Pop that Cork! Value-Priced Champagne Alternatives

In the current economy, many people are looking for an alternative to traditional champagne to help ring in the New Year. Last year we told you about Cava, and we’ve found a few other sparklers this year as well. Just to refresh your memory if you’re asked, “What is the difference between Cava and Champagne?” 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. In the early days, caves were used for the preservation or aging of wine. Today Cavas are 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.

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

We like the Cristalino Cava Brut, produced by Juame Serra. It’s made from the grape varietals Macabeo 50%, Parellada 35% and Xarello 15%.

Check your local wine merchant and you can probably find it priced anywhere from $7 – $10 depending on the season and demand. The great thing about the price is that you can pick up a case and share it with friends or colleagues for the holidays. You don’t need to pretend that you’re giving them something expensive — just a pleasant alternative to champagne; that is easy to find and won’t break the bank!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 Chelsea Wine Bar. Juan, who is from Spain, 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.

Other Sparkling Wines to Enjoy

We found a few other sparklers you may want to try.  While two of them were sent to us for review, I also found them available in the local supermarket wine section, along with another we enjoyed.

Part of Underdog Wine Merchants, that offers brands with names like Pinot Evil, Herding Cats, and Cardinal Zin (whose original label was designed by artist Ralph Stedman) Cupcake Vineyards produces still wines from California’s Central Coast. Collaborating with sparkling winemaker Paul Epsitalie at the Lacheteau winery in the Loire Valley, Cupcake Vineyards’ winemaker Adam Richardson created a Blanc de Blanc Chardonnay and Brute Rose’ of Pinot Noir, both made using the traditional Méthode Traditionelle.

Released just last month (November 2009) and available nationally, both are listed with a suggested retail price of $15.99.

Cupcake Vineyards Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay N.V:

The good folks with Cupcake Vineyards sent these for us to try, and we found both light, pleasant and enjoyable, preferring the Blanc de Blanc among the two.

“This wine starts off with hints of brioche and white flowers on the nose.  The palate is smooth and creamy with hints of pears, almonds and just a touch of caramel sweetness…Pair it with classics like butter poached scallops, angel hair pasta in a cream sauce, or a mushroom risotto.”

We paired it with a bit of Danish Bleu Cheese. Alcohol by volume is 12.5%, so you might want to skip giving a glass to the kids.

Cupcake Vineyards Brut Rosé Pinot Noir N.V.

The tannins in this 100% Pinot Noir give this sparkler a bit of a bite, though not serious enough for me to turn down. Says the winemaker

“Our Pinot Noir is harvested and brought into the winery for a gentle pressing.  The juice is cold fermented for several weeks in stainless steel tanks to preserve the wine’s delicate fruit character…A good choice to pair with full flavored cuisine, like Peking duck, Paella, or lobster risotto.”

We picked up the strawberry and watermelon aromas and even a bit of rose petals promised in the tasting notes. Another 12.5% ABV, it’s probably best to enjoy this while celebrating with the adults.

Moscato d’Asti, Asti Spumante

Every year around Christmas when Joe and I were kids, Martini & Rossi would run a television commercial with a couple toasting to the jingle, “Martini & Rossi, on the rocks… say, yes!”* which given its cheesiness made me almost pass this one up. But I was pouring samples a couple weekends ago and noticed some customers who preferred sweeter sparklers congregating around one of the wine elves who was serving a Moscato d’ Asti from Scrimaglio. After my shift I gave it a try, and found it pretty tasty. Priced under $10, it was worth taking home.

Asti spumanti comes from the Turin region of Italy and is Italy’s second most produced wine, with clones produced in California and other locations. Asti is a “DOCG” wine, meaning it is regulated as to what grapes can be used in it, and what areas can create it. The DOCG rating system for Asti was set up in 1993 and the grape is a Moscato bianco (white Moscato).

This one reminded me of strawberry shortcake. It’s the kind of thing you might have with dessert or fruit. With only 7% alcohol by volume it’s easy to serve to those who don’t like champagne, and rarely have anything more than a toast at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Of course as luck would have it I can’t find the specifics anywhere except the label, which tells me it’s a sweet wine produced and bottled by T.P.S.p.A. – Cossano Belbo for Scrimaglio, and imported by Match Wines USA. I’ll try to find out a bit more an update the post as the information becomes available.

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 New Year’e Eve say good-bye to 2009, whether on your best behavior or acting devilishly — hold your glass high and toast as the Spaniards… ¡Próspero Año Nuevo! or the Italians…Felice Anno Prospero and wish everyone a Prosperous New Year!

*We  don’t recommend putting ice cubes in sparkling wine OR champagne!

~ The WineWonkette

Posted in Education, Great Value Wine, Holiday, Pairings, Posts, Reviews

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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