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Best Bubblies This Side of Champagne
By Robert Whitley
Nov 30, 2010
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It is often said that nothing in the vast world of sparkling wine tastes quite like Champagne. It is a fair observation, frequently noted by the Champenoise themselves. Most experts on the subject attribute the unique taste and structure of Champagne to the chalky soils of the region, with a bit of influence from the cool climate.

Other sparkling wines, particularly those from France, Italy and Spain, simply don't measure up to Champagne in the arena of public opinion — or price.

Throughout the New World, sparkling wines produced with the latest state-of-the- art technology and impeccable vineyard management abound. Yet no one would mention the bubblies of Australia, Chile, Argentina or, for the most part, America in the same breath with Champagne.

In particular, America has a long and slightly shameless history of faux "Champagne," which would be sparkling wines labeled "Champagne" in an attempt to co-opt the legitimate French AOC as a generic term intended to be applied to all sparkling wine.

For the most part, one sip was all that was required to confirm the obvious: Putting "Champagne" on the label does not magically transform ordinary bubbly into exquisite Champagne.

Still, efforts to replicate Champagne go on, and not without some success. A handful of producers in California make sparkling wines that compare favorably to the real thing. Located in the North Coast region that encompasses Sonoma and Mendocino counties and the Napa Valley, there exists a group of wineries that consistently craft the world's finest sparkling wines outside of Champagne.

They are to be applauded for their tenacity, for producing sparkling wine is an expensive proposition involving long-term cellaring of older stocks, extensive blending trials, and very real pricing constraints that handicap a winery's ability to sell its wine for what it's truly worth. California bubbly from the top sparkling wine producers of the North Coast is probably the greatest value in American wine today.

This is especially true as the euro remains stubbornly strong against the U.S. dollar, making Champagne more expensive than ever. Heading into the holidays (when Champagne and sparkling wine sales are at their peak), it might be good to know there is a credible sparkling alternative to Champagne. The top California bubblies have elegance, complexity and depth to match all but the very best wines from Champagne at a fraction of the price.

The top producers include Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Mumm Napa Valley and Schramsberg from the Napa Valley; Iron Horse, Gloria Ferrer and J Vineyards from Sonoma County; and Roederer Estate from Mendocino County. Also very good though not quite in the same league are Sonoma County-based Korbel, Napa Valley-based Domaine Chandon and Mendocino County-based Scharffenberger Cellars.

Each of these producers offers a range of styles and prices; too many to enumerate in this space. All producers listed, however, have demonstrated consistency across their entire range. I've also singled out specific wines and producers for special mention in three subjective categories: most profound, very New World and greatest value.

Wines cited as "most profound" bear a striking resemblance to AOC Champagne. They combine impressive structure with exceptional complexity and enhanced elegance. The term "elegant" is meant to convey wines that exhibit power without heaviness.

Wines cited as "Very New World" are most importantly California in style, meaning they've been kissed by the sun and are fruit-driven, albeit with the underlying acidity and structure necessary for top-notch bubbly.

Wines cited as "Greatest Value" are those that deliver the best bang for the buck in the $10 range, the $20 range and the $30 range. Finally, a word about pricing: The listed prices are nationally suggested retail and may vary depending on where you live. I have found each and every one at prices lower than the NSR. All of the wines are available online in states that allow direct-to-consumer wine shipments.

MOST PROFOUND

Iron Horse 2002 Brut LD, Russian River Valley ($85) — The LD designation indicates late disgorged. I have found this cuvee to be consistently similar to Champagne in structure, and the 2002 is a brilliant wine that is remarkably complex and every bit as satisfying as top Champagne. Rating: 97.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger 2004 Le Reve Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley ($85) — Le Reve is probably the most elegant and creamy of all California bubblies, but with the backbone to age a decade or more in a good cellar. Rating: 95.

Schramsberg Vineyards 2003 J Schram, Napa Valley ($100) — Schramsberg was California's benchmark sparkling wine long before the great Champagne houses of France, such as Taittinger, Moet & Chandon, Mumm and Roederer, decided to get into the game. J Schram is Schramsberg's "tetes de cuvee," an altogether appropriate response to the French invasion of California wine country. Rating: 95.

VERY NEW WORLD

Mumm Napa Valley 2003 DVX ($55) — Fruit driven and creamy, Mumm Napa Valley's top wine typically spends less time aging on its yeast lees prior to disgorgement, which probably accounts for the freshness and liveliness of the fruit. I have never been disappointed in a bottle of this wine. Rating: 92.

J Vineyards 2002 Brut ($40) — Probably the most underrated of the top sparkling wine producers, J has a new energy and emphasis on complexity since the arrival of winemaker George Bursick. The beauty of this wine is its distinctly California fruit profile combined with the structure of a fine Champagne. Rating: 92.

Gloria Ferrer Va de Vi ($22) — The most popular Champagne sold in America is Moet & Chandon's White Star, an "extra dry" Champagne that appeals to America's not-so-secret addiction to all things sweet. Extra dry bubbly is actually sweeter than brut, and the folks seem to love it. This relatively new product from Gloria Ferrer is its answer to White Star, and it's a wonderful, fruity answer at that! Rating: 90.

GREATEST VALUE

Gloria Ferrer 2002 Royal Cuvee ($32) — While Gloria Ferrer makes a "tetes de cuvee" (Carneros Cuvee) that is perhaps a bit more flashy as well as more expensive, the Royal Cuvee has competed very well against high-end Champagnes in recent international wine competitions. For the money, it's the better deal. Rating: 92.

Mumm Napa Valley Brut Prestige ($20) — A non-vintage brut blend, Brut Prestige from Mumm Napa is my go-to sparkling wine when I need a classy bubbly that won't break the bank. Rating: 90.

Korbel Brut Rose ($10) — Fruity and delicious, this is a California bubbly you can not only quaff, but it has the oomph to stand up to roasted chicken and grilled meats from the barbecue. Rating: 88.

Email questions or comments to WhitleyOnWine@yahoo.com.