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Battle of the fizz: Cava takes on champagne

After decades of rising exports, producers of Catalan cava are brimming with confidence and have their eyes set on taking on the "king" of sparkling wine - French champagne.

Battle of the fizz: Cava takes on champagne
Exports of the Catalan sparkling wine have soared. Archive photo: Shutterstock

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.

Winery tourism

“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

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FOOD & DRINK

The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

These are two words that don’t often go together – vegetarian and Spanish, as most vegetarians and vegans will only know too well, however, it may come as a surprise to discover that there are a few Spanish dishes that naturally do not contain any meat or fish.

The best vegan and vegetarian Spanish dishes

Whether you live in Spain or you frequently travel here, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan you’ll know that finding traditional Spanish dishes can be tricky. But if you don’t want to have to eat international food all the time, you will discover that there are several meat and fish-free dishes that are Spanish classics. 

Espinacas con garbanzos

A dish traditionally found in southern Spain in Andalusia, this is essentially exactly how it’s translated – spinach with chickpeas. The dish has a long history dating all the way back to the Moors, who ruled southern Spain for almost 800 years. Completely vegan, the spinach and chickpeas are made into a type of stew with herbs and spices like paprika and cumin. Often pine nuts and raisins are added to the mix too.

READ ALSO: What did the Moors ever do for us?’ How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

Spinach and chickpeas is a classic Andalusian dish. Photo: Xemenendura / Wikimedia Commons
 

Escalivada

A classic vegan dish from Catalonia, escalivada is a mix of slow-roasted vegetables, usually onions, peppers and aubergines. It can be eaten as a type of topping for large toasts called torradas and can sometimes have goat’s cheese melted on the top.

Calçots with romesco sauce

Another much-loved Catalan vegetarian dish is calçots with romesco sauce. Calçots are like a cross between a spring onion and a leek and are only available in the winter or early spring seasons. They’re typically grilled over an open fire until blackened. You must then remove the burnt exterior with a pair of gloves before dipping them in the romesco sauce. The sauce is a concoction made from toasted almonds and hazelnuts, tomatoes, garlic, toasted bread, olive oil, vinegar and dried ñora peppers. They can be a bit messy to eat, so restaurants will often give you a bib to wear too. 

READ ALSO – Recipe: How to make, eat and enjoy calçots

Try some calçots at a traditional calçotada. Photo: Esme Fox
 

Gazpacho

A dish that many are familiar with, this cold soup is traditionally from Andalusia, although it’s likely you’ll find it all over Spain in the summertime. It’s made from blended tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bread, olive oil and garlic. 

Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup. Photo: Ирина Кудрявцева / Pixabay

Paella de verduras

Ordering paella in Spain can be tricky for vegans and vegetarians because the most traditional either contain seafood or rabbit, chicken snails and butter beans, like the ones from Valencia. Many places, however, now offer a paella de verduras, featuring only vegetables. Restaurants will use whatever is in season, whether that’s artichokes, green beans, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms or courgettes. The only difficult part is that many places will only do paellas for two or more people, so you have to hope your companions are willing to eat the vegan version too. 

A vegetable paella is completely vegan. Photo: Corophoto / Pixabay
 

Berenjenas con miel

This simple tapas dish translates as aubergines with honey and is essentially deep-fried aubergines usually dipped in bread crumbs or battered and then drizzled with molasses or treacle which is actually miel de caña, not the type of honey from bees. Although you can find it in many places in Spain, it’s typically from Andalusia and is very popular in Granada and surrounding areas.

A plate of berenjenas con miel is always a veggie favourite. Photo: Esme Fox
 

Patatas a lo pobre

Poor man’s potatoes might not sound very appetising, but this dish of fried sliced potatoes with onions, peppers and garlic is actually delicious. Again you’ll find it mostly in Andalusia, particularly in the Alpujarras mountains, just south of Granada.

Try some patatas a lo pobre in the Alpujarras. Photo: pxhere

Pisto

Similar to the French ratatouille, pisto is a stew made from cubes of aubergines, onions, peppers, courgettes and tomatoes. It comes from the region of Castilla-La Mancha and is often served with a fried egg on top. To make it vegan, simply ask for it without the egg.

Pisto is similar to the French ratatouille but is often served with an egg. Photo: Arnaud 25 / WikiCommons
 

Ajo blanco

This white garlic soup is a tasty combination of almonds, garlic, olive oil, bread and white wine or sherry vinegar. It comes from the areas around Málaga and Cádiz and like gazpacho is served cold. It’s sometimes served topped with grapes too. 

Ajo blanco is often served with grapes. Photo: cyclonebill / WikiCommons

Croquetas de boletus, ceps or espinacas

Croquetas are a favourite tapas dish throughout the country, and while many of them are filled with jamón (ham) or even squid ink, there are several vegetarian varieties too. Unfortunately, they are not vegan because they’re made with bechamel sauce, which contains dairy. The bechamel is mixed with various flavours and then covered in breadcrumbs before being deep-fried. Vegetarian varieties come in varieties such as boletus or ceps (types of mushrooms), espinacas (spinach) or cabrales cheese – a blue cheese from Asturias. 

READ ALSO – MAP: How well do you know your Spanish cheeses?

Try croquetas filled with spinach, mushrooms or cheese. Photo: Ralf Gervink / Pixabay

Salmorejo

Salmorejo is a cold soup similar to gazpacho, but it’s much thicker and creamier. It’s typically made from just four main ingredients – tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic. You can find it all over Andalusia, but it’s actually from Córdoba. Often it’s topped with ham and boiled egg, so simply ask for it sin jamón y huevo for it to be vegan. 

Ask for your salmorejo sin jamón for it to be vegetarian. Photo:Javier Lastras / Wikimedia Commons

Tortilla de patatas

One of the two only non-vegan dishes on our list is the classic tortilla de patatas, which you can find all over Spain and is definitely a meal you can rely on if all else fails. It is of course made from eggs and potatoes, but Spain is very divided on whether you should add onions or not. The Local is firmly on the onion side! 

Do you like your tortilla with or without onion? Photo: Luis MGB / Pixabay
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