it’s perhaps 80% of the total territory of DO Penedès and 60% of the total territory of DO Cava.

DO Cava announced just two days after Corpinnat went public that they would be studying the regulations to see if they meshed with DO Cava. Obviously, given how much production is focused upon the largest producers in Cava, it was decided, after many meetings throughout May and June 2018 that Corpinnat could not co-exist with Cava and the name was not to be allowed on labels as it would “confuse customers”.

DO Cava even went one step further at the end of August and changed their official label regulations to explicitly state that Corpinnat could not appear on labels. Interestingly, during this same time, DO Penedès (remember that that Corpinnat is open to all cellars in the area) stated that using the name on labels would be permitted.

Despite the aforementioned regime change at DO Cava in the middle of 2018 and further attempts at negotiations, it was eventually declared on January 22, 2019 not only that Corpinnat couldn’t be used on labels, but that all promotion of the name was to cease by January 31, 2019. One day before this deadline, what now totaled nine cellars in Corpinnat after Can Feixes, Júlia Bernet, and Mas Candí joined in the later part of 2018, made the decision to collectively leave DO Cava.

Mas Candí was one of the last cellars to join in December of 2018 and in talking with co-owner Toni Carbó, he made an interesting point as to why they decided to join Corpinnat: “It’s actually thanks to the larger cellars of Cava that we have as many vineyards as we do still. Countless people were selling them off to make way for industrial zones. But you arrive to a point where you have to defend the territory and you have to cultivate your lands in a manner that’s sustainable for the environment, the viticulturists, and future generations. There are countless Cava cellars who don’t even own a wine press and are simply buying in all their base wine. This isn’t a correct path to quality wine.” While Mas Candí produces a small amount of sparkling wine that totals “just” 30,000 bottles, they had been thinking about leaving DO Cava for some time and thus the creation of Corpinnat and its requirements aligned perfectly with their ideals and forward-looking path.

The fallout

Raventós i Blanc leaving DO Cava in 2012 was a loss for the DO but not insurmountable. Similarly, Artadi leaving DO Rioja in 2016 was again, a loss of a quality producer for that DO but not the end of the world. But this group departure of what are the vanguards of quality Cava producers is such a massive blow to DO Cava, it’s hard to understand how the brand, already in a downward spiral in terms of prestige and quality recognition, can ever recover.

The DO Cava has been civil about their statements saying that they “regret” that the Corpinnat producers have decided to leave. There is some reading between the lines however as Cava has been reiterating that Corpinnat producers will not be able to use Gran Reserva (while available for wines across Spain, it can only be used for sparkling wines certified as Cava) nor the Cava de Paratge classifications of which, four of the Corpinnat members have five paratges certified and release seven different wines from, forming the lion’s share of this upper echelon classification.

There have been those who have commented in recent months that this was bound to happen. I wrote back in September 2018 about the possibility of it for a lengthy article in Harpers’ print magazine. It was in essence something that seemed inevitable as the only two outcomes were the Corpinnat producers dropping the use of the name and ceasing their quest to produce high-quality wines or then splitting from DO Cava altogether. The gap was so wide between what DO Cava accepted and what Corpinnat demanded that there was simply no middle ground possible. But in visiting the Corpinnat cellars over the last few years, it had become clear that if one was to make a quality sparkling wine in this region, a massive revolution would need to take place.

Starting from zero

The problem of leaving a well-known DO is that the individual producers are generally not as well-known as the overall brand. Sure, there are the Domaine Romanée Conti of the world but this is much more the rarity than the norm and as such, these nine cellars of Corpinnat, once they have fully left the auspices of the DO Cava in the next few months will need to “build a brand from scratch” as Recaredo co-president Ton Mata put it.

While free of the cheap “beach bubbly” image that Cava seems to have immersed itself in, they will need to convince buyers of sparkling wines that what they produce should be held “in the same light as Champagne and Franciacorta” as Ton envisions the future of the name. While these may sound like lofty aspirations, if you’ve not tasted the wines of Recaredo nor Gramona, then you’ve not tasted what this region and its producers are capable of.

They do face something of an uphill battle as it seems many people aren’t keen to the name, “Corpinnat”. Admittedly, I was one of those who initially didn’t care for it. Given that I’m an English speaker, I couldn’t unhook my attention from “corp” in the name which made me think “corporation” more than anything else. Other English speakers I follow on Twitter thought even less of it. Spanish speakers seem completely offended by it as it’s not in Spanish. Luís Gutiérrez, who reviews Spain for The Wine Advocate was quite critical of it and stated that it’s, “not good for anyone” as it will confuse consumers. On the other side of the aisle, Josep Roca of the three-Michelin starred Celler de Can Roca, applauded the move as a step forward, and that is was a, “thoughtful decision, heart-felt, consistent with the commitment and ethics that they announced with the creation of Corpinnat.”

If the name strikes you as “odd”, it actually derives from old Catalan with Latin roots and is explained as such on their website:

“The word comprises two concepts: COR, the cradle where, more than 130 years ago, the very first sparkling wines in Spain were made and PINNAT which stems from the etymological root Pinnae which refers to the origin of the word Penedès, documented in the 10th Century as Penetense. This Latin adjective is derived from pinna, which means crag or rock and which applied to the Penedès is equivalent to rocky soil.”

I have to say that nearly a year on from its announcement, the name bothers me less and seems more poetic with time given that its shortened version means, “from the of heart Penedès” and given the attention paid towards terroir and specificity in the wine world today, this isn’t a particularly bad thing.

After all, while names like “Prosecco” or “Champagne” are derived from places, what do they mean in the end? You can indeed dissect their meaning but we’ve stopped caring and simply take them for what they are and I assume that Corpinnat will be much the same as it won’t be changing due to its being already registered at an EU level. Lastly, if people want to talk about an ugly-sounding name, “Cava de Paraje (pah-RAH-hhhey)”, as DO Cava has been promoting the Paratges internationally in the Spanish version is far uglier not just to me but a great many English-speaking wine people.

DO Corpinnat?

Will there be a DO Corpinnat in due course? Ton Mata put this to rest quickly by stating, “at the moment, no.” Based upon how he stated it, there has been so much energy devoted to these ultimately fruitless discussions with the DO Cava, they will simply focus their energy with promoting this name for the time being. As to what the wines will say on the back, it will be “Vi Escumós de Qualitat” for the foreseeable future, much as it is with Raventós i Blanc.

Will Raventós be joining Corpinnat as it seems to align exactly with what Raventós was after? For the moment no. Raventós initially released a statement when Corpinnat was formed along the lines that it didn’t go far enough in terms of its requirements (Raventós is seeking biodynamic certification, for example) and apparently little has changed since that statement which was based upon the fact that the starting requirements to join Corpinnat are lower than what they will be in three years in order to allow cellars to transition into the Corpinnat standard. For example, minimum aging times started at 12 months in 2018 but by 2020 it will need to be the minimum 18 months.

That said, in reaching out to Raventós, they do seem more open to Corpinnat than they once were and told me that they will look over the requirements in more detail now that this split has come to pass with DO Cava. It still doesn’t mean that they’ll join but it’s definitely the case that for three different groups producing sparkling wine in Penedès to succeed (Raventós/Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, and Corpinnat) there will need to be some united synergy given that this actually does cause consumer confusion unlike had DO Cava simply allowed “Corpinnat” to appear on labels.

To misquote the late Tom Petty, the future might be wide open to Corpinnat producers, but they have a great deal of work ahead of them despite their being held in high regard by the wine community at large. Those who have decided this path, especially at Recaredo and Gramona have long beat their own drum and I feel are up to the challenge–a generational challenge–that lies ahead of them.

As for DO Cava, it will be hard to see where the future lies. It seems there is contentment in staying where they are as all initiatives to create a high level of wine are sidestepped by the commodity-driven larger producers and one can only imagine that the image of Cava will continue to sink further given this despite their stating at a press conference in Vilafranca del Penedès today that, “Cava is much more than Corpinnat”.

If nothing else, other wine regions should learn from the missteps of Cava especially a region such as Champagne where Moët et Chandon is the largest producer with some 12% of all the bottles made each year. Cava is a DO that’s been slow to adopt change and it shows. As a small example, their website won’t load if you don’t type www before docava.es.

Looking backwards to a 20th century that’s long-since slipped away instead of embracing a 21st century that is yet unfolding was a mistake that could have been corrected, but with the departure of its marquée cellars, it’s hard to see how DO Cava will ever be anything more than Spain’s take on Prosecco trying to be Champagne.