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A Surprising Source for Affordable Bubbly
By Linda Murphy
Dec 2, 2014
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My two nieces, mid-20-somethings, have “Champagne tastes on a beer budget.”  They work hard for not a lot of money, yet they’ve developed a palate for high-quality wine and yes, Champagne.  I wonder how that came to be?

Because Champagne is out of reach for their budgets, their favorite aunt does her best to introduce them to sparkling wines they can afford, and also appreciate as much as they do Champagne.  Some Spanish Cavas do the trick, but Australian and South African bubblies are tough to find on the West Coast.  Cremant d’Alsace is usually a bit over the nieces’ price limit by the time it hits store shelves, and inexpensive Prosecco is an entirely different animal, a simpleton best suited to mimosas and faux French 75s, according to my kin Kelly and Brittany.
But California can deliver the goods.

Yes, California, the home of expensive Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and increasingly pricey Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and of old-vine Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs.  But it also produces stellar sparkling wines, as evidenced by the bottlings from Schramsberg, Iron Horse Vineyards, Domaine Carneros and Sea Smoke, yet whose price tags edge into the Champagne realm.  There is no debating the excellence of these wines; it’s their cost that keeps Kelly and Brittany -- and their fellow Millennials -- from purchasing them.

Yet there are sparkling values galore in the Golden State, wines that combine hints of Champagne complexity with the vibrant fruit flavors that come naturally from California grapes.  Take, for example, Roederer Estate, Champagne Louis Roederer’s Mendocino County extension.  Its L’Ermitage Brut and L’Ermitage Rose are stunners and priced as such, but for approximately $21, the NV Roederer Estate Brut, assembled by Arnaud Weyrich, is scintillatingly dry, offering crisp apple and pear flavors and excellent depth.

Roederer’s relatively recent purchase of Pacific Echo -- formerly Scharffenberger Cellars -- in Mendocino has restored the Scharffenberger name and given longtime winemaker Tex Sawyer the fruit and support to produce the winery’s finest wine, the NV Schaffenberger Cellars Brut Excellence ($20, usually discounted).  It’s my everyday bubbly, showing some brioche notes along with crisp acidity.

Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma is another treasure trove of well-priced, well-made sparkling wines.  I think its finest bubbly is the vintage (2006 current release) Royal Cuvee ($37), for its complex, biscuit and caramelly aged character.  The fruitier, more expansive Carneros Cuvee ($70) has many fans.

Yet my nieces are always thrilled when I open bottles of Gloria Ferrer’s  NV  Sonoma Brut, Blanc de Noirs and Blanc de Blancs, all priced at around $22 (though usually discounted by chains).  I purchase these wines often for personal consumption, and have become a recent admirer of the Gloria Ferrer NV Va de Vi Sonoma County ($22), an exuberant blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Moscato that is ever so slightly sweet, floral and spicy.  And right up my nieces’ drinking alley.  We bond over this.

I don’t get to taste many Domaine Chandon Napa Valley wines, though its Etoile Brut and Rosé have track records for being delicate, refined wines.  I do buy the Chandon California Rosé, for around $16 per bottle, and when I take it home for Christmas, the entire family, nieces included, drink it up.

And don’t count out Korbel, the Russian River Valley producer that, despite infuriating the Champenoise by labeling its sparkling wines as “California Champagne” (E.  & J.  Gallo’s Barefoot Bubbly does the same, but with less impressive sensory results), has some winners in its lineup.

The NV Korbel California Brut Rose ($13) is crisp and refreshing, with a creamy midpalate and bright flavors of red cherry, strawberry and citrus.  It just might be the best-value California sparkler, year after year, especially since many chain grocers sell it for $10 or less.  Its less available yet just as delicious stablemate, the NV Korbel California Brut, Made from Organically Grown Grapes ($13), has a lovely yeasty, brioche complexity to go with the crisp citrus, green apple and yellow stone fruit.  The finish is long and satisfying.

I’m a sucker for Champagne and New World sparklers that come close to Champagne’s complexity, refinement and ability to age.  Yet my auntly duty to help my wine-nut nieces find bubblies to suit their ever-sophisticated palates, at a price they can afford, has me seeking more great fizz from California and throughout the world.  If I’m missing something, let me know....