On a special occasion, it can feel like any sparkling wine that isn't labeled "Champagne" is a second-string substitute for the fancy French fizz. While Champagne has forged a highbrow reputation thanks to its perfectly positioned grand cru vineyards and labor-intensive traditional methods, other bubblies, like Spain's Cava, have been relegated to the bottom shelf and the budget brunch drink.
For years, this distinction made sense. "The lowest common denominator has ruled Cava production since its inception," explains Andrew Yandell, founder of San Francisco–based Trumpet Wine, an importer of Spanish natural wines. While Cava, like Champagne, gets its bubbles from a second fermentation in the bottle, the parameters around what can be called Cava are pretty loose. Unlike Champagne, which is almost always made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and/or pinot meunier grapes from a region that's about the size of New Hampshire, Cava can be made from a variety of indigenous grapes sourced from anywhere in Spain. And, until recently, most of the Cavas you'd see for sale were mass-produced brands that focused mostly on volume and value. Today, though, something new is afoot: carefully farmed, terroir-driven Cavas that showcase complexity from mineral and herbal flavors balanced by vibrant fruit.
This new generation of Cava grower-producers isn't trying to copy Champagne. Instead, these winemakers are working to establish their own guidelines: a new gold standard for what Cava can be. Foremost is a commitment to good farming—organic, sometimes biodynamic—with an aim of making wines that reflect the specific soils and microclimates from which they come. They're focusing on traditional local grapes, most notably the stony, herbal-nuanced xarel-lo, and increasingly bottling vintage-dated wines rather than faceless non-vintage blends. Since they often choose to present the wines without dosage (a sugar solution added to balance out acidity), these producers make bright, fresh, super-dry Cavas unlike any you've tasted in the past.
With the season of popping bubbly upon us, there's no better time to discover how good today's Cava can be. Here are six fantastic bottles to seek out.
Avinyó 2012 Cava Reserva Brut ($15)
This well-priced vintage Cava, from a 50-year-old family-owned estate, is a great option for those who enjoy their bubbly with a toasty-nutty side. Based on the macabeu grape—which tends to offer fragrant herbal and light almond notes, as well as a touch of bitterness—the wine's aroma transports you to a garden filled with grapefruit, herbs, and jasmine. It's bright and inviting, while the touch of dosage helps mellow out the intensity of the citrus tang. The light, easy freshness of this sparkler makes it a great aperitif option, ideal with party snacks like chips and clam dip or a selection of cheeses and charcuterie.
Pere Mata Brut Nature Reserva "Cupada" Rosé ($19)
Many people assume—and fear—that a sparkling rosé is going to be too sweet and fruity. In reality, most pink bubbly is made in a dry style, as is the case with this pale salmon–hued Cava from small producer Pere Mata. Bottled without the addition of any dosage, this 2011 Cava spends three years on its lees (the dead yeast cells left over from the fermentation process, which add texture and character to a finished wine) before being filtered, which explains its lovely doughy aroma. The addition of 25% monastrell—a grape you might know by the name mourvèdre—to the blend lends a juicy-blackberry flavor that mingles with tart green apple notes and a soft bit of sage, cinnamon, and toasted hazelnut. Your move: Pour this with crostini made with silky chicken liver pâté topped with cranberry gelée, a dynamite pairing of complementary savory and fruity flavors. The wine has all the acidity you need to cut through the richness of the spread.
Raventós i Blanc "L'hereu" 2012 Brut ($19)
Made from a biodynamically farmed blend of the three traditional white Cava grapes, this lean, zesty sparkler is dominated by rocky mineral notes and a pithy lemon-lime oil flavor. It commands your attention without feeling aggressive, with hints of lavender and candied almond dancing in the background. You won't see the word "Cava" anywhere on the label here: This estate takes issue with how widely that term can be used and prefers not to be associated with the less impressive examples. Serve it alongside a creamy white bean dip flavored with rosemary and lemon to pick up on the wine's herbal and citrus notes.
I'm also in love with their rosé, Raventós i Blanc Rosé de Nit ($24). It's an explosion of citrus zest—like that first moment of sticking your nose into a cocktail glass that has just had a lime peel twisted over it—with a lingering, prickly acidity. Monastrell juice adds rosy color, but instead of the grape's classic ripe-blackberry flavor, you'll taste more sour cherry and tart pomegranate. Pair it with a juicy porchetta.
Mas Candí "Segunyola" Brut Nature ($21)
While the more productive, easier-to-grow macabeu has long been the dominant grape in Cava blends, Mas Candí is at the forefront of the move to establish xarel-lo—which is particularly adept at expressing limestone minerality and herbal nuances—as Spanish sparkling's flagship grape. This 100% xarel-lo wine pours a deep golden color, with earthy aromas of fresh apples and pears picked up from the ground. The dry citrus-pithy flavors are carried by a briny freshness and fine fizz that foams to a froth in your mouth. It feels electric and alive, and you want an equally assertive dish to match: cheesy smoked paprika crackers or tangy anchovy, red pepper, and Manchego pintxos.
2010 Recaredo "Relats" Brut Nature Gran Reserva ($27)
No conversation about today's Cava renaissance would be complete without mentioning Recaredo. Pioneers of biodynamic farming in the Alt Penedès region, the Mata family has been producing Cava since 1924, focusing on dry single-vintage wines that they hold in the cellar for years longer than most of their competitors do. While many producers use machines to simplify riddling and disgorgement, every part of the process is done by hand at Recaredo, which means that these bubblies can often fetch Champagne prices. The "Relats" label is aged a couple of years less than most of their other Cavas, but it's a good way to sample the house's characteristic bone-dry, mineral, structured style. Flavors of apricot and its pit, along with a little bitter almond, make up the core, while hints of lemon juice and lemon oil act like mignonette alongside a platter of freshly shucked oysters.
Mas Gomà Vendrell Olivella Brut Nature ($30)
A little pricier than some of its peers, this xarel-lo-based bubbly is sourced from a selection of the best grapes grown on 60- to 80-year-old vines. The wine spends more than four years on its lees, which contributes to the round, rich texture. Given its extensive maturation, it's impressively bright, punching you in the nose with a vibrant lemon-pine aroma and following through with waves of tart pineapple and green apple. The finish is dry and chalky, making it a great pairing for briny boquerones.