Cava: An Economical Alternative to Champagne

I must admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional champagne, and it doesn’t matter what the price point.  It could be that I just haven’t found the one that “wows” me, yet. But we’ve found a reasonable alternative that we can keep around when we’d like something light and bubbly — and don’t want to dig into the “expensive” stuff.

While Joe was in ISG courses last year, his teacher turned him onto Cristalino.  Cristalino Cava Brut is a sparkling wine from Spain, produced by Juame Serra.  It’s made from the grape varietals Macabeo 50%, Parellada 35% and Xarel.lo 15%.

Cava ToastWe find it in our local wine merchant anywhere from $7 – $10 depending on the season and demand. The great thing about the price is that we can pick up a couple cases and distribute them to our colleagues for the holidays. We don’t pretend that we’re giving them something expensive — but we do tell them that we’re sharing something we like; that is easy to find and won’t break the bank!

We invariably get the question, “What is the difference between Cava and Champagne?” So here’s a little information on Champagne’s Spanish cousin.

First we’ll start at the basics — what is sparkling wine?

Sparkling wine is a wine with significant levels of carbon dioxide in it making it fizzy. The carbon dioxide may result from natural fermentation, (either in a bottle, as with the méthode champenoise, or in a large tank designed to withstand the pressures involved, as in the Charmat process) or as a result of carbon dioxide injection. The classic example of a sparkling wine is Champagne, but many other examples are produced in other countries and regions, such as Cava in Spain, Asti in Italy (the generic Italian term for sparkling wine being Spumante) and Cap Classique in South Africa. In some parts of the world, the word “champagne” is used as a synonym for sparkling wine, although laws in Europe and other countries reserve the word champagne for a specific type from the Champagne region of France. The French term “Crémant” is used to refer to sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region. German and Austrian sparkling wines are called Sekt.

So What is Cava?

“Cava” is a Greek term that was used to refer to “high end” table wine or a wine cellar. It comes from the same word in Latin which in English means cave. Caves were used in the early days of Cava production for the preservation or aging of wine.Today Cavas have become integrated with Spanish family traditions and are often consumed at baptism celebrations with even the newborn getting a taste of his/her pacifier dipped in the wine (I would venture to guess it cuts down on crying.)

The sparkling wine of Cava was created in 1872 by Josep Raventós. The vineyards of Penedès were devastated by the phylloxera plague, and the predominantly red vines were being replaced by large numbers of vines producing white grapes. After seeing the success of the Champagne region, Raventós decided to create the dry sparkling wine that has become the reason for the region’s continued success. In the past the wine was referred to as Spanish Champagne (no longer permitted under EU law), or colloquially as champaña or xampany

Types of Cava

In 1991 European Union (EU) legal specifications were implemented to make sure that there was a consistent quality standard for Cava. At the same time, the EU recognized the origin of cava. However, there are very few producers of cava outside Catalonia. To determine if its a true cava, look for a star with four-points printed on the base of the cork. There are six official types of cava, depending on the sugar content:

  • Extra Brut – 0-6 grams of sugar per liter, the driest of the cava
  • Brut – 0-15 grams of sugar per liter
  • Extra Seco – 12-20 grams of sugar per liter
  • Seco – 17-35 grams of sugar per liter
  • Semi-Seco – 33-50 grams of sugar per liter
  • Dulce – More than 50 grams of sugar per liter, the sweetest of the cava

For the American version of Cristalino, there is a Brut, Brut Rose and an Extra Dry Brut. We at Another Wine Blog prefer the Cava Brut.

Now, why is it so wonderfully inexpensive?

BoycottThe politics of Bubbly

We learned more about Cava from one of our favorite wine guys who works at the aforementioned Chelsea Wine Bar. Juan is from Spain, and for some crazy reason is thinking about going to law school. I’m trying to dissuade him.  But no one ever believes how truly awful the experience is until about November of their first year. That’s when the “oh (expletive) why in the hell did I decide to torture myself this way?”

So Juan told us about “the boycott” that allowed those of us outside Spain to enjoy the benefits of the Spanish bubbly at a very reasonable price.

Cava is predominantly produced in Catalonia (Cataluña). And Cava is to Catalonia what Coca-Cola is to Atlanta, or Jack Daniels is to Tennessee. As is often the case, politics messed with the economy.

In the fall of 2005, the Catalan parliament voted overwhelmingly in late September to declare Catalonia a “nation” within Spain.

Well you can just imagine if Atlanta decided to become a separate state within Georgia–it wouldn’t be so peachy! In this case, furious Spaniards from outside of Catalonia declared a boycott of cava.  The boycotting Spaniards, especially from the more traditionalist political right, feared that granting more autonomy to the wealthy northeastern region through what they describe as an “anti-Spanish” charter reform would be the beginning of the end of the united nation.

Like U.S. retail sales, the bulk of cava sales–nearly 60%–occur over during the Christmas season.  To circumvent the potential negative effects of the boycott, cava sellers began lowering the price. This was primarily because the boycott against the Catalan cava was being waged by a substantial proportion of private sector companies and associations along with some regional government institutions. Again, imagine if Georgians stopped drinking Coke, or they refused to serve it at Braves’ and Falcons’ games!

Serving Cava

Cava should be served very cold to really enjoy it; at about 46 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit. We recommend that you put the bottle of cava in the fridge or an ice-filled cooler, bringing out each bottle only when you are ready to drink it.  If you, simply can’t wait (like Joe) put bottles in the freezer only for a few minutes. Make sure not to forget about them or they will freeze and/or possibly explode!  Serve in chilled fluted champagne glasses so that the bubbles last longer, since they must travel farther before they break the surface. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least a half-hour before you will use them. Chilled glasses help to keep the cava cold.

The Devil’s Wine

Now here’s a fun fact that I did not know: The effervescence in sparkling wine was once thought to be the work of The Devil.  According to history buffs, Dom Pérignon was originally charged by his superiors to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. Later, when deliberate sparkling wine production increased in the early 1700s, cellar workers would still have to wear heavy iron mask to prevent their injury from spontaneously bursting bottles. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the then unknown process of fermentation and carbonic gas caused some critics to call the sparkling creations “The Devil’s Wine.”

So, for this to say good-bye to 2008, whether on your best behavior or acting devilishly — hold your glass of Cava high and toast as the Spaniards do … ¡Próspero Año Nuevo!, to a Prosperous New Year!

~ Amy Corron Power
aka WineWonkette

Posted in Education, Holiday, Posts

Amy Corron Power View posts by Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and legions of twitter, Instagram and Facebook friends and fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events. Amy is also a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, and was most recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude.
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