Foreign drinkers rescue Spanish bubbly
Foreigners are throwing a lifeline to Catalonia's famous bubbly, Cava, as it struggles against a Spanish recession and the risk of a boycott.
Cava is a bit fruiter and about half the price of its posher French cousin champagne, with an average bottle going for about six euros.
It is also 100% Catalan, a source of both pride and risk for this northeastern region of Spain.
There are independence stirrings in Catalonia as it approaches snap elections for November 25, with regional president Artur Mas seeking a mandate to call a referendum on "self determination".
Many Spaniards resent the threat of a breakup, however, and wine producers are hoping they will not be penalised.
In 2005, a nationalist debate led to a boycott of Catalan products and Cava sales dropped 7.27% from the previous year.
"It worries us but we will carry on working at what we know, which is Cava," said Pedro Bonet, head of communications for market leading Freixenet.
"We are Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans and what we are interested in is making the best Cava possible and selling it, fortunately, in 140 countries," he said.
In the Segura Viudas Cava operations, in the mist of the Penedes vineyards some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Catalan capital of Barcelona, the grape harvest is over but the machines are humming.
Up to 12 000 bottles, labeled and packaged, stream every hour out of this winery, part of the market leading Freixenet.
The peak season is approaching: an average 35 million bottles of Cava will be uncorked between Christmas and New Year, according to the Cava Regulatory Board.
Nevertheless, sales have lost their fizz.
Last year, Cava sales were down 8.7% from 2010 as the country suffered recession and soaring unemployment.
Luckily, there is a rescue line: exports.
"We sell 76% as exports, against 24% for the Spanish market," Bonet said.
Cava exports climbed 2.07% in 2011 from the previous year to hit a record 152.2 million.
"In this difficult period of economic crisis, it is very positive to be able to say that Cava sales hit a record in foreign markets," said Cava Regulatory Board president Gustavo Garcia Guillamet.
The big asset is a small price.
At Segura Viudas, 20 million bottles lie in dark, dusty cellars 14 metres (45 feet) below ground. They are sold for five to seven euros.
"The bottles ferment and age here in these cellars. Depending on the type of Cava we want to sell they age for between 12 months and three or four years," said Jordi Guilera, spokesman for Cava Segura Viudas.
The production process is similar to that of champagne, the end result is just much cheaper.
Germans are especially fond of Cava. In 2011, they downed 40 million bottles, followed by Britons guzzling 32 million bottles and the Belgians 23 million bottles.
"Belgium is certainly a small country but since the crisis broke out the Belgians seem to be looking for good value for money, like Cava," said Freixenet's Bonet.
Today Spain is the second largest producer of champagne-style wine after France.
With the economic crisis battering all of Europe, Cava has even made a dent in the French market. Sales in France hit four million bottles last year, up eight percent from 2010.