When I tasted my first glass of cava in Barcelona nearly five years ago, it was at 9 am, freshly off the overnight bus from Madrid (a miserable journey that I will never, ever forget) and I was unwittingly in one of the most famous Catalan champagne breakfast joints around. Little did I know at the time, being just a newbie tourist in town, that I would years later find myself frequenting the place as a local, after I had left Madrid and permanently set up shop on the Mediterranean coast.
That was perhaps when my love affair with cava began.
Of course, I had tried cava on several different occasions while living in Madrid. After all, there is a reason they call it Spanish champagne, though that nomenclature is technically not kosher under EU law. Nonetheless, the process of making it is exactly the same (only the grapes are different) and at the prices it goes by, the quality is unmatched. Cava is made in different areas throughout Spain, but most comes from here in Catalonia.
So, beyond the obvious (my palate), what do I love so much about cava? That’s easy. When it comes to Catalan bubbly, there’s only one thing I love more than the drink itself, and that’s drinking it in Barcelona.
You see, there was a time in my life when sparkling wine was strictly designated to special events and celebrations. Sure, I enjoyed it at weddings and Christmas parties and the occasional birthday bash, but I had always considered champagne something far too fancy for my penniless student life. And in the US, it really was.
Here in Barcelona, however, I discovered just the opposite. Because cava is so affordable, and because you can order it by the glass, no joke, even in your rat-infested hole-in-the-wall bar (where penniless expats often hang out), I began to learn more about the drink, and it quickly lost all pretentions without losing the taste.
First of all, I learned that cava and champagne are actually great friends of fried and greasy foods, not necessarily the fancy caviar I had come to believe. Cava with huevos estrellados? Yes, please. How about a glass of cava with a bag of potato chips? Why not?
I also found that, though we could use cava for celebrations, by no means was anyone waiting for one to pop a bottle open. I’m talking cava for breakfast, with no intentions of turning it into a boozy brunch. An afternoon snack of cava and mixed nuts, just because. Grabbing a bottle on my way to the park with friends on a sunny afternoon. I could go on.
So, here go a few brief recommendations if you, too, would like to join the ranks of cava aficionados here in Barcelona. We are many.
Also known as la Xampagneria, Can Paixano (Carrer de la Reina Cristina, 7) is that famous Catalan champagne joint I mentioned at the beginning of this post. This standing-room-only bar is almost always packed with an interesting mix of Catalan locals, experienced expats and tourists who want a taste of a typical Barcelona champagne bar. Try one of their hot or cold bocadillos (little sandwiches) to go with your glass of bubbly.
If you’re looking for something a little more low key, let me recommend Casa Pagès (Carrer Llibertat, 19), an old tavern in the village of Gràcia run by the lovely Pedro and Albina, more or less the surrogate grandparents of the neighborhood. Albina is a fantastic cook and makes some killer breakfast sandwiches, and traditional homemade alioli to boot.
To pair with great tapas
This list could go on for days, but I do particularly love the little bodega Quimet i Quimet (Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes, 25), a very authentic bar in the very authentic neighborhood of Poble Sec, where you can snack on anything from impressive cheese plates to mouth-watering croquettes. They will also assemble a tasting platter for you if you can’t make up your mind (which, you will see, is not an easy task). This is also a standing-only bar.
El Xampanyet (Carrer de la Montcada, 52) is most definitely on the tourist track, but locals still love it for maintaining the classic charm despite being steps away from one of the most frequented-by-tourist sights in Barcelona, the Picasso Museum. Simple tapas on lovely marble-top tables go perfectly with their house-made cava.
To spice things up
So maybe you’ve had plenty of glasses of cava by now, and maybe you’ve also had plenty of sangrias. But why not combine the two for a whole new experience?! Here in Barcelona, we love sangria de cava, which is all the more refreshing on a hot summer day. Cachitos (Rambla de Catalunya, 33) does several stellar versions, but you will find it at restaurants and bars all over the city during the warmer months of the year.
To enjoy a view
As if you needed more excuses to casually drink a glass of cava in Barcelona, why not do it with a nice view? La Vinya del Senyor (Plaça de Santa Maria, 5) is a lovely wine bar with probably some of the best real estate in the city. If you can, grab a seat on their terrace and camp out there while you taste different cavas and wines over several hours, and of course, enjoy the beautiful façade of the Basilica de Santa Maria.
To buy by the bottle
I am admittedly no expert, just a diehard fan, but I will say that if you go to a bodega or supermarket, look out for notable Catalan cava producer names like Codorniu, Raventos i Blanc and Freixenet. Also, keep in mind the varying levels of sweetness and aging, from brut nature (very dry) to semi-seco (sweet) and time of ageing (reserva and gran reserva allowing for a longer ageing period). (ed. Don’t forget to check out shop.catalunyawine.com as the Cavas are coming!)
Renée is a tour guide and the city coordinator for Devour Barcelona Food Tours. When she’s not helping hungry travellers discover Barcelona’s culinary and cultural delights, she’s most likely reading on some shady cafe terrace or walking her greyhounds around the Born.