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The Magnificent Seven
By Robert Whitley
Nov 1, 2011
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It is often said there is no other sparkling wine quite like Champagne. I have even said it myself. The chalky soils of the region seem to imbue Champagne, the real thing, with structure and complexity that is difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce elsewhere.

Domaine CarnerosIt isn't as though no one has tried, for wherever wine is made there always seems to be someone who will take a stab at a bubbly rendition. Scan the globe, and you will find sparkling wines produced from Tasmania to Turkey, and nearly everywhere in between. Some of it is very good; some not so much.

Champagne's strongest competition in the world of luxury bubbly (with apologies to Spain, which has seen cava quality improve dramatically) comes from Italy and the United States. The Franciacorta district in northern Italy, between Milan and Venice, produces Italy's finest sparkling wines, many of which rival Champagne in both quality and price. In the United States, the epicenter of luxury sparkling is California, specifically Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.

While fine bubblies are made in the Eastern United States around the Finger Lakes and on Long Island, those wines are not widely distributed and are difficult to source.

The best of the California bubblies can hold their own with the finest Champagnes, and have often prevailed in blind tastings that pitted highly rated Champagne against sparkling wines from top-tier California producers. California sparklers have improved dramatically over the past 30 years, overcoming early criticism that they were "too fruity" and lacking the structure to age.

That is certainly not the case any longer. One producer, Gloria Ferrer, ages its most prestigious wine — Carneros Cuvee — on the yeast lees for nine years before disgorgement. Iron Horse and Schramsberg have prestige cuvees that are made in a similar style.

As we approach the holidays, there will be numerous occasions that call for top-of-the-line bubbly. The beauty of the finest bubblies from California is that, while not cheap, they are economical luxury wines when compared to Champagnes of comparable quality.

The following, in alphabetical order, is my selection of the seven most reliable producers of super-premium California sparkling wine.

Domaine Carneros, located in the Carneros district of the Napa Valley, is owned by the Taittinger Champagne house and produces perhaps the most elegant of California bubblies, Le Reve Blanc de Blancs ($95). It is usually made from 100 percent chardonnay, but sometimes includes a splash of pinot blanc in the blend. It is aged six years on the lees prior to disgorgement, and will easily age another six to 10 years after it is released. The 2007 Brut ($26) and 2008 Brut Rose ($36) are the best bets for value.

Gloria Ferrer, located on the Sonoma side of the Carneros district, was founded by Jose and Gloria Ferrer, from Spain's Catalonia region, where they established the cava powerhouse, Frexienet. They've always made very good sparkling wine in California, but probably weren't considered top tier until their very first vintage of Carneros Cuvee narrowly edged the 1996 Dom Perignon for Best of Show sparkling wine at the Monterey Wine Competition four to five years ago. While the current vintage of Carneros Cuvee (2000, $50) is superb, the Gloria Ferrer that has my attention is the 2004 Royal Cuvee at $32. This wine consistently triumphs at major international wine competitions, and never disappoints. If only I had bought more when it was retailing for about $20! Other major award winners for Gloria Ferrer are the 2006 Blanc de Blancs ($28) and the non-vintage extra-dry Va de Vi ($22).

Iron Horse, located in the Green Valley, the coolest section of Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, produces two of the most scintillating bubblies made in California. Both — the multi-vintage Joy and the 2003 LD — can go head-up against just about anything Champagne could throw at them. Joy ($179) is only sold in magnum. It is a rich, complex, beautifully structure multi-vintage bubbly that is aged on the lees for 10 to 15 years (depending upon the cuvee) before release. The newly released LD (Late Disgorged) retails for $85 and is Iron Horse's prestige cuvee. If you are seeking value, try the Russian Cuvee or the Wedding Cuvee, both priced at $38. These are delightful sparklers that are aged far less (typically three years) than the prestige cuvees prior to disgorgement.

J Vineyards & Winery, located in the heart of Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, probably offers the greatest value in California sparkling wine today. Both the 2002 J Vintage Brut ($40) and non-vintage J Brut Rose ($28) are refined and elegant, but neither comes with the hefty price tag of comparable bubblies. They are perhaps a bit more fruit-driven than some of their close competitors and rivals, but in a good way. These are simply delicious wines.

Mumm Napa Valley is situated along the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, but sources most of its finest grapes from the Carneros district. Found by the G.H. Mumm Champagne house of Reims, France, Mumm has long been a benchmark for quality at all ends of the price spectrum within the luxury sparkling category. The 2003 DVX ($60) was a double-gold medal winner at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and has been among the elite prestige cuvees from California since its inception in the early 1990s. Yet the relatively inexpensive Brut Prestige ($22) and the non-vintage Brut Reserve ($36) are superb wines that offer both quality as well as value.

Roederer Estate, located in Mendocino's cool Anderson Valley, has making some of California's finest bubbly for more than two decades. Founded by the Roederer Champagne house, Roederer Estate mirrors the parent company's commitment to sparkling wine of intrinsic depth, character and complexity. The Roederer Estate Brut ($23) is a non-vintage bubbly that I have inserted many times into tastings of non-vintage Champagnes at twice the price, and it always holds its own. The prestige cuvee, the 2002 L'Ermitage ($50) is simply a magnificent example of the greatness California bubblies can achieve.

Schramsberg, located at the northern end of the Napa Valley, in Calistoga, was the first in California to attempt to produce sparkling wines that could be competitive with Champagne. It was largely the success of Hugh and Jamie Davies that attracted the French Champagne houses to California to begin with. It wasn't easy for the Davies, for both chardonnay and pinot noir, the primary grapes used in the production of wines made in the "Champagne" method, were not readily available when they opened shop in 1965. They persevered and ultimately established numerous benchmarks in the evolution of California bubbly. Their prestige cuvee, J Schram, is arguably one of the top-three sparkling wines made in California. The 2004 vintage currently retails for $100, as does their scintillating 2003 Reserve Brut. The 2008 Blanc de Blancs ($38) and the 2008 Brut Rose ($41) are exceptional wines as well, though not as complex or structured as the prestige wines.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.