Gates leading to Codorníu winery (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/LimoWreck)
I am in the bowels of the earth—it’s gloomy and dark. The air smells damp and musty and rings with an eerie silence, as I step on to a dinky electric train that speeds through the mazelike caves. Bottles are stacked on all sides creating a surreal landscape. Imagine a winery as spectacular as a cathedral, resplendent with arches and stained glass, stunning Modernist architecture and a cellar with 30 km of man-made caves that can store around 100 million bottles of wine. The Codorniu winery, 45 km from Barcelona, is appropriately called the ‘Cathedral of Cava’. Cava, or Spanish champagne, is a sparkling wine produced in the Catalonia region. It means ‘cellar’ or ‘cave’ since it is matured in underground caves. The Codorniu winery is one Spain’s oldest, and has been making wine since 1551.
The Penedes, where the winery is located, is a picturesque vista of rolling hills; a patchwork of sun-baked vineyards and country mansions flanked in the distance by the dramatic jagged outline of the Montserrat mountains. Ninety-five per cent of the cava made comes from this region. In the 16th century, vintner Jaume Cordeneu, a manufacturer of agricultural, decided to make white wine. In the 1860s, Josef Raventos, the scion of the Codorneu factory, was travelling through France when he got the idea of producing a sparkling wine in Spain. He achieved his dream in 1872. Josef’s son Manuel replanted the vineyards when the red vines were devastated by the phylloxera plague. He was an innovative marketeer; it is said that he sent his delivery carts in the wrong direction through the narrow streets of Barcelona—they were caught and fined, but he achieved his purpose: everyone heard of Codorniu. Soon Cava became a success and Manuel was appointed as the purveyor to the royal family in 1897. In 1898, he commissioned a poster contest and many artists produced drawings of women of high society enjoying cava. In 1905, the cellars were honoured by a visit from King Alonso.
“What is really the difference between champagne and cava?” I ask our guide, Julia. “It’s softer and easier to drink, less acidic and better priced,” she replies. “We Catalans always have a bottle of cava chilling in the fridge ready to share with family and friends. We drink it on New Year, at Christmas and on a special occasion too!” She gives me cava tips: never keep a bottle for more than two years, and never store it horizontally.
The Cordeneu factory has miles and miles of cellars beneath. At the entrance is a statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s patron saint. The former grape pressing room is today a museum showcasing antique wine-making machinery. I see old pitchforks, baskets to pick grapes, old pressing machines and gargantuan barrels. The Cellar Gran is the old fermentation room with a Catalan dome and vaulted ceilings, now used for social functions. Below in five levels are the cellars where the cava ages.
Traditionally cava was made from three grape varieties called Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello. Later Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were also introduced. The winery produces 30 million bottles in a year of which 40 per cent is exported. Only 30 per cent of the demand is met by their own vineyards; the rest is bought from growers.
How is cava made? It is first harvested and pressed and put into a steel tank for the first fermentation. Afterwards, it is blended with wine from other grapes. Then yeast and sugar is added in a stage called Tirajo. This causes secondary fermentation. The wine is stored in a cellar for at least nine months with the bottles “resting on their lees”, or on their sides, with consistent light, humidity and temperature until the yeast converts the sugar to carbon dioxide. The bottles are turned at regular intervals in a process called remuage, causing the residue to settle in the neck. The neck is then frozen to remove the residue. Finally, a small quantity of “liqueur d’expédition” is added to bring the sweetness up to the required level for the various types of cava and the bottle is then re-corked and labelled. If you see the label Gran Reserve, it means the cava has spent a minimum of 30 months resting on its lees.
In 1659, Codorniu heiress Anna married Miquel Raventos, bringing together two important wine-making families. She was the last of the family to use the Codorniu surname. “The most popular label today is Anna de Codorniu and most people just ask for a bottle of Anna,” says Julia. Codorniu is not only known for its path-breaking cellars but also its elegance of architecture. The Codorniu buildings were designed by the Catalan architect Cadafalch in Art Nouveau style. He is known for his curving shapes, love for organic architecture and design using glass and terracotta bricks. The building was declared to be a National Monument of Historic and Artistic Interest by King Juan Carlos I. To visit the Codorniu winery is much more than just cava... it’s a beguiling cocktail of history and architecture.