In praise of the Champagne-like, yet affordable, Cava.
When it comes to victory celebrations, the ubiquitous wine of choice is Champagne, that almost magical sparkler from Northern France. At sporting events, winners drink Champagne from trophies. Ship captains launch their vessels by smashing a bottle on the prow. In military messes, officers have long quaffed the bubbly to celebrate victories old, new and not yet won.
A mere three days before the Battle of Waterloo, for instance, the Duke of Wellington threw a Champagne-soaked ball to put his men into a mood for victory. Wellington’s opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte, had a more philosophical approach to Champagne: “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate ... and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.”
As Purim is the celebration of the Jewish people’s victory over Haman, Champagne seems to be a perfect choice of wine to serve at the Purim meal. Though the chalky soil of the Champagne region in northern France indisputably produces the world’s best sparkling wines, unfortunately, these days kosher Champagne is rather costly, starting at around $50 per bottle. Fortunately, though, the Champagne winemaking formula has been copied frequently, and good or even great Champagne-like wines are now available from all over the world. Luckily, some of them are even kosher.
One of my favorite Champagne alternatives is Cava. Made mostly in the Catalan region of Spain, Cava is produced using the traditional Champagne method — which involves a second fermentation in the bottle to make the wine sparkle — but from native Spanish grapes, most often Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Unlike Champagne, kosher Cava is affordable on almost any budget, costing as little as little as $11 per bottle.
Please note that there are a few points that one should keep in mind when buying Cava. First, most Cavas have a shelf life of about three to five years. As kosher Cavas are all non-vintage, it can be difficult to determine a bottle’s age, so try to avoid purchasing bottles that look like they have been sitting on the shelf of the wine shop for a while. Also, if you ever open a bottle of Cava that is not quite to your liking, consider using that bottle to make Champagne cocktails. Put a sugar cube and a few dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters (available at almost any supermarket) in the bottom of a Champagne flute, let the glass sit for a few minutes and then fill with Cava. The sugar and bitters add delightful flavors and can mask many of the flaws that might be found in sparkling wines.
In preparation for Purim, Fruit of the Vine tasted three kosher Cavas, all of which were good or very good, and any of which would make a nice addition to your holiday table.
Freixenet’s Excelencia Kosher Cava Brut was the best one. This dark straw-colored Cava has a rich mousse of large bubbles, and a bouquet of peaches and honeysuckle with a lovely yeasty earthiness. Look for flavors of peaches, pears, and cantaloupe, with a yeasty overtone, and a nice hint of Seville oranges on the finish.
Score A-/B+ $18. This wine is being released presently and should be in stores by Purim. (Please note that the sample submitted to me was non-mevushal, meaning it was not boiled, and the version being released will be mevushal, and may differ in quality as a result.)
Also good is Elvi’s Cava Brut, a light, elegant sparkling wine that has flavors and aromas of peaches and pears. Look for a hint of spice on the finish, and a light-but-still-pleasant mousse of tiny bubbles.
Score B+ $21.99. (Available at Wine Country, 89 New Bridge Rd. in Bergenfield, N.J., (201) 385-0106)
The best bargain in Cava that we tasted was En Fuego’s Reserva Brut Cava. This one has a lively mousse of tiny bubbles and flavors of apples, pears, lemons and heather, with a hint of toasted challah.
Score B/B+. $10.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Spirits, 5681 Riverdale Ave, Riverdale, N.Y. (888) 759-8466.)
Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed reflect those of the retailer mentioned.
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