Everyone knows or should know that if the bubbly stuff is made outside of the Champagne region of France it is not allowed to be called champagne. It is sparkling wine. There was a time that the choices were not very stellar. Astis from Italy were thought of as sickly sweet, not anymore. The other choices were not thought of with much more enthusiasm, especially domestic choices fromt the USA. This really is amusing as Roederer -the producer of one of my all time favourites, Crystal - heads and tail above that Dom Perignon stuff in my opinion, has had a California version for decades. I will leave the rant/article on my Crystal vs. Dom for another time.
California is not the only producer of fine “Sparkles”, as a very witty lady calls them. You can find outstanding examples from New Mexico, yes the high desert, to the Finger Lakes of New York. The best part is they can be a fraction of the cost of a vintage bottle of Europe’s finest. All of my choices are made in the traditional Methode Champenoise. What is this? It is the traditional way to make sparkling wine. The process was developed, supposedly, by Dom Pierre, a Benedictine Monk in the Champagne district of France sometime in the 17th century.
Bubbles are produced by a natural process. The "liqueur de tirage" (yeast and sugar) is added to wine mixture, bottled, stoppered, and laid up to trap the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast as it consumes the sugar. The wine is then fermented en tirage until the yeast has consumed all of the sugar and produced the tiny CO2 bubbles. At the end of this, the fermentation will leave a deposit of yeast. It is now ready for "riddling". The slow and laborious process of dropping the yeast deposit into the neck of the bottle is performed over several weeks to several months. Finally, when all the yeast has dropped into the cap of the bottle, the bottles are "disgorged". This is the process of turning the bottle upright while removing the cap in one motion and letting the yeast sediment fly out of the bottle while retaining the sparkling wine.
I prefer very dry (extra brut) champagnes. Everyone does not and I tried to be unbiased in my below selections.
Roederer Estates, Anderson Valley, CA
In 1982 a direct heir and president of the famed Louis Roederer Champagne house (producer of Crystal), bought 580 acres just north of San Francisco. The thought being it would be essential to own the vines for consistent quality wine. The climate is ideal with well drained soils, warm days and cool nights. The cool nights help to slow down the maturing process to develop full body and grape characteristics. The estate uses only Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes and even more only about 70% of the first press. To that an addition of a selection of the best wines each year that are aged in Center of France oak casks.
L’ermitage 2002 52% Chardonnay, 48% Pinot Noir $45.00
Tiny long lasting bubbles seem to tickle the taste buds with notes of buttery crusted apple pie with a hint of vanilla, ripe apricot. It has a rich, creamy and full mouth feel that ends clean and crisp.
L’ermitage Rosé 2003 51% Chardonnay, 49% Pinot Noir $63.00
Made using a small fraction of red wine using a Burgundian maceration technique that allows skin contact to extract color and aromas. Light salmon pink colour. The wine has hints of fresh baked bread, apples and hazelnut. The wine ends with a touch of anise and quince for a crisp finish.
Gruet, Truth or Consequences, NM
In 1984, Gilbert Gruet, head of the Champagne house, Gruet et Fils purchased land outside of Albuquerque, NM and planted both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. The vineyards are at 4,300 ft, the highest vineyard elevation in the USA. 1989 saw the first bottles of champagne released to the public. Sandy and loamy soil, the lack of humidity warm days and cool mountain nights all contribute to wines that are produced without the use of pesticides.
Gruet 2003 Grande Reserve $57.99
Made from still wine fermented in French Oak help create a cascade of fine bubbles. Toasted caramel, apple, vanilla with a rich mouth feel. The wine has a crisp lemony finish.
Gruet 2007 Grand Rose $33.99
Made from 90% Chardonnay grapes, which give this wine a velvety smoothness, and 10% Pinot Noir which dominates the flavours and a vibrant salmon pink colour. The bubbles (mousse) are long lasting, plentiful and tiny. Red raspberry, strawberry, and hazelnut are predominant with a crisp green apple finish. Limited to under 300 cases.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Hammondsport, NY
In 1962, a decade after arriving in America, Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars. The wine produced was Rieslings. They began producing sparkling wines in the late 1980’s using the “methode champenoise”.
Chateau Frank Blanc de Noir 2006 $29.99
Made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier gives this wine wonderful fruit flavours of apple, peach, pear with a touch of toasty yeast along with vanilla and hazelnut. This is a rich and full bodied sparkler that has a bouquet (nose) of a touch of lime.
The French Champagne house of G.H. Mumm began looking for the ideal winegrowing area in the U.S. in 1979. The project was headed by Guy Devaux. who had more than 40 years experience in creating wines in France, South America as well as the USA. The winery, Mumm Cuvée Napa, was completed in 1986 embracing all the classic techniques.
Mumm Napa DVX 2006 $49.00
The first aromas are fresh baked bread with cherry and red delicious apples. You will taste bosc pear, fig and baked apples. This is a wine that you can buy now and cellar it for even more depth and character.
Iron Horse Vineyards, Sebastopol, CA
This is a small 160 acre family owned and operated vineyard in the Green Valley, known as the “coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley, just 13 miles fomr the Pacific”. The first 110 acres were planted in 1970. The estate is broken five blocks, further honing in on the estate's unique characteristics-each being planted with specific rootstock, clonal selections with each section treated as if it is its own vineyard.
Iron Horse Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs, 2007 $49.99
This is a 2006 vintage and limited edition created in partnership with National Geographic. For every bottle you purchase, Iron Horse will donate $4 to establish marine protected areas and reduce overfishing around the world. Bright crisp citrus flavours of lime with strawberries, vanilla and yeasty finish.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyard, Sonoma County CA
In 1982, Ferrer (of the Mallorca Spain winery) family purchased a 160-acre cattle ranch and planted three-quarters of their new estate to Pinot Noir vines and the remaining quarter to Chardonnay. As the first sparkling wine house in Carneros, Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards opened its doors in 1986. The property has expanded to 335 acres, which includes 128 acre Circle Bar Ranch.
Gloria Ferrer 2004 Extra Brut $45.00
This is a limited edition wine with only 800 cases produced and available only through their wine club. It is 67% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay. Nice long lasting bubbles that tickle the palate with apple, lemon and leave a decidedly creamy custard finish.