In the annual checkout scramble for affordable festive fizz, prosecco will top most shopping lists. The sparkler from Veneto has been fêted by wine writers, me included, as a great-value alternative to champagne, yet Spanish cava is both more affordable and its DNA is closer to ‘the real thing’ – as in champagne, not Coca-Cola. You can often find cavas at around £5, which for prosecco is but a memory.
Yet, cava should be the more expensive; it’s all about the crucial second fermentation, the one that gives sparkling wines their fizz.
The difference between cava and prosecco
Prosecco is made by the Charmat method where the second fermentation takes place in a large tank, while cava is made in exactly the same laborious, expensive way as champagne where the second fermentation occurs in each bottle. This gives cava more contact with the yeast, used to trigger the second fermentation, and consequently more of the bready, brioche-like flavours associated with champagne.
Incidentally, the differing production methods create larger, livelier bubbles in prosecco compared with the smaller and finer bubbles in cava, which make for a creamier texture.
Read more about prosecco.
How cava is made
Even the most basic cavas spend nine months in the bottle with the dead yeast (the lees), coaxing out these toasty, biscuity notes. Cavas labelled as reserva spend at least 15 months on the lees; for gran reservas it’s 30 months.
Cava is made throughout Spain though 95% of it comes from Catalonia, principally the Penedes region. When it comes to grape varieties, most cava is a blend of the Catalan curios, Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada, the latter generally considered the finest of the three. But the fiercely independent Catalans have always been more susceptible than the rest of Spain to foreign grape varieties, which helps to explain why Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (both champagne grapes) have been creeping into the mix.
Both varieties add body, structure and aroma to cava, with Pinot Noir featuring in the increasingly popular rosé versions. Prosecco is made from the Glera grape.
None of which makes cava a better wine; it just helps if you’re stocking up for the festive season to know what you’re buying.
What does cava taste like?
British wine drinkers have embraced the light, fresh, fruity flavours, notably pear, peach and nectarine, of prosecco. With cava, expect tarter flavours of crisp green apples and lemony citrus with, even, a touch of ‘champagne’ toastiness from cava.
As with champagne, cava is produced in a variety of sweetnesses. The dryest is brut nature, followed by brut, brut reserve, sec (seco), semisec (semiseco) and finally the sweetest of all, dolsec (dulce).
When to serve cava
It’s horses for courses, though not, I’d say, for main courses. Both cava and prosecco excel as apéritifs and party lubricants and, because both are a good deal cheaper than champagne, it’s less stressful to mix them in sparkling cocktails.
Try cava as a cheaper alternative to champagne in these delicious champagne cocktails.