Cava is no longer Spain’s answer to Champagne, but it is its own animal — if that can be said of a wine.
The first point of departure is the grapes. The main ones that are used to make cava are macabeo, xarel-lo and parellada, all of which are of Spanish origin. Most Cavas are made in the Catalonian appellation of Penedès.
However, unlike other Spanish DOs (denominación de origen), it is not geographically limited to one area, and other parts of Catalonia, along with Utiel-Requena, have some worthy renditions.
Stylistically, it is more likely to have green apples and pearlike fruit, as opposed to red apples. Both share an almond quality and can be toasty if aged in oak. Cava lacks Champagne’s briochelike character, even if it spends an extended time on the lees.
It is similar to Champagne in that methode champenoise, in which the secondary fermentation takes place in bottle, is mandatory. In addition cava, which is made into white and rosato (rosé) sparkling wines, can have chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which are the primary Champagne grapes. However, garnacha (grenache), monastrell (mourvedre), trepat and malvasia also are permitted.
While there are cavas that are in the $30 to $50 range, you can find a good one for under $20, which is pretty much impossible with Champagne. Here are some of the top ones that are $15 or less:
Montsarra Cava, NV: Founded in 1857, Montsarra was acquired by Bardinet S.A., a liquor company, in 1992. Primarily macabeo with xarel-lo and parellada making up the blend, it is refreshing and spry with green apple skin, almond oil and a hint of Meyer lemon. Available through Artisan Wine Depot, Blue Fog Market, Wine.com and Wine Impressions. Suggested retail: $15
Segura Viudas Aria, NV: Freixenet purchased Segura Viudas in the 1980s. While it went from being a small, family-run business to an arm in a large corporation, it has consistently been making very good cava since I’ve been old enough to drink. Aria is the middle child, sandwiched between the flagships, Brut Heredad and the Segura Viudas Brut Reserva. Vibrant with quince, green apples and almonds, it is a versatile sparkling wine that can be used for special occasions or parties. Available at College Avenue Wines, Noe Hill Market, Pacifica Farmers Market, Roberts of Woodside, Spanish Table Berkeley, United Liquors and The Wine House. Suggested retail: $13
Cavas El Barcino, Barcino Cava, NV: Barcino is located a few miles south of Barcelona, hence the name. It spends 18 months on the lees, double the minimum requirement, and that is apparent in its slight yeastiness. Clean and minerally with almonds and pears, this wine is as good as cavas that are in the $20 range. Available through 58 Degrees, Bi Rite Market, The Grapevine, Ruby Wines and Solano Cellars. Suggested retail: $15
An honorable mention also goes out to Marques de Gelida Brut Nature, Biodynamic. This producer has never grabbed me, but I tried the wines pretty recently, and they are much better. You can find the Brut Nature at Noe Valley Wine Merchant and the Jug Shop ($15). Also, German Gilabert Cava Rosat Trepat is a wine geek’s cava. One hundred percent trepat, it stands out from the rest, in a very good way, and can be found at the San Francisco Trading Co.
Pamela S. Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.