PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

You can tell the world has turned upside-down when the finest bullfighter in the world is French and the best-selling sparkling wine in the world (shifting more than 200 million bottles a year) is Spanish.

Sparkling wine made its debut in Spain about 150 years ago, when Don Jose Raventos became fascinated by the Champagne region's bubbly wines while on a tour of France. Head of the bodega Cordoniu in Penedes, Raventos acquired the basic equipment used by the Champenoise and crafted a Spanish sparkling wine using Champagne's trad methods. The only bubbly that can be legally called cham-pagne is produced in the region of that name in northern France and is made from varying proportions of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Raventos didn't have these grapes handy for his new venture so he fashioned a blend from three indigenous varieties: macabeo, parellada and xarel-lo. Other wineries in the region soon followed suit.

Early production was cheekily labelled champan, champana, xampany or Spanish champagne. By the 1970s, however, the EU suggested the successful Penedes producers might consider developing

their own regional name rather than riding on Champagne's reputation. The Penedes growers took the hint and agreed on the more easily pronounced 'cava', which means wine cave or cellar in the local Catalan dialect.

Cava can be produced in six wine regions of Spain, but 95 per cent is made in its historic home turf, Penedes. The small, quiet town of San Sadurni de Noya, which is 43km from Barcelona, is the centre of cava's success. Each October, the little village bursts open like a bottle of the stuff, culminating in a week-long celebration called Cava Week.

The fiesta begins in Barcelona with the appointment of the Cava Queen, who parades regally through town with her handmaidens in a royal carriage. After crowning, she is given a bubbly glass of - what else? - cava by the San Sadurni Fellowship.

As with champagne, cava can be blended from a range of years or labelled as a single, outstanding vintage. The wines range from dry to sweet, but the most popular style is the dry, or 'brut', category. Cava are usually 'blanc de blancs', meaning they're produced entirely from white grapes, though a dollop of red wine can be used to produce rose styles. French grape variety chardonnay is increasingly used to enhance cava's elegance and weight. Like the cola industry, cava is dominated by two brands: Freixenet and Cordoniu. Both are fierce rivals, with lawsuits and compliance accusations as part of a one-upmanship game that makes the Iberian bullfight seem graceful by comparison.