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Just Close Your Eyes
By Robert Whitley
Oct 2, 2012
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Over the next couple of months there will be much attention focused on sparkling wine. Industry sources estimate that as much as half, perhaps more, of all sparkling wine consumed in the United States is sold in the run-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The sparkling-wine toast is now firmly embedded in the culture; our way of saluting the season of shared good tidings with family and friends. Which begs the question, what’s in your glass?

In a perfect world, it would be Champagne. That would be genuine Champagne, made in the rolling hills of the Champagne district about 90 minutes east of Paris. The chalky soils of the region deliver a bubbly that is unique among sparkling wines, with structure and complexity that is typically found only in Champagne.

Taste, however, is only one part of Champagne’s appeal. Of equal importance to Champagne sales is the aura of decadence associated with Champagne. It is more expensive than other sparkling wines, and thus perceived to be better; but beyond that the Champenoise have marketed Champagne as the ultimate splurge in adult beverages.

Even the very act of popping the cork – an unmistakable sound – will make any occasion more festive.

So why would anyone, if price were no object, consider other sparkling wines for an important event, or even a casual celebratory indulgence? It’s a fair question. The answer has two parts.

First, the fact is there was no viable alternative to Champagne at one time. Wherever wine grapes were grown around the world, bubbly wines of varying quality abounded. But few sparkling wine producers, if any, made the effort to compete with Champagne because of the investment of time and money required to make anything that came close to Champagne in terms of style or quality.

When Jack and Jamie Davies launched Schramsberg in 1965, they had to scrounge just to find enough Chardonnay grapes, not widely planted in the Napa Valley at the time, to produce their first cuvee. For many years Schramsberg stood as the benchmark for New World sparkling wine; and it had indeed been the goal of the Davies to challenge the conventional wisdom on Champagne.

Their success inspired others – in many cases large Champagne houses – to invest in sparkling wine production in California. Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa Valley, Piper-Sonoma, Roederer Estate, Maison Deutz and Domaine Carneros were most conspicuous because of their associations with formidable Champagne houses; but others came along as well, such as Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards, Handley Cellars and Gloria Ferrer.

There were years of struggle, years that saw Deutz and Piper-Sonoma drop out of the hunt. Those that remain all share a common ambition to one day see California sparkling wine on equal footing with Champagne.

Although sparkling wine is produced throughout the United States, from New Mexico to New York, the rest of the country has yet to catch up to California with respect to quality bubbles. And California bubbly is the most visible alternative to Champagne in the marketplace for those who prefer sparkling wine made from traditional grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), using the Champagne method (with a second fermentation in the bottle) and adequately aged prior to disgorgement.

What I have learned in recent years is that the day when you might be able to taste Champagne and California bubbly side-by-side and not be able to distinguish between the two may not be as far off as most would imagine.
We see Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer, owned by the Spanish cava company Freixenet, routinely claim top medals at major U.S. wine competitions, and Iron Horse produces a special reserve cuvee, ‘Joy,’ that I am certain would confound the experts in a blind taste test.

I might even throw Gloria Ferrer’s Royal Cuvee into such a test. On a recent trip to Sonoma I participated in a vertical tasting of numerous vintages of Royal Cuvee, a vintage dated brut, going back to winemaker Bob Iantosca’s first vintage of this wine, 1987.

Although the 1987 Royal Cuvee exhibited very little primary fruit, the wine was still in fine shape, showing notes of brioche, liqueur and firm acidity.

The 1996 Royal Cuvee was in its prime, and the youngest of the six vintages tasted, 2002, clearly had the potential to be the best of them all.
From the perspective of this Champagne lover, I could only marvel at the ability of these California bubblies to improve in the cellar, for that is not the conventional wisdom on California sparkling wine.

“The acid really is kind of hanging in there,” said Iantosca.

The beauty of a Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee is the price. Suggested retail is about $35, but I’ve seen it on sale for much less.

“Beyond that price and you’re starting to get into Champagne territory,” said Iantosca.

Indeed, but that would be for a non-vintage Champagne. Vintage Champagne from a top house would cost far more. The question becomes whether or not you are willing to spend an additional $25 to $40 for the thrill of sipping Champagne, as opposed to a California sparkling wine that might be just as good albeit without the cachet.

Here’s a suggestion. Just close your eyes.

Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.