Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along Report: Cava

When preparing for this tasting, some of us had to factor in the juice cleanse (no alcohol allowed, even if it's hiding in a juice) so we popped open a few bottles before embarking on that, and popped a few more after that ended (partly to celebrate the end of the cleanse!). Many of these cavas would actually taste pretty good in a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ or pineapple-mint juice as a brunch cocktail. Others, we preferred sipping on their own.

Cava, as we went over last week, is Spain's sparkling wine. It's an inexpensive way to drink bubbly when Champagne isn't in the budget, and a fun way to add a little pop! to your day. (Every bottle we opened made the night feel a little like New Year's Eve. Happy 2011 all over again!)

Cava usually stays between 11.5% and 12% alcohol, not a huge range. The grapes used in cava are primarily the three main cava grapes (xarello, macabeo, and parellada) though you'll see some blends with chardonnay and pinot noir too. The flavors can be everything from bone-dry to fruity-sweet. Many of those we tried were brut—on the drier side.

So, was there a big difference between the $8, $12, or $20 bottle? Is it ever worth paying more than that?

Our Favorites

We were all reaching for second pours of Cellar Vilafranca "Casteller" Cava Brut ($12). It's creamy and a tad oaky, but not obnoxiously so. Stays clean. We picked up on some lime, Granny Smith apples, as well as sweet, nutty marzipan. It's delicate, especially when compared to some of the other cavas that were total yeast-bombs. Casteller earned even more points when we looked up the price—on the lower end of the price spectrum in this tasting—an impressive value wine.

A more interesting blend came from the Elyssia Gran Cuvée Brut ($17), which goes beyond the expected macabeo and paraellada grapes to also include 40% chardonnay and 10% pinot noir. It has a pleasant honeyed nose with notes of lemon tea and warm street-roasted hazelnuts. Very elegant-tasting while light and refreshing. The bottle disappeared pretty quickly (and thankfully it's widely available).

Vega Barcelona ($15) was another living room crowd pleaser. It's bright and fruity. Very aromatic; we picked up on white peach and other fruits floating in white sangria. Easy drinking. We'd crack open a bottle of this as an aperitif, or happily drink it through the night at a party.

If you just want really cheap bubbles that'll get the job done, we'd point you to Jaume Serra Cristalino ($9). Serious Drinks wine writer Sarah joined us for the tasting and said she usually recommends this when people want a cheap and drinkable sparkling wine. It's oaky, buttery, and a bit sour on the finish. It'd definitely work with spicy Mexican food, or really any other dish where chili peppers are represented. (Note: it's not affiliated with Cristal champagne, despite the name.)

Recommended for a Sparkling Cocktail

On its own, Segura Viudas Brut Reserva ($9) didn't have a ton of flavor beyond the big, yeasty bubbles. But it'd be a fine mixing agent for a fizzy cocktail, especially at that price. Freixenet Cordon Negro ($9) comes in a black-frosted bottle—very sleek-looking in a row of clear bottles. It's not super fruity; definitely more yeasty. It had a bit of a burn going down, but could be masked with a splash of St-Germain and some fresh muddled berries.

The Rest

Juve y Camps Brut Nature ($20) was one of the pricier bottles we tried, but didn't necessarily taste better. It's really toasty—some tasters suspected there might be oak chips involved. Bubbles were so big in our glass, it took a while to peel back some other flavors underneath. We also tried two cavas from Bodegues Sumarroca in the Penedes region of Spain, both the Brut Natura and Brut Reserva. The former was drier, with lots of bright green apple peel flavor. Some sips were reminiscent of that quinine bite in a gin and tonic. The Brut Reserva was a bit funkier, a bit mustier. We'd drink either but they definitely have their own personalities.

The Matilde Totus Tuus Brut Cava ($16), like the Elyssia, combined an interesting blend: 40% chardonnay, 18% xarello, 18% macabeo, 18% parellada, and 6% pinot noir. While there were nice things to say about it, it was pretty dry and musty, redolent of a wet morning after a big rainfall. Drinkable but not especially memorable.

What Do You Think?

Do you have a favorite bottle of cava? Do you like it on the drier or sweeter side? Do you find yourself buying cava over other sparkling wines? Do you find yourself hollering Happy New Year! inside when someone pops a bottle in August? Let us know in the comments!