Champagnes worth toasting


December 09, 1990|By Michael Dresser

The best celebrations are the quiet ones -- after the whooping and hollering have died down -- when you can relax and truly savor the good things life has brought.

It is for these moments, the ones where you share your satisfaction with the people closest to you, that Champagne exists. There's just something about those bubbles -- how they express the way we feel on those occasions.

Like celebration, Champagne is most beautiful when it is quiet. No bang and splash, just a gentle pop and whoosh and that barely audible crackle of bubbles, gently fizzing upward and breaking on the surface. The wine is speaking to you, and it's saying, "Well done."

Celebrations like these don't happen nearly often enough, so it would be a shame to dilute them with mediocre wine. At those times when we are feeling most rich, why let anything intrude that makes us feel otherwise?

Unfortunately, there are limits -- at least for most of us. Yes, there are some people out there who can afford to spring $75 or $100 for a luxury bottling of vintage Champagne whenever they feel mildly amused. But this article is isn't for them. Whatever they buy is going to be great. It's the rest of us who can probably use a little help.

Over the last few weeks, I have tasted my way through more than three dozen dry sparkling wines, including true French Champagnes and their imitators in Europe and three other continents. All were made by the traditional Champagne method -- fermentation in the bottle -- because past tasting experience has demonstrated that other methods seldom produce serious wine (exception: Asti Spumante, an underrated sweet wine). None cost more than $35, which still leaves plenty of room to splurge, and some cost as little as $5 to $6. All of the wines were bought in Maryland.

On one score, the tasting was no surprise at all: Champagne is king. You don't even have to drag in the hyper-expensive Dom Perignons and Roederer Cristals; the best non-vintage brut Champagnes outclass anything else that bubbles. There is an elegance, a depth, an interplay of yeast, toasty oak and fruit in true Champagne that really isn't matched anywhere else. Others may have the right grapes and the right methods, but the climate and soils of Champagne are unique.

But you have to pay for that uniqueness. Champagne prices have zoomed in recent years, to the point where a bottle for under $20 is a rarity, even during the holiday price-slashing binge. And with the dollar seemingly on its way to trading at par with the Polish zloty, we can expect those prices to keep bubbling up.

That price escalation has fueled the growth of serious sparkling wine ventures all over the world. "Methode champenoise" bubblies are nowmade everywhere from Chile to New York State, from Spain to Australia, from Israel to the Pacific Northwest. There's even one producer, Boordy Vineyards, doing in Maryland.

Many of these wines are quite palatable, but except for a handful they resemble Champagne the way margarine does butter. Excessive fruitiness, insufficient acid, earthiness and grapefruit flavors are just a few of the characteristics that keep them from achieving the elegance of the real thing.

This is not to say they are necessarily bad wines. In fact, some consumers may prefer the fruitier style of a Spanish cava or a Napa Valley blanc de blancs to the more austere taste of Champagne. But those who have cut their teeth on Champagne will find the others disappointing.

In California, all but a handful of sparkling wines bear little resemblance to Champagne. Even those that bear the names of famous French Champagne houses are, for the most part, pale imitations of the original (Roederer Estate is the shining exception).

The problem in California is that most of the grapes intended for "methode champenoise" sparkling wines are grown in unsuitable climates.

Even the relatively cool Carneros region of Napa County, where a cluster of ambitious sparkling-wine proj

ects have been launched, is too warm for sparkling wine. After all, Carneros is a region where pinot noir and chardonnay (the main components of Champagne) ripen well and produce fine still wines, while for sparkling wine you want underripe grapes. The contradiction should be obvious: no region can be the next Cote d'Or and the next Champagne at the same time. In fact, most Carneros sparkling wines are clean, flawless and bland.

But then there's California's intriguing handful of exceptions, made from grapes planted in the very coolest regions in the entire state, particularly the Green Valley of Sonoma County (Iron Horse) and the Anderson Valley (Roederer Estate). Some of the wines from these regions are virtually undistinguishable from good (not great) non-vintage brut Champagne.

Spain has nothing to compare with these wines in quality. Here the attraction is price.

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