Cava, the Champagne Killer

Everyone wants to start off the new year right. The right appetizers for the New Year's Eve party. The right person for the first kiss of the new year. The right place for brunch the next morning. And one of the hardest things of all: picking the right drink to toast it all with.

A glass of French champagne is the traditional way to greet the coming year, but sadly, to some people Champagne is about as likeable as the French themselves, or at least their poodles. Even spending more on higher end bottles like Dom Perignon or Krug doesn't guarantee satisfaction, as traditional Champagne is sometimes what many call an “acquired taste.” Luckily, champagne has an easygoing younger brother that can hit all right notes on New Years Eve, or even brunch the morning after: cava.

Spain's answer to Champagne, Cava was developed in the 1860s after Spaniard Josep Raventos, a wine-maker on a trip to promote his own wines, visited the Champagne region of France and was inspired to develop Spanish sparkling wines in the same traditional manner – known as the “méthode champenoise.“ These wines became known as cavas because of the caves they were stored in. They tend to be more approachable than Champagnes, with big soft bubbles, crisp flavors and less of the dry yeasty tang that doesn't play as well on American palates. Even better, because there's far less hype for these sparklers, it's easy to find amazing cavas at ridiculously low prices. Below are three readily available options for success in 2010, all for $15 or less.

Cristalino Brut – At just $8, this is the cava for anyone looking for an economical Champagne replacement. Cristalino's cava has a flavor profile that is similar to a dry Champagne, with an extremely powerful grapefruit aroma and a yeasty taste that sticks around long after the swallow. While it's not nearly as complex as some higher end wines or as easy and approachable as other cavas in the tasting, it's a clean drinking sparkling wine that could fill in admirably for a $20 bottle of French bubbly. But don't expect miracles. Anyone who doesn't enjoy Champagne still won't enjoy it after a glass of Cristalino.

Torre Oria Brut – Moving up the wine food chain, at $9 Torre Oria is an insane deal. Honey colored in the glass and reeking of apples, this cava is a huge crowd pleaser. From the soft bubbles to the melony aroma, this is what cava should be. It's smooth and fragrant, with a bizarre mix of honey, apples and herbs that combines in a sparkling wine that's just fun to drink from the first sip all the way to the last toast. It'd also be perfect at a New Year's Day brunch – filling in for champagne in a Bellini or Mimosa and adding just the right amount of snap to the peach nectar or orange juice. To make a Bellini, just add two ounces cava to one ounce peach nectar in a champagne flute (or wine glass, if you don't have a flute). For a Mimosa, swap the peach nectar for orange juice.

Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry – In the sparkling wine world, extra dry is one step sweeter than brut, and Freixenet delivers on that promise. An amazing value at $14, this cava is a rich gold in the glass and goes down far too easy, tasting like honey tinged with just a little bit of peach. The wine isn't very fruity, but it's incredibly approachable with a creamy texture thanks to the gigantic bubbles that rise slowly from the bottom of the glass. It'd work perfectly as an aperitif after the appetizers run out, or once the New Year's Day Bggs Benedict soaks up the hangover from the night before.

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