BARCELONA -- Ask Quim Sánchez if his favorite bubbly is cava from Spain or champagne from France and the owner of one of Barcelona's ''best finds" tapas bars grabs his chest and exclaims, ''Cava! I was nursed on the stuff!"
Spain's favorite bubbly occupies a very special niche here, where you wonder whether there might be a bit of truth to his claim.
In Catalonia, the region where cava is produced, the drink has a near-religious following. Its biggest success is that it bridges the gap between the uniqueness of celebration and the dailiness of affordability. It has managed to bottle champagne's excitement -- keeping that ''special occasion" festivity to it -- without the special occasion price.
What's the biggest difference between the two sparkling wines? ''Price," Sánchez says flatly. ''You can buy four to six bottles of cava for the price of a bottle of champagne."
Sure enough, on the top shelf at his tapas bar, Quimet & Quimet, prices for bottles of cava range from about $10 to $40 while farther down the line, champagne runs from about $25 to $175.
''Here, it's possible to have some every day," says Sánchez, grinning widely and gesturing around the bar. ''You can't do that with champagne!"
All things being equal, it's hard logic to beat. But is it really a dead heat, quality-wise? Probably not, though it's easy to get the feeling that cava is catching up fast.
''If this is champagne quality, and this is cava," says Sánchez, plunking down one index finger then the other on the table, ''this is what's happening." The cava finger moves to meet the stationary champagne finger.
In bars, restaurants, and homes, the difference in how people drink cava, as compared with champagne, is clear. In many of these places, the number of glasses poured often rivals that of beer and wine.
''In Catalonia, we drink cava at a party. It's a no-brainer," Sánchez says. ''We love the price and the taste."
Spain's cava production centers around Sant Sadurní d'Anoia, a not-terribly-touristy town about 15 miles west of Barcelona. The train from Barcelona lets you out directly under the headquarters of Freixenet, perhaps the best-known cava producer in the world.
In town, a glass of cava runs less than $2. At 4:15 in the afternoon, a man walks into a cafe, complains about something to no one in particular, then orders a glass of cava and reads about a victory for his soccer club before walking out with a smile on his face.
''Cava is something we can drink every day. There's a direct link between cava and the hearts of Catalonians," says Jaume Gramona, the director of cava producer Gramona S.A. ''When Barcelona's team wins a match, the consumption explodes."
Despite similarities in how champagne and cava are produced, Gramona, a professor of enology at Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona and fifth-generation winemaker, sees cava as its own entity.
''A long time ago," he said, ''we called it 'champagne' here. Now we have the same method, but we have no motivation to copy them."
Though cava producers use the méthode champenoise -- with fermentations in both the cask and the bottle -- the grapes used are almost entirely different. Champagne uses combinations of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes, while here, they use chardonnay, macabeo, xarello, and parellada. Gramona is lobbying to bring another grape into the appellation, an idea that would be thought of as heretical for champagne.
This spirit of experimentation seems to embody cava as a whole, as something fun and festive, not at all stodgy.
Gramona turns out to be a sort of Richard Branson of cava. In his office, there's one photo of him ski racing, another of a snowmobile he piloted in an epic-sounding Canadian race, and there's a well-worn leather flight jacket thrown over a couple of lab jackets on the coat rack.
He also has the air of someone continually on the move, and the holidays are no exception. ''We do 50 percent of our business in November and December," he says between cellphone calls.
Asked about cava's place in Catalan society, Gramona says, ''Opening a bottle is like a moment of happiness and sharing."
It sounds so much like an ad for cheap champagne that I gag. He grins and changes tack.
''When I wake up in the morning, I work out between 6 and 7, then I have breakfast with tomato bread and a glass of cava," he says. ''But I only have the cava when I work out."
Did he do this today?
He's not alone in his morning ritual. ''Most people who go food shopping at the market start their day with a glass," he says.
At Barcelona's La Boqueria market, it's clear that Gramona is not exaggerating. At quioscos, the traditional bars that cook up the market's freshest food, visitors grab a hearty breakfast and wash it down with a glass or two before heading off to shop. Wives often leave their husbands at the bar so they can shop in peace.
''It used to be here that everything that was good was imported. It was cooler to get champagne when you brought a girl out," says Gramona. ''That's not the case anymore."
Contact Joe Ray, a freelance writer in Spain, at email@example.com.