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Cava: Spain’s Sparkling Wine with Winemaker, Arthur O’Connor

cava montana rae pinot noir podcast spanish wine sparkling wine winemaking Mar 22, 2022

Can you imagine starting a new job at a company that is over 400 years old, being a foreigner, and taking a leading role before even having a chance to learn the language? It’s a lot to consider but winemaker, Arthur O’Connor, was up to the challenge when he took over the position of Director of Winemaking at Spain’s oldest wine company, Grupo Codorníu.

Left to Right: Ricard Rofes (Winemaker at Scala Dei), Arthur O’Connor, Bruno Colomer (Winemaker at Codorniu), Diego Panilla (Winemaker at Bodegas Billbianas who took over the Director of Winemaking role from Arthur)

A native of Australian wine country, Arthur was part of a very small group of people who fit the criteria the company had in mind: a winemaker with experience making white, red, AND sparkling wine. Not only that, they wanted someone from New Zealand or Australia. The company had recognized a need to evolve and embrace new technologies. The decision-makers understood that in the lands Down Under, many winemakers grew up in the cellar where they learned everything there is to know about winemaking and grape growing. Arthur was no exception. 

By the age of about ten years old, he was already collecting bottles and getting scolded for “blending” his parent's wines. Growing up, Arthur worked at several wineries in Australia and studied viticulture. In the late 1990s, he moved to California to work as a vineyard manager for Randall Grahm at Boony Doon Vineyard. There, Arthur gained experience adjusting his stance on the fly, a capability that would serve him throughout his life. One day during his first year on the job, Randall came to Arthur and informed him that they would be transitioning all the vineyards to organic farming. Ever up for a challenge, Arthur embraced the process and made it happen.

Following his time at Boony Doon, Arthur returned to Australia to work as the still red and white winemaker at Seppelt, an iconic brand founded in 1851. No stranger to curveballs, Arthur found himself taking on the role of sparkling winemaker in addition to his existing duties within only a few months. For this organization, the sparkling wine program wasn’t a side project as it so often is. Rather, Arthur became responsible for the production of over two million cases a year of Australian sparkling wine. The learning curve was steep as he transitioned both his quantity obligations and the approach to winemaking entirely.

If you’ve been following along on our content around Still White and Red Winemaking and World of Bubbles, you know how different the production methods are. Not only in the cellar, but in the vineyard too. The approach to managing the vines, pruning, and decisions around when to harvest all change drastically when the goal is bubbly. Acidity is key, tannin is out, and the mindset shifts completely.

When a job application came about seeking a winemaker from Australia with experience making both still and sparkling wines, Arthur was intrigued but tossed it aside thinking his wife Ellen, who is American, wouldn’t want to live in Spain. Instead, she encouraged him to apply. That job was as Director of Winemaking at Grupo Codorníu. No foreigner had ever been in the role and some people didn’t believe he was being hired for it. Their sentiment: this company is way too old and way too important to have an outsider run the show.

In our podcast recording, Arthur discusses the differences between Champagne and Cava production, gives us a winemaker’s perspective on the traditional method versus the tank method, and shares stories about making changes within an organization steeped in history and tradition. Through our conversation, we better understand why the company went looking for a foreigner to take the position. While he came with a fresh mindset and a better understanding of the machinery and new technologies, Arthur also brought his low touch, low-intervention approach to winemaking to the organization. The irony was not lost on anyone when over the years Arthur helped the company eliminate some of the practices they had adopted in efforts to stay up to date in the world of modern winemaking, such as spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on cultured yeast.

Listen to our podcast episode with Arthur

About Cava

‘Cava’ the Spanish word for cave, like Champagne, is made using the champagne method, or méthod champenoise. These wines are made primarily in the region of Penedes in Catalonia in northeastern Spain near Barcelona. This is one of the most ancient wine-growing regions in all of  Europe and a place Arthur tells us is vastly underrated as a wine tourism destination.

Cava DO (denominacion de origen) is the official classification of Cava. While the wines may be produced throughout Spain, most Cava is made in Penedes (near Barcelona) or in the Ebro River Valley in Rioja. Today, there are close to 200 producers registered with the Cava Consejo Regulador. 

The grapes of Cava are Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. You will also see Chardonnay and Pinot, as well as other Spanish grapes like Garnacha and Monastrell but those three are primary.

Macabeu is the lead grape and is also referred to as Viura in Spain. Like Chardonnay, it’s not a super flavorful grape. It has citrusy and floral aromas and performs well as a foundation for blending. And blending, like in Champagne, is important in Cava. Xarel-lo, is more aromatic and flavorful, bumping up the complexity of the wines. Finally, Paralleda is where we get the amazing acidity that’s so important in sparkling wines.

Remarkable Cava and Sparkling Wines Recommended by Arthur

Anna de Codorniu Cava Blanc de Blancs

Raventos i Blanc de Blancs 2018

Gramona Imperial Gran Reserva Cava 2014

Louis Roederer Cristal Brut with Gift Box

Food + Wine

Arthur challenged us to create an entire dinner menu using Cava as the only style of wine. Do you think we can do it? What do you think belongs on that menu? Let us know in the comments!

Where is Arthur now? Introducing Rondure Wines

Working in a winery as old as Codorniu offered Arthur a peek into the past. Technological advances in winemaking have made a number of processes easier for winemakers, one of which is cooling. Temperature-controlled tanks and refrigeration in wineries have provided a lot of control in the production process. But what was the solution before refrigeration came about? Asking this question is what led Arthur to an introduction to the Capas winemaking process. In this method, there is no cooling used. Rather the grapes are added into the fermenter in layers. A first layer goes in, it starts fermenting, and when it’s just to the point of getting too hot, another layer of freshly harvested grapes is added, cooling the entire fermenter down naturally. This is done again and again until the batch is fully fermented.

Now back in California, Arthur uses the Capas process to bring us a small hand-made production of Pinot Noir from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Robert’s Road Sangiacomo Vineyard called Rondure.

 

We’ll be back again next month with a follow-up interview with Arthur to learn more about Rondure and the Capas method. Until then, check it out on their website at www.rondurewines.com.

As always, thank you for being a part of our exploration of wine. Arthur, thank you for sharing your story and passion for wine. Let’s pop some Cava and celebrate life!

Cheers, Montana and The Wine Ship Cru

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