Codorniu take Cava back to the future

Codorniu winemaker Bruno Colomer Martí

After nearly 45 minutes spent in the genial company of Bruno Colomer Marti, head winemaker at Codorniu, I ask him about the situation in Spain and his eyes turn downwards. “You know that in Spain we have a big problem with politicians,” he says (he actually says “politic men” rather than “politicians”, his English being just 90% perfect). “We have 25% of people without work – 50% for young people. They start to work at 30. It’s terrible. And now we have the crisis. For us, it’s OK. The number of bottles [we sell] is more or less the same, but with low quality. They spend less money. But we are very happy that we are the most important Cava house, with the biggest market share. We are sure that when the crisis disappears, that will be perfect for us. For us, now is a difficult time. We are not happy.”

Even before Spain was engulfed in financial crisis, Cava exports were expanding faster than a glutton’s waistline. In 1982 they packed off 18 million bottles; in 1989 48 million; in 1996 nearly 61 million; in 2002 108 million; and by 2007, when the financial crisis hit, the best part of 127 million. In percentage terms, in the last 30 years exports have increased from 18% of production to 60%. But with Spanish sales slumping producers need global thirst for their bubbles to boom still further, which means that us British Cava-drinkers are getting a fair bit of extra attention.

By volume Codorniu is the third biggest sparkling wine producer in the UK market (Freixenet, who with Codorniu produce about 90% of all Cava, and Martini Asti, since you ask), but even their popularity here comes with a downside. Brits like Codorniu, and Cava in general, because it’s reliable, fizzy and cheap. Try to sell expensive Cava, though, and we go off it pretty rapidly. Which is why Reina Maria Cristina, the best of their widely available wines, a 100% pinot noir white sparkler produced only in good vintages, is discounted here to £10 a bottle, when a Spaniard would expect to pay about £15 (and that even though £2.91 of our bottle price is either duty or VAT on that duty, and the Spanish get theirs all-but tax-free) . It has also led the marketeers to develop special baby blue and bubblegum pink bottle wraps just for us, the better to catch the consumer’s eye or, as the company’s PR representative puts it, “premiumise”.

20130305-075835.jpgGiven the amount they can charge for it, the effort of putting bubbles into the wine scarcely seems worth it. It’s just a very expensive and laborious way of making their grape juice less valuable. It seems they’ve worked this out too, having just launched their first still wines into the UK market (well, their first since Jose Raventos brought bubbles back from Champagne in 1872). The wines, an albarino-chardonnay white and a cabernet sauvignon-tempranillo red (made by the Australian Mark Nairn, while Colomer Marti concentrates on the Cava) are both decidedly decent, food-friendly quaffers destined to be discounted down to £6.99, and available from Ocado.

For a company that has been in the hands of the same family since 1551 – “I was in New York last week,” Colomer Marti says at one point. “When we started making wine, New York didn’t even exist!” – Codorniu are surprisingly keen on growth and innovation. “We want to bring more consumers into the Codorniu brand,” the PR person tells me. “We have a very loyal following, and Spanish wines are doing phenomenally well at the moment, but there aren’t many brands in the Spanish wine market. It’s our idea to bring something new. We know people like the reassurance of brands. We’ve done a lot of consumer research, asking whether people accept the Cordoniu brand for still wine as well as sparkling, and people think they’ve bought it already. They’ve seen the label, they think it’s familiar.”

It’s hard to be genuinely happy about a situation that has been brought about by the combination of one country’s economic armageddon and another’s collective refusal to spend appropriate sums for decent wine, but that’s where we are. The upshot is that in the British market, all of Codorniu’s Cavas except perhaps the basic Brut are cheaper than they should be, some by quite a way. The Seleccion Raventos, currently £7.49 at Majestic, and the Reina Maria Cristina, which is £60 for six at Tesco, are the ones to go for. Codorniu’s wines may be losing their fizz but at prices like that their sales figures shouldn’t.

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