Cava, which is produced in the Alt Penedes region of northeastern Spain, an area of rolling hills about a half hour's drive south of Barcelona, began seeking new markets three decades ago by offering good value for money.
Exports of cava soared from just 10 million bottles in 1980 to 154.7 million bottles in 2014, the sixth consecutive year that foreign sales of the drink exceeded those of French champagne. By comparison in 2014 France exported 144.9 million bottles of champagne.
But of all the bottles exported last year, only eight million were high-end reserve cavas that producers now want to develop.
“Cava is beginning a second stage. We conquered the world with standard cavas. Now we are going to conquer it again with superior quality cavas,” the head of the the association of small and medium sized cava producers, Pere Guilera, told AFP.
Guilera only produces high-end cavas — some 30,000 bottles annually of which 20 percent are exported — at a small family-owned winery housed in an old farmhouse surrounded by vineyards near the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia.
The production requires a careful selection of grapes and a long ageing process of up to 12 years to create a “rich and harmonious aroma, fine bubble and a smooth texture” with a “smooth and slightly fruity” taste, said Guilera.
A bottle of reserve cava costs around €20 ($22), three times less than a bottle of champagne of a similar quality.
“We are offering quality at very low prices,” said Guilera.
Eyeing Asian market
Winegrowers want to reposition cava, whose name is derived for the Catalan word for cellar, by building on the strength gained during Spain's economic downturn.
With the domestic market stagnant producers focused on boosting sales abroad and in 2012 they exported a record 161 million bottles.
“Cava still has some way to go to improve its image in the high-end,” said Pedro Bonet, communications director at Freixenet, the world leader in sparkling wines.
“We have been working on this for the last few years and bit by bit it is bearing fruit. It requires time, investment and careful staging,” he added.
Vines at the Segura Viudas vineyard in Sant Sadurni D'anoia, near Barcelona Photo: Josep Lago / AFP
Freixenet has boosted sales of its high-end cavas in recent years such as its award-winning Casa Sala, which is made using techniques from 150 years ago, including an authentic mammoth wooden press.
Freixenet is focusing its expansion on emerging markets and especially in Asia where customers “value quality and are willing to pay a price for it,” said Bonet.
Japan for example is the fifth-biggest importer of cava but when it comes to high-end cava it is the second-biggest importer.
The country is the main market for the Oriol Rosell winery, which exports half of its annual production of 300,000 bottles.
The majority of its sales are on the low-end of the value chain, young cavas with an ageing process of just 12 months.
“Cava continues to be seen, at the international level, as a cheap product,” said the winery's oenologist, Salvi Moliner.
“You have to find quality products and quality markets but today it continues to be easier to sell younger cava.”
To change this image the association of small and medium sized cava producers is promoting the drink at congresses and among opinion makers in English speaking nations.
It is also working to promote tourism in the cava making region by taking advantage of its proximity to Barcelona, one of Europe's most visited cities.
“Our visitors are our best promoters. We treat them well, they tell their friends about cava when they return home. It is not fast but it is more lasting,” said Guilera, the association's head.
The association has set an ambitious goal: to boost sales of high-end cavas by 40 percent within a decade.
“It requires a great collective effort but it is possible given the high quality of the product we make,” Guilera said.
By Daniel Bosque