Wine & Beer

Try sparkling cava wines as cheaper alternative to Champagne

A lot of wine drinkers searching for a low-cost alternative to Champagne will pick prosecco. But the Spanish bubbly known as cava has a lot more in common with Champagne than prosecco does. And, like prosecco, a lot of cava is priced below $20, making it a great choice for an everyday indulgence or for serving to a crowd.

While most prosecco is made in the charmat method, in which the second fermentation (which produces the bubbles) is done in a tank, cava is made in the traditional method, like Champagne: The second fermentation takes place in the same bottle in which the wine is eventually sold.

Like Champagne, most cavas are blends of multiple vintages. The grapes, however, are different. The main grapes used in cava are xarello, macabeo and parellada, all white grapes. There are also rosé cavas, which often get their color from a local grape called trepat. (Pinot noir, monastrell or garnacha may also be used.)

Nearly 90 percent of cava is simply labeled “cava,” which requires a minimum of nine months of aging. Wines labeled “reserva” are aged at least 15 months, while “gran reserva” wines are aged at least 30 months and always carry a vintage.

As for sweetness, cava ranges from brut nature (no sugar added) to sweet (which is, indeed, quite sweet). Much of what is sold here is brut or extra dry (a little sweeter than brut), although I’m starting to see more extra brut, which has a small amount of sugar added but tastes very racy and fresh. Gran reserva wines are always brut, extra brut or brut nature.

Most cava is produced in the Penedes region, south of Barcelona, and the market is dominated by two companies, Freixenet and Codorniu. Freixenet, in fact, is the largest producer of traditional method sparkling wine in the world. Much of the wine produced by both companies is inexpensive — think Freixenet’s Cordon Negro, in its distinctive black bottle. But even Freixenet has recently introduced a pricier bubbly called Casa Sala Gran Reserva, priced at $80. It’s an example of the Cava Regulatory Board’s new push toward quality, which also includes a new designation for single-vineyard wines, Cava de Paraje Calificado.

Still, the pricey wines are the exception. Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut sells for $12 and is often discounted; Freixenet’s sister brand, Segura Viudas Brut, is around $10. Both are fresh and light; the Cordon Negro is a little softer. Codorniu’s “Anna” Brut is around $12.

Cava values extend well beyond the offerings from the big two. The non-vintage Vilarnau Brut Reserva ($15) is bright and creamy, with some weight. The 2011 Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia Brut Nature ($16) is a particularly good value, with a lot of complexity for such a low price.

One of my favorite cava producers is Gramona. And even this artisanal producer makes a cava that’s reasonably priced at $22 — the 2011 La Cuvee. The wine is rich and precise, with racy flavors and fine texture.

Pick of the Week

Pomar Junction 2013 Zinfandel ($38) Fire up the grill and open a bottle of this Paso Robles red. It’s ripe yet lively, with “zinny” berry fruit, notes of white pepper and hard spices and fine tannins on the finish.