New Year’s Eve is right around the corner, and most people will be clinking a glass of Champagne as the clock strikes midnight. Or so they think. Most people are not actually drinking Champagne — the wine must be from the Champagne region of France to earn that title. Anyone getting free bubbly in a dive bar is probably having André, a depressing sparkling wine from California that tastes like gasoline and induces truly terrible hangovers.
But other parties might step up their game and serve something you’ll not only find drinkable, but enjoyable. What is this magical substance that your favorite neighborhood joint can afford to serve everyone for free? There’s a good chance you’re enjoying cava, sparkling wine from Spain.
Unlike some sparkling wines like prosecco, cava is often made like Champagne in the traditional method, Methode Champenoise, and it most closely mimics the pricey drink. After primary fermentation creates alcohol, the wine is sealed in a bottle where it undergoes secondary fermentation and carbonation. The wine is then stored in a cool environment (like a cave, thus the name) where up to three months' worth of fermentation takes place. Afterward, sediment is directed to the nose of the bottle in a labor-intensive process known as riddling, which can take up to six weeks if done by hand. The wine is aged, the bottle is opened, the sediment is removed and the bottle is corked. Voila.
Wait, cava is made like Champagne? How is cava so damn cheap, then? Producers of cava have fully embraced mechanization, using robotics for all processes from pressing to bottling. Instead of a person turning bottles by hand for riddling, automated gyropalettes make this work easy — they reduce the time for riddling from six weeks to four days. Cava also has fewer legal restrictions on production. For example, wine must be aged at least 15 months to be considered Champagne, but cava can be aged much less.
What does cava taste like? The primary grapes in cava are Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo. These grapes lend less complexity and nuttiness compared to Champagne’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. While each bottle will vary depending on the winemaker’s style and growing locale, certified sommelier Marco Villegas at Scardello describes cava generally as “a little floral, a little fruity, with a range of styles from dry to sweet. It delivers balance, with acidity present while being refreshing.” And why drink cava over Champagne? “If you explore things that are not as in demand, you’re more likely to find something great at a lower price point," he says. "You can have a lot of bubbly and float the party.”
Don’t get the wrong impression — not all cava is cheap. Some is still produced with manual methods and in very small batches, making it just as deserving of your hard-earned money as great Champagne. Cafe Madrid serves Recaredo Gran Reserva for $64 if you’re interested in trying a truly remarkable bottle. Otherwise, go round up some $10 cava for your New Year’s Eve party and celebrate in delicious style.
Want to try it? Here’s a few options:
Vibraciones, Central Market, $9.99
Marques de Monistrol Rose, Total Wine, $9.99
Caves Naveran, Pogo’s Wine and Spirits, $14.99
Mistinguett, Scardello, $16.95