Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Cava

So far in this series we've covered some whites, reds, and rosés, but we haven't touched the bubbles yet—until now! It's Cava time here at the Amateur Wine Taste-Along, so leave those corkscrews in the drawer, we've got some popping to do.

It's easy to think, there's nothing to celebrate on this any-ole-Tuesday night, what's the occasion for bubbles? Save the special stuff for little Joey's college graduation or Mildred and Bobby's wedding. If you only associate bubbles with a pricey bottle of Krug, then that's a natural approach. It's hard to get a decent bottle of Champers for less than $25, whereas there are plenty of sub-$25 (in some cases, quite sub) sparklers that'd make for a fun, refreshing anynight bottle.

How's Cava Different From the Other Sparklers?

Cava's bubbles arise through the same process you see in Champagne—the méthode champenoise. That means the second fermentation happens in each individual wine bottle ("on the lees") for a minimum of nine months. The bottles undergo riddling and disgorging, or the rotating of each bottle everyday until the yeast sediment is eventually ejected.

But to liken cava to Champagne is not entirely fair. The grapes, for one thing, are different. Cava is often made with a trio of crisp, acidic grapes: parellada, macabeo and xarel-lo (yes, a hyphenated grape). In Champagne on the other hand you'll usually see pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. There are some cavas actually made with chardonnay (one of which we're trying!) and some with pinot noir (for rosado cava, the rosés of cavas). And of course, these wines will also have fundamentally different flavors because they're grown somewhere different.

Champagne and cava are two different beasts, yet it's natural to pick up on similar creamy, toasty, yeasty notes.

Then you have prosecco. Our bubbly Italian friend often gets lumped into the same category as cava given the similar price point. Prosecco generally goes through a different bubble-developing process during second fermentation. The charmat method takes place in pressurized steel tanks. Many say this turns out bigger bubbles; some say it also turns out a less complex flavor (though maybe I've been talking to too many cava enthusiasts).

Of course there's room for both sparkling styles, but this week we're staying in Spain.

Spain, the Cava Motherland

There are several officially approved cava-producing areas in Spain, but 95 percent of all cava is from the Penedès region, just west of Barcelona. This is where you'll find Sant Sadurní D'Anoia, a wee town where Freixenet is headquarted. Freixenet's production is anything but wee: it's the largest sparkling wine facility in the world (the world!); they export 80% of Spain's cava.

After a recent wine tour through Spain with Freixenet, I wanted to see what bottles were available back home, and see how much they varied. It's one thing to pick up a bottle of still wine and note the jammy, nutty, mineral-y notes, but what's to taste under all those bubbles? Turns out, a lot.

What We're Tasting

Quite the mix here, from the mass-produced Freixenet to some less familiar names. The majority are bruts (a low residual sugar per liter) with one brut nature (even lower, sometimes no sugar at all in these; the driest style) and from there the spectrum of sweetness goes: extra seco, seco, semi-seco, and dulce. Most of the cava we tried didn't carry a vintage year because it was a blend of multiple years.

Casteller Cava Brut ($11) Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut ($6) Freixenet Elyssia Gran Cuvee Brut ($18) Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut ($7) Juve Y Camps Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva ($18) Mas Fi Brut Cava ($10) Naveran Brut ($15) Naveran Perles Blanques Cava 2007 ($23) Parxet Brut Cava Cuvée 21 ($12) Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($9) Segura Viudas Reserva Herredad ($19) Bodegues Sumarocca Brut Reserva (2006 and 2008; $10-$16) Bodegas Matilde Totus Tuus Brut ($15) Vega Barcelona Brut Reserva ($15)

Taste With Us!

Grab some cava and meet us back here next week! In the meantime, got any bottles you recommend? Or any foods you love to serve with cava?