On my recent voyage to the Decanter World Wine Awards I spent a morning in the Penedès region of Spain. I took a 45-minute drive out of Barcelona with only one destination in my plan: a small Cava maker, located in the Cava capital, the little village of Sant Adurni d’Anoia (SAd’A). This village is a pretty town with a population of some 12,000 people, many of whom are involved in one way or another in the Cava industry.
SAd’A is the home of the largest Cava makers in the world of Cava, Freixenet and Cordoniu, as well as a host of smaller producers such as Raventos, Colomer Bernat and Lavernoya. These small makers are family operations with several generations of history. They sell most of their production in Spain so regrettably their wines get little exposure in export markets such as Canada.
Recall that Cava is made in a fashion similar to Champagne. That is, by the Traditional Method where a neutral, usually acidic base wine is bottled with the addition of wine, sugar and yeast (aka liqueur de tirage) so that a second fermentation occurs in the bottle. This process produces alcohol and carbon dioxide which is retained in the stoppered bottle and creates up to 6 atmospheres of pressure along the way. The yeast cells die when they have consumed all the sugar and the dead cells undergo a process called autolysis which produces a bread dough, brioche, yeasty aroma and flavour set. It is these aromas and flavours which distinguish traditional method wines from sparkling wines made using other methods such as tank, transfer and carbonation. The longer the wine lies in bottle on its side, the more complexity and autolytic intensity the wine develops. The best Champagnes spend at least three years in bottle before the yeast cells are disgorged and the final closure is placed on the bottle Indeed, some of the best cuvées will mature for up to 8 years, if the producer can afford to tie up his/her working capital that long.
Now back to SAd’A.
It was one of these local names I wanted to visit: Gramona.
Gramona is a business now administered by the fifth generation of the Battle and Gramona families, the historic founders of what is now Gramona. The moniker above, the Rolls Royce of Cavas was granted by the Belgian wine magazine, In Vino Veritas*. This quote may be the most enthusiastic but it is just one of the countless rave reviews the sparkling wines of Gramona have received for many years. Further, Gramona Cavas typically receive the highest scores for DO Cava wines in the annual Peñin Guide, the Bible of Spanish wine writing.
Why are these wines special? There are several factors that make Gramona different:
• The wines are aged in bottle after the second fermentation for extended periods, up to 12 years in the case of the Enoteca Gramona Brut Nature Gran Reserva. Most commercial Cavas spend the statutory minimum time on lees: 9 months.
• The dosage which is added to top up the bottle before the final cork closure is placed includes wine aged in a solera system, similar to the system used to mature and blend Sherry. This lends added complexity to the finished wine.
• Everything at Gramona is done by hand from harvest to final packaging of the wines for distribution to market.
• The blend is the best wines is comprised of two traditional Cava varieties: Macabeo and Xarel-Lo. The third Cava grape variety, Parellada, does not age well, so it is usually replaced with Chardonnay (notably one of the three main grape varieties of Champagne).
• All sparkling wines in the Gramona range have mousse of amazing persistence, complexity and length.
There is something else about Gramona I need to share.
The time spent at the Gramona winery was an absolute highlight after years of winery visits. My wife and I were the only visitors the day we were in SAd’A and we were treated to special tour of the caves under the winery where we witnessed the full process of disgorgement and final bottling. This process is done by hand with only a modest piece of equipment used to top up the bottles and apply the final cork closure. This is similar to the experience you would find at a grower/maker (récoltant-manipulant) in Champagne but the difference at Gramona was the depth of knowledge and enthusiasm of our guide. She had an answer for every question and when she didn’t have it at her fingertips she knew where to get it.
There is a meaningful difference that is palpable when the front-line staff in the cellar door operation know their stuff. If you seek to differentiate your wines on quality then every aspect of your business must reflect that aspiration.Wineries of Ontario, listen up!
I could go on but there is one major disappointing factor in all this. The wines of Gramona are imported into parts of Canada by a Vancouver-based agent, Christopher Stewart. Unfortunately Ontario is not one of the markets where Stewart makes the wines available. Rats!
So, you may ask why am I wasting space on a wine not available to readers? Simply because it is yet another story of wines that we miss due to dysfunction in our system. Gramona makes a very small amount of sparkling wine (about 700,000 bottles compared with 80 million bottles for Freixenet) and only 30% of this wine is exported. Due to its extensive ageing and the high degree of manual effort applied to make these wines they are expensive – in the Spanish market about 40% more expensive than factory Cavas. Consider the multiplier effect of taxes and markups to get a wine into Ontario and you are approaching Champagne territory, for a Cava.
Small production, small amounts available for export, higher prices than most Cavas command – this sounds risky and is why an importer such as the LCBO has no interest in making any effort to bring such wines into Ontario.
There is some good news: if you want to bring in some Gramona you can place an order with LCBO Specialty Services. It won’t be an easy process but many readers have adopted this approach when wines that aren’t otherwise available cross their radar. Go to https://www.lcbo.com/programs_services/private_ordering/content_priv_ordering.shtml for more information on private ordering.
* In Vino Veritas seems to have a knack for monikers. It calls itself, Probably the most modest wine magazine.
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2014.