Hubert Burda Media

Spaniard In The Works

Can cava producer Gramona hope to compete with the world's finest champagne houses?

Spaniard In The Works

There's no business like the wine family business, where bonds forged by tradition often drive a brand's core values. In the case of vintage cava producer Gramona, one man's career transition proved vital, though it arose from a somewhat unusual epiphany.
“I studied oenology at the university in Dijon, but only for a few months,” Xavier Gramona tells me during a visit to Hong Kong. “We are the fifth generation now – originally, it was me and my brother and our cousin Jaume – but I am the oldest and I was supposed to the company. I had been out there working, harvesting with my grandfather, but I had a discussion with my father when I was 18. We're both strong characters and I didn't have a good relationship with him, and so I left to go to Paris instead to study economics. And from Paris I went on to London, where I worked in banking.”
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Financial wizards are known to morph into wine producers, since they always know the bottom line, so how's that unusual? “Well, Gramona was under the management of my uncle, Jaume's father, but he was not interested in speaking other languages, not willing to travel, so the company was very small. It was a much bigger company when my grandfather was doing it. My father had stopped working after he turned 72 and then he passed away, and my brother also passed away. With both of them gone, I decided I had to come back to Spain in 1995.
“I was a banker, and I was 35 years old,” he recalls. “But what really happened was I met the Catalan writer Manuel Vásquez Montalbán. A friend in London first told me that Montalbán had a character in his novels, a detective who is a gastronomic expert in Barcelona who, when he has to forget about a woman or has a sad moment or has to celebrate, he always does it with Gramona. My friend asked me: ‘Does this have anything to do with your name?'”
Stunned, the young Gramona made contact with Montalbán in 1993 and a meeting was arranged, and over coffee in Barcelona the novelist explained why he was so spellbound. “He thought Gramona was the best sparkling wine he had ever drunk. He said it was as good as champagne. He knew I was then not in the business and he said I had to continue the winemaking heritage of my family. And that opened my mind. Talking to Montalbán made me come back to the family tradition.”
Xavier quit the bank and reunited with Jaume, who had by then graduated from the university in Dijon as the first Spanish person to do so with a specialisation in sparkling wine. Jaume now heads a team of seven winemakers at the Gramona estate in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, while maintaining a foot in academia – he runs the only sparkling wine department in Spain, at the Universidad de Tarragona – while Xavier, essentially the company's brand ambassador (though his title is “vice-president”) spreads the family gospel.
Before I'd tasted Gramona, I thought the idea amusing – cava made deliberately to age? Yes, I learned, and with price points to match. Gramona's top drop is its Enoteca Brut, a Xarel-lo/Macabeo cuvée aged 14 years before release, selling at HK$1,400 a bottle, while two others I also found likeable, the Imperial Gran Reserva and Celler Batlle Gran Reserva, are $340 and $600 respectively. What Xavier calls “the baby” of the range is the 2008 Brut Vintage Gran Reserva that sells for merely $200 a pop, and is what we drink as we talk. I find myself seduced by its white-flower traces, toasty biscuit notes and sweet lemon finish.
Xavier sees no reason why Gramona cannot compete with the likes of Dom Perignon, those very fine wines that he says “are all around 10 years of ageing, on average, and in our case we even go up to 14 years. Our youngest wines are like this – the 2008 you're drinking is aged from four to five years – and the Imperial five to six years. Celler Batlle is 10 years and Enoteca is 12 to 14 years. Ageing matters and is the common factor when you consider the iconic producers.
“But what does ageing mean? It means more time with the yeast in the bottle. Thirty years ago nobody knew what the yeast was doing to the wine. We only knew that with the secondary fermentation there were some amino acids that were giving some complexity. Microbiology, as a science, only came to the sparkling wine world in the last 15 years. Now we know that 80 percent of the complexity of the wine is related to the yeast, but the yeast work is the same in Australia, in California, or in France, so this makes it a kind of democracy in terms of sparkling wine. The yeast gives it elegance and balance and complexity, and you need good terroir and good grapes, which in our case has to do with Xarel-lo.”
Xarel-lo, the grape that almost single-handedly defines Gramona, is admired for its high resveratrol levels, the anti-oxidants enabling the wines to stay fresh even after years of storage. “Gramona is proudly based on the Catalan grape Xarel-lo, which is enjoying a revival,” noted Jancis Robinson MW, though my favourite nugget of praise came from Andrew Jefford, the Decanter columnist: “Gramona is more sumptuous and refined than I ever dreamed cava could be.” Perhaps that's all anyone needs to know, along with how Gramona prefers to make sparkling wines the hard way – labour-intensive hand-riddling, hand-disgorgement and the use of a solera system for dosage reminiscent of sherry-making – so no short cuts apply on a path paved with patience.
“In the early days, I would go to England and they would tell me, ‘Cava is a cheap drink so we're not much interested,'” Xavier recounts. “I didn't want to find an importer for the UK because I felt that with our cava, you either get it or you don't. So for 20 years, I waited. And I waited and I waited. And then, three years ago, Simon [Field MW, the wine buyer]called me. He said, ‘Xavier, I'm from Berry Bros & Rudd and I would like to represent you in the UK.' He told me he had tasted one of our 10-year-old bottles, the Celler Batlle, and how they would also like to sell Gramona in Hong Kong.
“When I started doing this, I realised we had a small brand. But now we have something to tell the world. Now we're in 35 countries. We've done a lot of blind tastings around the world and the results have been surprising, so I feel like an artist who has not yet been discovered. If you discover an artist before he's well known, you'll pay less, and it's a fair price, like what our wines are now.” And so, he's willing to wait.