U.S. vintners are bubbling with quality sparkling wines

VINTAGE POINT

December 15, 1991|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Yankee bubbles are becoming more dandy all the time.

Only a few years ago, any suggestion that American sparkling wine was coming close to the quality and character of true French Champagne would have been a triumph of patriotism over palate. Even a relatively inexpensive non-vintage blend from the valley of the Marne could make even the best American sparkler look oafish.

But winegrowers and winemakers in California, Washington and other states are beginning to get the hang of this "bubble thing."

There are, in fact, California sparkling wines that could fool expert tasters into thinking they were Champagne. Washington produces what is probably the best sparkling value in the solar system. And with Champagne prices in the stratosphere at the same time the elegance gap is closing, there's less reason than ever before to insist on French bubbles.

(Of course, if you're well-heeled enough to afford Dom Perignon at about $75 a pop, you can rest assured that no American wine is yet at that level. But you should also know that the truly sophisticated showoffs are pouring Roederer Cristal Rose for $150.)

These observations arise out of a recent series of tastings of sparkling wines from around the world, all costing under $25 at retail. All of the wines were dry and, with a few exceptions, were fermented directly in the bottle according to the traditional "methode Champenoise."

The best wines overall were still the non-vintage brut Champagnes, the only kind you can buy for under $25 and then sometimes only during holiday sales. The others included Spanish cava, some regional French sparkling wines and a small selection of highly respected American producers.

And it was the Americans that produced the most pleasant surprises. In California, M. Tribault, Scharffenberger and Roederer Estate continue to gain in elegance and intensity. And Domaine Mumm, whose regular bottling has been unexciting, has produced a 1986 "Winery Lake" bottling that is the equivalent of the best non-vintage brut Champagnes.

Wines such as these represent a marked turnaround in the quality of American sparkling wine.

In a nutshell, this is the story of American bubbles. American winemakers in the 19th century wanted to make wine that duplicated real French Champagne, but because they had neither knowledge nor much choice, they tried to do so with the wrong grapes, planted in the wrong places and made the wines by the wrong methods.

This continued pretty well up to the California wine boom of the 1960s and 1970s, when serious American producers such as Schramsberg decided that the way to make Champagne-style wines was to use the traditional Champagne varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, and the time-consuming, labor-intensive "methode Champenoise." Franco-American ventures, such as Moet & Chandon's Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley, followed suit.

But while the Californians now had the right grapes and the right methods, they still had the wrong places.

Champagne itself is one of the world's coolest growing regions, and the grapes there are picked at low sugar levels that would produce a wretched still wine. Yet because they have to hang on the vine a long time to get even that ripe, they develop character.

You just don't get those flavor nuances when you grow those grapes in a hot region, but that's what many California winegrowers tried to do early on. All too often a chardonnay or pinot noir vineyard would be within seed-spitting distance of cabernet vines.

It just doesn't work that way. The wines may be clean and well-made, but they'll never develop anything approaching the character of real Champagne. In fact, even areas that are well-suited to making still chardonnay and pinot noir are likely too warm to produce truly Champagnelike sparkling wine.

During the 1980s, the best California sparkling wine producers -- often representatives of the great Champagne houses -- sought out the coolest regions of California where you can barely ripen a grape. They found them in such areas as the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, the Green Valley of Sonoma County and parts of Santa Barbara County and Monterey counties. And there they planted.

These vineyards, now coming into maturity, are responsible for the great leap in quality that is appearing now.

Now that doesn't imply that California is the only region with the ++ potential to rival Champagne itself.

In Washington state, Domaine Ste. Michelle may not have quite the finesse of the best Golden State sparkling wines, but it's equal to or better than most of them. It's a bargain at its usual price of $9-$10, but some Baltimore-area stores have it on sale for $7 during the holiday season -- a spectacular deal that merits buying by the case.

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