A drought in Spain has dried up all the bubbly

One of the world’s most well-known and prestigious makers of sparkling wine — or cava, as it’s called in Catalan — is laying off 80% of its workforce. There’s plenty of demand for Spanish-German Freixenet’s bottled beverage, just not enough water to get the grapes to grow. They have shriveled on the vine as the lack of rain and restrictions on water use combine. The World’s Gerry Hadden reports from Sant Sadurní d’Ainoa, Spain.

The World

To produce cava — a unique sparkling wine similar to France’s champagne — Sant Sadurní d’Ainoa vineyard worker Antonio Dominguez said that irrigating is forbidden. 

The grapes must depend solely on rainfall. 

Otherwise, Dominguez said, “We’d lose the Denomination of Origin. We’d be making just another sparkling wine.”

A sign welcoming visitors to Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, the “Capital of Cava.”Gerry Hadden/The World

Denomination of Origin is one of Spain’s regulatory systems. It guarantees that a wine is produced entirely in a designated region and follows local regulations.

Dominguez said it has rained some in recent weeks, but not nearly enough to water the cava grapevines.

“The oldest grape vines here are 30 or 40 years old, with really deep roots,” he said. “The bit of rain that’s fallen isn’t reaching and replenishing the subsoil. It stays on the surface.”

Dead and dying grape vines dot the cava vineyards of Catalonia. Desperate vintners have resorted to amputating some branches so that others might survive and produce grapes.Gerry Hadden/The World

Catalonia’s cava vineyards cover about a hundred thousand acres, and one out of three grapevines in the northeast region have perished since a drought started in 2020. It’s been especially devastating for cava vintners because they’re not allowed to water their grapes.

Dominguez has been working in the cava vineyards for 40 years. He said he’s never seen a crisis like this. Nor such desperate measures to salvage the vines.

Antonio Dominguez has been working in the cava vineyards for 40 years. He says he’s never seen a crisis this bad. Due to a drought that began in 2020, one in three grape vines here has dried out and died.Gerry Hadden/The World

Of the two branches that each grapevine has, he said, they have to amputate one so that the other can survive and produce grapes.

Dominguez works for cava-producer Freixenet. Freixenet exports its sparkling beverage worldwide. But with production off by around 40% this year, the firm has furloughed some 600 employees, including Dominguez.

Cavas Freixenet is one of the region’s largest cava producers and exporters.Gerry Hadden/The World

The knock-on effects of the crisis are rippling across the cava villages of this region, called the Penedès.

At Gust de Poble, a cava shop in Sant Sadurní d’Ainoa, owner Guillem Tena said fewer grapes have created a cava shortage, which has driven prices up. Local shoppers now hesitate before buying, he said.

You can tell a top quality cava by its tiny bubbles and subtle bouquet.Gerry Hadden/The World

People in nearby villages are distraught because cava, to them, isn’t just something you sip with lunch. It’s inseparable from their history. And identity.

In Sant Sadurní, there’s an interactive museum dedicated to the drink. 

A display of grape varieties in an interactive cava museum in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalonia, Spain.Gerry Hadden/The World

One fun fact you learn at the museum is that when cava was invented in the late 19th century, so was its standard ¾ of a liter bottle. Back then, that was the recommended daily allowance for wine — about six glasses per person. 

But the museum’s highlight is a tiny, yellow sap-sucking insect called the phylloxera. The pest inadvertently arrived in Europe in the 1850s by boat in a shipment of plants from the US, explained museum guide Laia Altisén.

A 1,500-pound version of the tiny insect phylloxera. Phylloxera nearly wiped out Europe’s vineyards, including the cava grapevines, 150 years ago. During yearly village celebrations in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, townsfolk roll out the giant float, dress up as the insect and shoot off fireworks to celebrate their victory over the plague.Gerry Hadden/The World

“Within five years, the phylloxera wiped out 90% of our vineyards,” Altisén said. “Today, during our yearly town fiestas, we celebrate our victory over the plague. And the fact that we can still make a living off of cava.”

At these fiestas, townsfolk dress up as the yellow invader and swarm, bug-like, through the streets, shooting fireworks and dancing. The US was the source of the plague, but it also provided the solution. American grapevines were mostly resistant to phylloxera. Europe saved its remaining grapevines by grafting them onto imported Yankee rootstocks.

But this latest drought, worsened by climate change, experts say, is a more formidable enemy. 

Dominguez says he and hundreds of furloughed Freixenet employees have had their hours slashed and are living off partial salaries and government support. But that’s only until the end of the year when the furlough deal expires.

“We’re ok for now, in terms of our wages, he said, but what will happen to us in January, or February, and beyond?”

Even if the rains return to normal, he said, it’ll be at least a couple of harvests before the ground is saturated enough for the vineyards to bounce back.

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