Introducing Corpinnat – a complex tale

By: Ferran Centelles
1 Jan 2020

Ferran untangles the turbulent recent history of Catalan sparkling wine. His tasting notes on wines from this new group of producers will be published tomorrow.

Corpinnat is surely going to be a name that will soon resonate with those who love good sparkling wine.

Corpinnat is the new producer group, or collective brand, of Catalan sparkling wine that combines two concepts: Cor (heart), referring to the place where the first sparkling wines of Spain began more than 130 years ago; and Pinnat from the Latin word Pinnae already documented in the tenth century as Penetense that today gives its name to the Penedès region.

Corpinnat has been one of the most discussed movements in Spain ever since 30 January 2019 when the wineries behind it decided on this name, abandoned the Cava denomination, and started producing Quality Sparkling Wines under their own brand Corpinnat.

The conflict that led to this initiative on the part of some historic producers of magnificent sparkling wines has been long brewing. In 2014–2015, six of the most important names of the Cava DO – Gramona, Nadal, Castellroig, Llopart, Recaredo and Torelló – began discussions because of their conceptual disagreements with the Cava Consejo Regulador. Very low grape prices made it impossible to maintain quality-based viticulture. They felt the prestige of the name Cava was under threat, and were unhappy that they were not allowed to cite a subzone on the label, nor to assure consumers that the grapes came from their own vineyards, nor that the wine had been made on their property.

To understand their position, it is necessary to understand what the Cava DO is in general. It’s one of the four supra-regional DOs (Denominación de Origen) of Spain that covers mainly Catalunya, but also some parts of Castilla y León, La Rioja, Extremadura, Euskadi, Aragón, Navarra and Valencia. For example, a winery can have part of its production in Almendralejo (Badajoz, Extremadura) and produce Cava in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the sparkling-wine capital of Catalunya, almost 1,000 km (630 miles) away. The Cava DO is so extensive that it includes almost 30 of Spain’s 80 or so DOs.

It is true that in 2017, as a result of these discussions among dissatisfied producers, the DO Cava introduced a higher category known as Cava de Paraje Calificado reserved for the most prestigious Cavas in which there was a close and direct link between the vineyard and the winery. In addition, the vines had to be at least 10 years old and the wine had to be aged at least three years. But this was judged insufficient by the six wineries and in 2018 the public heard for the first time of the existence of Corpinnat.

But before Corpinnat was discussed, there had already been other movements and splits. The first producer to leave the DO Cava was Raventós i Blanc, who took this decision in 2012 and who since then have made their way alone, producing fine sparkling wine in the Conca del Riu Anoia, a small geographical area inside the region of Penedès, although it is not a legally recognised DO at the moment.

And in 2014 the Penedès DO created Classic Penedès for those wineries that wanted to make a sparkling wine with a second fermentation in the bottle.

So what’s new about Corpinnat? At first, after consulting a lawyer specialising in wine and brands, the six wineries agreed on a proposal and presented it to the Consejo Regulador of both the Cava DO and the Penedès DO. For Penedès their intention was to use this collective brand within the European Union for their sparkling wines from grapes grown within the delimited Penedès region and made entirely in their own wineries. No buying in of bulk or bottled wine is allowed. They made a similar proposal to the Cava DO authorities.

Corpinnat’s first attempt was to work hand in hand with the DOs. Penedès’ response was positive. But the Cava DO said no, and went even further: if a Cava winery wanted to use the Corpinnat collective brand, it could no longer use the Cava denomination. Cava DO even introduced a change in their regulations to prevent it.

Then negotiations with the Cava DO broke down and the six wineries left, setting out on their own account. Three more producers joined the Corpinnat group – Mas Candi, Huguet and Júlia Bernet – and these nine currently make up the Corpinnat crew, although future additions are not ruled out.

Producer groups, or collective brands, are nothing new in the wine world. There are about 70, including the VDP in Germany, TrentODoc, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer groups, Demeter and many more.

In practice, Corpinnat standards are more demanding than the Cava regulations: the vineyards must be located in one of the 39 municipalities in the most historic area of Penedès; the minimum ageing period is 18 months (rather than the nine-month minimum for Cava), and 100% of the wine has to be made in the winery itself.

Ton Mata, one of the great drivers of the Corpinnat project and the third generation of Recaredo, explains, ‘we have made very strict regulations because we want to add prestige to the area, achieve higher prices and, obviously, it makes us feel better knowing that we are focused on quality.’

I imagine that the road was not easy for these nine wineries, because Cava is part of their lives, and they represent great names with historical links with Cava, with its Cofradía (brotherhood) and the different promotional associations around the Cava DO. Ton confirms this. ‘Leaving Cava has not been easy, not from a sentimental point of view, nor the legal one, nor the family one. But we had no choice. Now I think about Corpinnat with eagerness and hope.’ One of his biggest concerns was that wines without the DO could not participate in the tenders of the northern European and Canadian wine monopolies, an important channel for Cava sales. But he need not have worried. Two months after the Corpinnat producers left the Cava DO, a tender incorporating Corpinnat was issued, with Cavas at €2 a bottle, Classic Penedès at €4, and Corpinnat at €8.50.

Another key point is that Corpinnat has established a minimum grape purchase price of €0.70 a kg, and long-term contracts with wine growers are promoted. Fixing a minimum selling price per bottle is illegal, but a minimum purchase price of grapes can be established and agreed upon without legal issues.

In fact, this 2019 harvest has been very controversial in the Cava sector, with the grape price collapsing to €0.30 a kg, leading to riots and strikes challenging the Consejo Regulador during the harvest.

Cava in non-Spanish hands
This coincides with the sale of the two largest Cava producers to foreigners. The German company Henkell now controls 50.7% of Freixenet and the American Carlyle Group, private equity owners of the giant Accolade wine group (Hardys, etc), owns 68% of Codorníu. The historic Ferrer and Raventós families have lost their control of Cava production. It is to be hoped that, under new management, these companies decide to enhance the quality of their products. Otherwise, the future for Cava and its grape growers looks bleak.

Another of Corpinnat’s big names is Gramona, for long a winery emotionally entwined with Cava. Jaume Gramona, the respected and renowned winemaker, was president of the Instituto del Cava, an association that represents companies producing fewer than one million bottles a year. He had hoped to change some regulations from within the DO. But after more than five years of trying, and receiving uniformly negative responses, he finally decided to leave. Jaume admits, ‘For us, leaving Cava DO has been traumatic. I was vice-president of the Cofradía del Cava. But we have done it because we care about Penedès, the territory and wine quality. Things inside Cava were getting worse, especially when Prosecco beat Cava on price.’ In addition, Jaume points out, ‘I have a lot of faith and I know that Corpinnat will work. We have started it based on friendship, so there are neither individualists nor distrust. We are all rowing in the same direction.’

Corpinnat’s formation has spurred the Cava DO into action. This seems to have been inspired by the current president Javier Pages, ex-president of Codorníu, who took over leadership of the Cava DO when the departure of Corpinnat was irreversible. He is one of the most loved people in the Cava sector, intelligent and open to dialogue as very few people are.

Javier Pages explains that, ‘Cava has published a roadmap, not definitive, but that wants to lay the foundations for an upcoming zoning and product segmentation, as well as increasing the minimum requirements for being a Reserva, Gran Reserva or a Cava de Paraje Calificado (single-vineyard wine). For this, we have had a committee of wine experts [including me] who have given us their views on our ideas.’ Some of the strategies proposed by the Cava DO will begin to be seen from next year, but others, such as zoning, will need more time to implement. On the issue of low grape prices, Pages comments, ‘it is a matter of supply and demand that we have to control. For example, for this year new planting of vines for Cava has been outlawed.’ About a possible re-integration of the members of Corpinnat into the DO Cava, Pages says, ‘I would love it if Corpinnat returned to be part of the Cava DO. It is a large group of quality-focused wineries. With them the sector would be better.’

On this same topic, Ton Mata points out, ‘the new regulations proposed for Cava are very interesting, but it may be late. If we had not left the DO, the Consejo Regulador would not have moved. The door can never be closed and Javier is a very respectful and kind person. But for my part, I am very excited at the prospect of creating our own DO, stopping being a brand and turning Corpinnat into a DO. Hopefully, we can get it.’

One of the journalists who has closely followed this conflict is Ramón Francàs. He is a wine journalist, based in Penedès, and with great influence in the sector. He opines, ‘I think that Corpinnat would have a place within Cava. It takes will and understanding from both sides. But, if we think about it, Cava is a DO that already has a great history and before destroying it, it would be good if everyone had their place there.

‘It is not a minor issue because Cava produces 330 million kg of grapes or, in other words, two out of every three kilos of grapes produced in Catalunya are destined for Cava. Therefore, we must look beyond any private interest. It is true that the big houses of Cava were wrong to rely on BOBs (buyers’ own brands) and to concentrate on the lowest price segment, but you can work to recreate prestige for the region.’

In view of all this, it seemed an opportune time to do a (blind) tasting of Corpinnat, knowing that in the near future I will do another tasting with the many high-quality wineries that remain within the Cava DO such as Juvé & Camps, Mestres, Agustí Torelló (which is different from Torelló), Mas Tinell and Castellblanch. See Corpinnat – the tasting notes.

The future

In a nutshell, we are at a time when the future of Corpinnat is unknown. No one can predict whether they will be able to return to the DO, whether they will do so under the Penedès umbrella, or whether they will remain as a registered trademark accepted by the EU. It will be a long and complicated process.

The quality of the wines is not in doubt and for sure they will remain Quality Sparkling Wines. These are critical moments for the Cava DO, Penedès and Corpinnat but I sincerely hope that they will find a way to reach a joint agreement that suits all of them.

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