Cava for All Seasons

The Cavas I tasted for this year's coverage in the International Wine Cellar were the strongest group I have yet encountered, which is great news for wine lovers looking for high-quality bubbly at a gentle price this holiday season.  But I wouldn't restrict my Cava consumption to a single season.  The wide range of Cava styles now available in the U.S. ensures that one could literally serve a different one with every dish in a multi-course meal.  And with rare exception prices are comparable to what you'd pay for a middling white wine. 
The rising price of Champagne has pushed many wine enthusiasts away in recent years, to the benefit of all other sparkling wine producing regions, and Spain is well positioned to take advantage of the situation.  The history of sparkling wine-making here goes back to the mid-19th century and production is on a massive scale, but most of the wine is of pedestrian quality, and that's what was mostly shipped to the U.S. until fairly recently.  As a result, Cava's reputation is a bit sketchy in this market.  The fact that pricing has always been mostly low here is to the benefit of savvy buyers who know the best Cava producers and bottlings.

Part of Cava's image problem, aside from the mediocrity of too many examples, can be blamed on the fact that most of it is made with indigenous grapes that are rarely grown elsewhere.  The dominant varieties for Cava are xarel-lo, parellada and macabeo, which are hardly household names even among wine geeks.  There's an earthy, musky quality to most wines made from these varieties, and many wine lovers raised on a diet of chardonnay and pinot grigio will be perplexed by the slightly rustic character that they impart.  Some Cava producers have made an attempt to appeal to a broader audience by planting chardonnay and pinot noir and some even make the wines exclusively from those varieties, often with considerable success.  But the best Cavas, or the ones with the most character, are those that are made from the native varieties grown in carefully chosen and tended sites, with an eye to quality rather than quantity.

The recent explosion of Spanish restaurants in the U.S. and their demand for the best Spanish wines have emboldened a number of importers to dip their toes in the pool of high-quality Cava, and from all reports the market's response has been positive.  Indeed, I tasted a number of Cavas this year that bear comparison to very good Champagne, and with rare exception their prices are much, much lower than those commanded by their fancy French cousins.  Most of the best Cavas are still being imported in small amounts, though, so some sleuthing will be in order for many of my favorite bottles.  But your effort will be rewarded.