In many British homes this Christmas, the Spanish sparkling wine cava has usurped its more illustrious and expensive rival champagne as the preferred tipple for a festive occasion.

Retailers are recording strong sales for Catalonia's effervescent oenophile export, which often puts the fizz into buck's fizz on the party circuit. Sainsbury's says sales have surged 200 per cent this year, driven in part by television adverts by the chain's chef Jamie Oliver. Waitrose, meanwhile, has recorded a 20 per cent increase in sales in 2007.

The rises indicate a further speeding up of demand after a 6 per cent rise in the amount of cava shipped to the UK in 2006.

Like champagne, cava is fermented twice, and sometimes contains two of the same grape varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir. But Cava is much cheaper than its more complex relative, selling for 5 to 7 a bottle, compared with at least 10 for a non-vintage champagne. Sainsbury's says that cava now accounts for half of its non-champagne sparkling wine sales. A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said: "People like cava because it is chardonnay-based like champagne but it's lighter in taste, and lighter on the wallet too."

Waitrose also reported a rise in popularity. A spokeswoman said: "We are attributing this rise to the fact that many Britons have really learnt to appreciate good quality cava while holidaying in Spain. Cava has finally shed its downmarket image as the kind of drink you would win in a tombola. Customers are starting to take it seriously."

Almost all cava comes from Catalonia, from the area surrounding Sant Sadurni d'Anoia in Penedes, south-west of Barcelona, where, in 1872, its creator, Josep Raventos, decided to try to emulate the success of the Champagne region.

Like champagne, the wine which derives its name from the cellars in which it is preserved comes in various degrees of sweetness, ranging from brut nature with no added sugar to dulce, sweet. But the warmer climate in Spain gives the drink a softer, fruitier taste. Nonetheless, most wine experts consider champagne to be far superior to cava. Serena Sutcliffe, head of wine at Sotheby's, said: "They are completely different animals. Some cavas are quite well made but they start from a different base in terms of grape variety and area. What makes a great wine as opposed to a good wine is terroir, which is a mixture of climate, micro-climate, soil and situation of the vineyard. In Champagne, they have honed it down to something incredible, because they match their land with exactly the right grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Comparing champagne with cava is like comparing chalk and cheese."

But Mrs Sutcliffe, a master of wine since 1976, continued: "It's a question of your taste. If you like the taste of cava, go for it because it's a very good buy."

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