Stories of the invention of champagne are many and contradictory. Some credit a French Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon, with discovering the method of trapping carbon dioxide bubbles in wine, the méthode champenoise, around the end of the 17th century. Others say that while he developed a number of advances in champagne production, it was actually invented by the English. Having traveled the length of the UK with my brother one summer without finding a single decent glass of wine [although in all fairness, the establishments we frequented would not be called posh by any stretch of the imagination], I find this rather hard to swallow.
Dom Pérignon is also credited [apparently falsely so] with announcing his discovery by saying, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” [I think I’m going to go on believing he said it—it’s too good a story not to embrace it.]
Whoever invented sparkling wine, there is just something festive about it, an effervescence that elevates any moment into an event. No wonder it sees so much action during the holiday season. We drink it year ’round, with the flimsiest of excuses for an occasion.
True champagne is produced only in the Champagne region of France. Its production is very carefully controlled and the output limited. And while the taste of a great bottle of champagne really is like “drinking the stars,” the price can be quite stellar too.
For reliably good [and often wonderful] sparkling wines at more affordable prices, travel a little further south to Spain. Their champagne method sparkling wines, called cava for the cool cellars in which they are stored, have been around for quite a while too. Josep Raventós Fatjó of the Codorníu estate produced the first Spanish sparkling wines in 1872.
There are hundreds of sparkling wine producers in Spain, and cava is generally easy to find here in the United States. Flavors range from Brut [dry] to Secco [sweet]. We are big fans of dry and tend to run screaming from the room when sweeter versions are being poured. Here are just a few reliable choices:
Codorníu is the oldest and largest producer of cava in Spain. While the priciest of the three makers listed here, you can still find various Codorníu selections for about $10 to $15 for a 750-ml bottle.
Freixenet is another large cava producer, having been in the business since 1914. They’re also why we started drinking cava in the first place. Seeing the dramatic black satin bottle of their Cordon Negro, we just had to try it. It lived up to its sexy looks. We started introducing friends to Freixenet, who introduced other friends to it. Conservatively, I’d say we’ve been responsible for the sale of tens of thousands of bottles. I remember attending one party where the food was a bowl of apples. When I opened the fridge, hoping for a hunk of cheese or something, I saw that the shelves had been removed to accommodate at least five cases of the signature black bottles. Perversely, Freixenet’s Extra Dry is a little less dry than its Brut, a little fruitier; both are quite good. You can generally find Freixenet for about $9 to $12 a bottle.
Segura Viudas has only been selling cava since 1959, but their non-vintage Brut Reserva is a highly drinkable steal. I recently found it for just $7.49 at Trader Joe’s. Like other cava producers, they make some varieties that can creep above the $20 mark. But when you compare it to the cost of true champagne, buying cava gives a whole new meaning to drinking responsibily.
So celebrate the holiday season with a little bubbly. With Spanish cavas, you’ll find that “drinking the stars” doesn’t have to cost the earth.