Spain's wineries in a tizz over fizz

Elizabeth Nash on sour grapes in the sparkling wine trade
Click to follow
Every afternoon, 650,000 Catalans tune in to Clan of Power, a Dallas-like saga of a winemaking family in the gentle valleys around Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, the heart of Spain's Cava, or sparkling wine, country.

The series is co-funded by the Cava Regulatory Council, the producers' body that answers to the government, despite the qualms of some winemakers, who regret sponsoring a programme in which family hatreds upstage a noble profession. Others, however, fear that the reality could outstrip the fiction. Ancient rivalries between two of the grandest families in the region have burst into litigation and headlines across the nation's newspapers, goading an exasperated government to tell thewarring clans to cool their feud, for fear of damaging exports.

Behind the battle lies a Spanish success story. Cava, Catalonia's answer to champagne, is on its way to becoming Britain's most popular fizz. Brits glugged 6 million bottles of it last year, 20 per cent more than in 1994. Though still topped by real champagne, cava is pressing on the heels of the most popular brand of Italian asti spumante and is keeping ahead of Australian challengers.

Good reason for the Catalan producers to pop a cork or three down in the bodegas, you might think. But in Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, west of Barcelona, there are more sour grapes than raised glasses. All because of a fratricidal war between two companies - Freixenet and Cordoniu - who control 70 per cent of production. Smaller producers fear the duel could burst the buoyant cava bubble altogether.

It is a struggle for market dominance, but with deep roots. The Raventos family, owners of Cordoniu, invented cava in 1872 by subjecting wine to a second fermentation in the bottle, after the technique of Dom Perignon, the pioneer of champagne. But it was the more dynamic younger competitor Freixenet, owned by the Ferrer family, that took the Spanish product to the world.

Each accuses the other of flouting the traditions of cava-making and defrauding the public. Cordoniu shot first, saying Freixenet exported cava that had matured in the bottle for less than the statutory nine months. Freixenet counter-attacked, accusing Cordoniu of using non-indigenous pinot noir and chardonnay grapes to pass off their cava as a pale French imitation. Freixenet further said Cordoniu irrigated its vines, increasing production but diluting the alcohol.

The practices break the rules of the Regulatory Council, which has opened disciplinary proceedings, leading possibly to hefty fines, against some cava producers whom it declined to name. But, said its director, Gabriel Giro, apologising for not being explicit: "You can draw your conclusions from the names mentioned in the press." The agriculture minister condemned "this lamentable dispute".

So poisonous are relations between the families that when a ministry representative tried to mediate, he could not persuade the feuding patriarchs, Manuel Raventos and Josep Ferrer, even to shake hands, still less talk to each other.

Behind the accusations lies a more wounding causus belli. Freixenet is the undisputed export leader - for every 100 bottles exported, 70 are Freixenet's - and Cordoniu traditionally dominates the Spanish market. But last December Freixenet announced it had beaten Cordoniu on its own turf. Cordoniu disputed the figures, saying Freixenet included fizz not made by the traditional method (what used to be called methode champenoise before Brussels limited that description to the French stuff). But they reflected Spain's flagging consumption, and Cordoniu was struck to the heart.

Freixenet decided years ago to export its way to success, emphasising its value for money and launching aggressive advertising campaigns with international film stars from Liza Minnelli to Kim Basinger. Cordoniu, meanwhile, stuck to home territory, stressing its traditions and excellence.

After the fall of communism, however, Cordoniu tried its luck in Russia, with catastrophic results. It shipped millions of bottles to warehouses in St Petersburg, and one night the Russian mafia cleared off with the entire stock.

"We are now number one, it's a bitter struggle," says Manuel Duran, Freixenet's deputy president. "Cordoniu just copy the French, their grapes are French, their labels are French. But people don't want a boring copy, they want something distinctive. I don't say ours is better, but it's authentic, with its own personality." Omerta reigns within Cordoniu's handsome bodegas, a national monument designed by the Catalan master Puig y Cadafalch in 1905. "We have made a pact of silence which we don't intend to break," their spokesman said.

Smaller producers sympathise with Cordoniu. Nuria Candoval owns Sumarroca, a small cava producer near Sant Sadurni that is making headway in Britain. In her tranquil courtyard, she is passionate about the possible damage to cava's good name.

"It's unfair competition for someone to sell cava that's been bottled for less than nine months. Lots of people just pop the cork and don't recognise the difference between good and bad, but you can imagine the difference in cost with a product like ours that matures for two or three years. It could ruin the market for the good stuff.

"Freixenet became so successful that demand outstripped supply, so they couldn't maintain their quality."