Since I’ve been living here I’ve had cava for breakfast, lunch and dinner; cava to mark births, deaths and anniversaries; at the opening of a community arts centre; in a jacuzzi; for Valentine’s Day, St Jordi and Christmas; and, well, just because it was a Tuesday (and not even a very special Tuesday at that).
By contrast, I think I’ve had champagne maybe once in the same time period. You can drink champagne in Barcelona but it is considered an unnecessarily foreign opulence, like adding butter to your pa amb tomàquet or having separate flip flops for both beach and house. And inevitably I’ve grown to love cava as a drink in and of itself, rather than as a substitute for champagne.
Sadly, I don’t think many of my fellow Britons agree. The UK may well be the second largest cava market outside of Spain but sales fell 16.7% in 2013, with British bon viveurs consuming some 2.34m fewer bottles than in 2012.
The main reason for this is said to be the rise of prosecco, imports of which leapt 40.2% in Britain last year.
But this points to a wider malaise. Cava and prosecco clearly have their similarities but each wine has its own brands and regions, with subtleties of taste and texture. Most importantly, perhaps, cava is produced using the traditional méthode champenoise, while prosecco is made using the méthode Charmat, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle, lowering the price of production.
Clearly, then, we are talking about very different wines and surging prosecco sales shouldn’t necessarily harm those of cava. That they have done so is largely because Britons tend to lump cava and prosecco in a nebulous category entitled “not quite champagne”. (Or even worse “like champagne but cheaper”.)
They are celebratory sparkling drinks, in other words, but not quite to the standard of champagne; something for you aunt’s birthday but not for your wife’s.
This is not just a failing of the cava industry, though. It is a failing of the Catalan “brand” as a whole. And that makes it particularly interesting for a British Barcelona dweller.
Catalonia (largely represented by Barcelona for the British, whether the Catalans like it or not) generally has a strong brand in the UK, if a slightly contradictory one.
Leaving aside the appalling history of robberies in the Catalan capital, the city is seen as being young, fashionable and arty. It is the city of FC Barcelona’s footballing elegance, Sonar’s electronic experimentation and Gaudí’s architectural genius. It is also cheap, sunny and cheerful: a place for stag dos, €10 lunches and beer on the beach.
These two points may seem rather inconsistent but in fact they fit together well, helping Barcelona to attract millions of foreign visitors every year (some 2.3m in August 2013 alone). These are people who like culture and sun; architecture and beaches; a cheap paella and a blow out visit to Tickets.
This should be good news for cava: British people on the whole appreciate Barcelona and by extension Catalonia. A Catalan sparkling wine, then, should be able to trade on these good feelings.
The problem, though, is while Cava should summon up images of Gaudí – that’s to say a unique Catalan product that holds its head high on the world stage – it too often feels closer in image to a paella on the Ramblas: nice and all but hardly anything special.
I’m far from an expert in marketing. But the problem, I would suggest, is one of price. Cava in England is seen as “affordable” and “cheap”, both admirable qualities in themselves but hardly helpful for a sparkling wine.
“I reckon part of the image problem in the UK is that you often get cheap/own brand cava reduced to about £4.99, while prosecco is seen as higher-end and is almost never below £6.99,” another friend explains.
And this is reflected in stores: I recently tried to buy a bottle of good cava in a London supermarket, only to find some rather dusty looking bottles on the end of a shelf, hanging around apologetically like a 16th Century serf while the champagne lorded it behind the counter. Needless to say, I left without cava.
This problem, to be fair, is something the government here has already noted. In January Miguel Arias Cañete, the minister for agriculture, food and the environment, said that cava should not be positioned as a “cheap product”, adding, “We already export volume, now we have to export price.”
To do this successfully, though, cava companies need to change people’s perceptions of the wine and this is no small task. We need posh cava, deluxe cava, snobby cava, even: appeal to people’s sense of prevention and one uppery.
Get cava in the best restaurants; get it on TV; get it visible, standing out proudly on supermarket shelves rather than skulking at the back like a lapsed pervert. Have a cava festival in London and show off the different brands of cava: cava and fish; cava and cheese; cava and chocolate; cava for breakfast. We need cava with everything, in other words, just like good Catalans.