Unlike other inexpensive sparkling wines, Cava undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, just like Champagne. The technique also provides the “autolytic” bready and yeasty notes synonymous with the luxurious French sparkler.
In fact, for the first century of its existence, Cava was called Champaña. The wine only gained its current identity (which means “cellar”) in 1970 after French producers and international lawmakers deemed the term Champaña to be misleading.
All of this said, classifying Cava as an affordable alternative to Champagne is a great disservice. Cava is unique sparkling wine, worthy of individual attention.
Cava is typically made using a blend of three Spanish white grapes. Macabeo (also known as Viura in Rioja) makes up the majority of the blend, providing aromatic honeyed, grapefruit notes. Xarel-lo contributes an earthy character not present in Champagne, and Parellada completes the blend with green-fruit freshness.
Since 1986, the Cava DO (Denominación de Origen) has permitted the inclusion of Chardonnay as well. Dark-skinned varieties Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir, and Trepat are also allowed by the DO, though Trepat can only be used in rosé Cava production.
Perhaps the most notable distinction of Cava production is that it’s not restricted to a single region. While 95 percent takes place in Cataluña, sparkling wines made in Valencia, Aragón, Navarra, Rioja, and the Basque Country may all carry the labeling term Cava, provided they follow various guidelines regarding different aspects of production.
Ready to find out what all the fuss is about? VinePair recently carried out an extensive tasting of more than 40 Cava wines, all costing $15 or less. Here are eight of our favorites.
A strikingly pink, 100-percent Garnacha rosé, this is a fresh, young sparkling wine, closer in style to a fruity Prosecco than a yeasty Champagne. Its rich depth of vibrant aromas and flavors includes blood orange, tangerine, strawberries, and raspberries. Average price: $14.
Vintage bubbles for less than $20 are hard to come by. Good vintage bubbles at this price are almost impossible. Nevertheless, Naveran delivers with this refreshing, well-balanced rosé. A 60-40 blend of organic Pinot Noir and Parellada grapes, this wine tastes like a ripe strawberry sprinkled with a crack of black pepper. Average price: $15.
Xarel-lo dominates the blend for Naveran’s vintage Brut Cava, which also contains Macabeo and Parellada. The result is an expressive mix of zesty lemon and dried herbs, like blanc de blancs Champagne seasoned with oregano and rosemary. A chalky mineral texture on the palate completes the complex wine, which punches well above its price tag. Average Price: $15.
This producer might have failed math class, but there’s no doubt about its winemaking credentials. Rich in oxidative notes, this brut Cava smells like an apple turnover and is defined by pronounced doughy aromas. On the palate, it’s refreshingly acidic, with a crisp, lasting finish. Average price: $15.
This rosé Cava has a rich, punchy nose, full of the subtle blue cheese notes often present in blanc de noirs Champagne. The influence of lees is less pronounced on the palate, which has an energetic mix of fresh strawberries and lemons. Bubbles are fine and well incorporated, and the finish is chalky but fresh. Average price: $14.
A blend of 55 percent Xarel-lo, 25 percent Macabeo, and 20 percent Parellada, this crisp sparkler mixes white flowers aromas with flavors of rose petals, stone fruit, and yogurt. The impact of 12 months spent on lees is well integrated, and a briny, saline note adds complexity. Average price: $14.
This is a traditionally made sparkling wine, rich with lees influence and refreshing citrus notes. In other words: It’s textbook Cava and a brilliant example of the value the category offers. Standout flavors and aromas include biscuits, melted butter, and lemon essence. A solid wine and an absolute steal. Average price: $14.
This varietal wine is made using only Xarel-lo grapes and spends 24 months on lees, making it somewhat of an anomaly. But the unique combination is a hit. The aromas feel more focused, with a rich blend of fennel, greengage plums, gooseberries, and Mediterranean herbs. The palate has a flinty note and oxidative flavors, plus the extended, but not overpowering, influence of two years’ lees aging. Average price: $14.