In this corner, France

THE BEST OF THE BUBBLIES

in that, California

December 13, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

It seems crass to even discuss money and Champagne in the same sentence.

There's something about Champagne that defies its own price tag. It's a magical beverage, full of mirth, celebration and tradition. We launch ships with it, toast our greatest moments with it. Spending lavishly on Champagne is more than buying a wine, it's making a statement.

But the statement's in, and the bill is past due. With the dollar in tatters, the price of Champagne has exploded in the last decade. The French bubbly that only a few years ago cost $16 now weighs in at $32. At some point even the most extravagant soul has to wonder if his money is being well spent.

Increasingly, the answer is no.

Overproduction and indifferent winemaking have robbed some of the most famous Champagnes of the qualities that made them special. And once you open up the Pandora's Box of quality, the demons of price escape and can't be put back.

It comes down to this: A lot of Champagne is mediocre stuff. Take away the bubbles and you're one cut away from plonk. (Plonk, if you're not into winespeak, is wine that isn't fit to drown slugs.)

Meanwhile, there is no denying the progress being made by the rest of the world in making tasty wines that sparkle.

California is leading the way. It's undeniable that hard work, a few trials and a lot of errors are making the state's sparking wines a worthy competitor with the fruit of the sainted soil of Champagne.

Ten years ago such a statement would have been a joke. California sparkling wine, with few exceptions, was clumsily made trash.

But during a time when Champagne producers seem to be concentrating on squeezing more juice out of stressed vines, many California vintners have been deadly serious in their efforts to replicate Champagne.

In some cases, those California vintners are affiliates of some of the most famous Champagne makers, but there seems to be little correlation between French ownership and higher quality.

Now let's say we wipe out the idea of real French Champagne as the norm. Imagine that sparkling wine had been invented in the Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma counties, and that later the Champenois had decided to imitate that style.

Had that happened, most critics would be carping now that the French wines lack fruit, aren't bubbly enough and are full of these odd yeasty and toasty flavors you don't find in the "classic" California sparkling wine.

In fact, if you drink mostly California wine you are probably in this position already. Your palate won't be used to the ultra-austere wines Champagne lovers prize.

Don't apologize. California has made tremendous strides toward making great sparkling wines, and the price is almost always more attractive than their French counterparts.

So which is better? To answer that, I staged what you could call the Bubbly Bowl, picking 10 dry (brut) French Champagnes and matching them against 10 California sparkling wines that had been made by the laborious Champagne method. Then, just to destroy the symmetry, I threw an extra California wine into the single flight, or matchup, of pink wines.

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As you will see, the results were by no means one-sided:

Flight 1

CALIFORNIA: Domaine Carneros from Taittinger ($19.49).

FRANCE: Taittinger Brut Reserve ($19.49, half-bottle).

Advantage this an error by the writer. In a false economy, I bought only a half-bottle of the French wine. These small bottles are prone to oxidation, and mine had succumbed. Therefore the clean, crisp, fruity Domaine Carneros -- with its charming but not terribly complex flavors of lemon, peach and orange -- prevailed by default.

5) ADVANTAGE: California 1, Champagne 0.

Flight 2

CALIFORNIA: 1986 Scharffenberger Blanc de Blancs ($22).

FRANCE: Oudinot Brut Champagne ($25).

This strong flight came down to a matter of taste. The Scharffenberger, from the ultra-cool Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, was clean, crisp and elegant -- much more Champagne-like than many Champagnes. But the Oudinot was a sleeper among Champagnes, with mouth-filling, yeasty, fresh-baguette flavors and a creamy feel. It's slightly sweeter than most brut Champagnes, but it's excellent.

2& ADVANTAGE: California 1, France 1.

Flight 3

CALIFORNIA: Chandon Reserve ($23).

FRANCE: Moet & Chandon White Star Brut ($21).

The popularity of White Star is proof that many people who buy Champagne guzzle rather than taste. It's a sprawling, clumsy wine that derives much of its body from residual sugar. The wine looks flat, with very few visible bubbles, and there's not much flavor. It was thoroughly outclassed by its California sister wine, though not because the Chandon Reserve was something special. Despite some earthy, bitter elements, the Chandon Reserve at least has some flavor and liveliness. Both are overpriced.

5) ADVANTAGE: California 2, Champagne 1.

Flight 4

CALIFORNIA: Domaine Mumm, Cuvee Napa, 1986 Brut, Winery Lake-Carneros ($23).

FRANCE: G. H. Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut Champagne ($21).

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