Champagne

By Dan Berger

The traditional “pop” heard at weddings may be generated by any number of sparkling wines — buck-ninety-nine domestic fizzy, where the bottle is worth more than the liquid, all the way to C-noters in velvet-lined boxes from unpronounceable places.

California ChampagneFrench Champagne is the popular choice for such events and for those on a budget, premium California bubbly is a choice. The problem here is that California sparkling wine isn’t as reasonably priced as it once was, but may represent the best value Champagne lovers have these days.

I have seen prices move higher in a number of traditional $20+, non-vintage Champagnes recently, with some of these wines now selling for more than $30, even at discount. As a result, California bubbly prices have also risen to $20+ territory. But the best reason to consider California bubblies is that they are very good, better than ever.

After more than four decades of hunting for the right formulas, California’s premium sparkling wine has arrived. Today it is more consistent than ever, and offers a true alternative to French Champagne.

California actually has come a long way in a short time, with wines that exhibit more fruit (though occasionally with less complexity), and usually a superb acidity that works well with a wide array of foods.

Foods? I hear someone asking.

Yes, top-rate California sparkling wines can be the perfect foil for seafood, chicken, salads, and tapas-like hors d’oeuvres.

Among California’s classics are the following.

–Domaine Carneros: Eileen Crane’s delicate hand shows in all her stylish offerings, with Chardonnay showing through most delightfully in the top-of-the-line La Reve. Bargain buy: The winery’s non-vintage Brut. Discounters have it under $30.

–Gloria Ferrer: Wine maker Bob Iantosca, with his assistant Steve Urberg, has done brilliant work over the years, and my favorite wine, the Blanc de Noirs, is a complex and fruity wine. 

–Mumm Napa: The winery’s Brut is a spicier version of bubbly, with a drop of Pinot Gris added to the blend for a richer mouth feel. 

–Iron Horse: Wine maker David Munksgaard has made a terrific impact on the quality of these bubblies, now among the finest in California. This winery in western Russian River makes a wide array of bone-dry, age-worthy sparkling wines. One of the best is the 1999 Wedding Cuvee ($24). The winery’s Brut ($18) is best with food.

–Roederer: This Mendocino County producer makes one of the state’s most stylish top-of-the-line wines, L’Ermitage. The winery’s non-vintage Brut is a bargain. It typically sells for $20 and may be found even less.

–Schramsberg: A Napa Valley original, this historic property continues to hit home runs with many of its bubbies, now including some fruit from far-flung areas of the state including Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

–J: The property simply called J is a Russian River specialist in sparkling and select still wines. The bottle in which the wine comes is a stylish, striking cool green with the Nike-swoosh-like stylish J imprinted on the bottle. And the wine itself is superb.

It’s no coincidence that these seven producers are all making wines today that are significantly better than they were a decade ago. And the wines are actually better values than the prices listed here, since most may be found discounted between 10% and 20%.

California bubbly is less expensive than it should be in part because in some areas of the country it has no cache. Many Americans have yet to discover California sparkling wines. And many are seduced by “the real thing.”

Years ago, I wrote that it was a waste of money to pay Champagne prices for Champagne when it will be carried in plastic-ware while wandering in a garden after a wedding, while watching fireworks, or pitching logs on a bonfire.

I said that these are not the places for quality Champagne.

J. Michael Broadbent, one of the world’s greatest wine tasters and head of Christie’s auction house in London, has said that at festive occasions most people don’t pay much attention to the nuances of fine sparkling wine; the occasion is for fun, not note-taking.

Now it is time to add the best California bubblies to that prohibition. They have gotten so successful that they still represent a bargain, despite some recent prize increases.

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