What's the difference between Champagne and cava?
About $25. (Rim shot, please.) That price difference might suggest a much bigger gap in quality than is often the case.
Champagne comes from France, of course, specifically the chalky, rolling hills of the region that gave the wine its name. The king of sparkling wines, it's based on three grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier (sometimes from just one and often from two or all three). Besides the chalk and cool climate, which impart crisp nerve and complexity to the wine, it has another defining feature that distinguishes not just Champagne but most high-quality sparkling wines. It gets its bubbles by way of a second fermentation that takes place inside each bottle. That step, sometimes called the Champagne method, involves adding yeast and a sugar solution to bottles of finished still wine, then capping the bottles tightly to contain the resulting carbon-dioxide pressure. This stands in contrast to industrially manufactured sparkling wines, such as prosecco from Italy, most of which get their bubbles by way of refermentation in huge pressurized tanks. Bottle fermentation is believed to account for greater complexity and elegance.
Cava comes from Spain, and while the vast majority is made in the northeast Penedes district surrounding Barcelona, it's not strictly the product of one region; it can be made in various parts of the country. The word merely means "cave" or "cellar" in Spanish, a reference to the fact the bottles were traditionally left to referment and age in underground caves. Spain uses its own distinct grapes, too, mainly xarello, parellada and macabeo.
So much for differences. Cava, like other, more expensive sparkling wines also employs the costly bottle-fermented technique. Curiously, however, it tends to cost a fraction of the price, typically $14 to $18 compared with $40-plus for Champagne. To my mind, that makes cava, as a category, one of the world's great wine bargains. Stellar bubbles at down-to-earth prices.