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Good California Bubbly is Easy to Buy and Appreciate

By Thom Elkjer
wine editor

Can you name a wine category in which almost every bottling, by almost every winery, is almost always good? If you answered “California Méthode Champenoise sparkling wine,” go to the head of the class.

“Méthode Champenoise” is French for “the official method for making Champagne.” This method, worked out and codified over the last two centuries in the Champagne region of France, is a slow, painstaking process. It’s also capital- and inventory-intensive. So much so that no American winery that uses this method can afford to make a bad bubbly; they must charge enough to cover their costs, and if the wine isn’t worth the price they’ll lose their chemise (shirt).

So if you see Méthode Champenoise on a California wine label, you can be pretty sure the wine is well made. On top of that, California’s Méthode Champenoise wineries have taken the guesswork out of when to drink their wines. Most still wines are sold to consumers as early as possible — years before they will reach their prime. Unless you’re a real connoisseur (or a lucky guesser), you wind up drinking most of them before or after their peak.

In contrast, California sparkling wineries age their wines for you in their own cellars. Iron Horse Vineyards and Gloria Ferrer recently released wonderful sparklers from grapes grown in 1995. Throughout most of this year, the current top-tier vintage-dated wines from Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa Valley, Roederer Estate and Schramsberg were sumptuous 1998s. The 1999s are just coming to market in time for the year-end holidays.

Even sparkling wines without vintages on the labels are well aged, because of how they are made. So-called “non-vintage” wines would be better described as “multi-vintage wines,” to reflect the fact that sparkling wineries hold back a percentage of their wine each year, and store it under ideal cellar temperatures. These libraries of older juice enable each winery to blend together a “house style” bottling (usually labeled “brut”) that hardly varies from year to year.

This is yet another way that California sparkling wine keeps it simple. If you know you like the non-vintage brut from a particular winery, you’ll like it every year because the taste won’t change. Nearly all still wines, on the other
hand, are made from one vintage, so seasonal variations can have a major influence on flavor and quality from year to year.

The next question is: What style of sparkling wine do you like?
If you don’t already know, focus on the same qualities you look for in any wine: aromas and flavors, texture and finish, balance and refreshment. In the case of aromas, flavors and finish, sparkling wine is more subtle than regular reds and whites — it’s like picking your favorite shade of gold rather than picking your favorite color. On the other hand, texture is more obvious because of the bubbles, which can be big and buzzy or small and subtle.
Balance and refreshment operate the same way in all wines: you want a nice equilibrium of sweetness and acidity, and you want the wine to leave your palate cleansed and eager rather than coated and tired.

All the wines recommended below are excellent examples of two things: the wineries that made them and the category they belong to. For example, Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer aren’t the only California sparkling wineries that make a rosé, but they are consistently my favorites year in and year out. Similarly, a growing number of wineries make a slightly sweet sparkler, but Domaine Chandon has made a bigger commitment to this approach than most, in terms of both quality and quantity. All the vintage-dated wines are from strong years for sparkling wine. Even though their prices reflect years of cellaring and one of the most demanding winemaking processes known to man, I’d call every one a solid value compared to still wines costing the same or more.

NOV/DEC 2004

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