The term “champagne” is fraught with peril. Technically, champagne is a sparkling white wine made under very specific standards in the Champagne region of France. We’ll use it to describe any sparkling white wine, and if we order it from a bar or restaurant, we’ll pay a premium for it – for the word, really. Ask for “champagne”, and the bartender won’t correct you. He’ll just pour something cold into a champagne flute and take your money with a smile. There’s some awareness of this problem, and people have taken to asking for “prosecco”, but that term has a similar problem – prosecco is, technically, an Italian sparkling wine, and while it’s less expensive and more readily available than real champagne, there’s still no guarantee that what you’re buying is anything other than an ordinary sparkling white.
Now, I say any wine that drinks well is fine to serve, regardless of whether it has a fancy name. However, if you want something inexpensive and “authentic”, I say go for a cava. Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine that is (like prosecco) somewhat inexpensive, is lesser known but can be just as good. I picked up a bottle of this Jaume Serra Cristalino Cava at Trader Joe’s for $6.99, and after tasting it, I can’t disagree with the sticker on the bottle touting this wine’s ranking as a “value brand of the year” from Wine & Spirits Magazine for three years running. (A bit of research shows that this cava used to be sold as Cristalino, but that the winemakers lost a trademark battle with the makers of Cristal and had to tack on the winemaker’s name.)
How does it look? The Jaume Serra cava is a transparent, light gold color – mellow yellow, if you want to be hip about it.
How does it smell? Dry, and a little tart. There aren’t any noticeable fruit aromas or tannins – it seems like it would be a mild wine. Again, mellow.
But how does it taste? Dry, clean, and unassuming. The front of the palate registers a lot like a crisp, dry lager would – the carbonation is almost the strongest flavor. Some tart citrus flavors emerge on the back of the palate, and linger in the aftertaste. The best thing to say about this cava is that there aren’t any unpleasant flavors – it’s not woody, and it doesn’t have any of the cloying sweetness that a cheaper “champagne” might have.
What should I eat it with? Oddly, my first instinct was to say Chinese food, even though rieslings are supposed to be the generic pairing there. This would stand up well at a barbecue as well – it’d zap the grease from a burger or the vinegar from a barbecue sauce away from your palate, and it’s refreshing enough to drink while you’re waiting for the grill to heat up, too.
Bonus points: the best way to open a bottle of sparkling wine, of course, is to saber it – open it with a sword (or, lacking that, a heavy chef’s knife.) A champagne bottle is under pressure, and a little bit of force applied to the bottle’s weakest point – along the seam, where the neck meets the ring of the lip – will make the cork and the lip of the bottle fly clean off. Chill your bottle, take it somewhere with a bit of open space, remove the foil and the wire, lay your sword (or chef’s knife) flat along the seam of the bottle, dull end facing the cork, and slide the blade fast and straight along the neck until it strikes the lip of the bottle. As long as you make firm, direct contact with the lip along the seam, the top flies right off.
Check YouTube – I’ve never shot any video, but this guy knows how to do it. And by way of a disclaimer – don’t hurt yourself, and don’t blame me if you do.