Look for bubblies as sparkling as fine Champagne

VINTAGE POINT

December 05, 1993|By Michael Dresser

Champagne is the beverage of exuberance. In its bubbles are delivered one of life's most merry messages. It seems almost churlish to quibble about how it tastes.

Some of us crabbed souls can't help it, though. The pop of the cork, the glass raised in a joyful toast, the tingle on the lip should be enough to satisfy anyone. We greedily demand flavor as well.

Perhaps we are the unreasonable ones. The great majority of those who taste bubbly wine seem to give hardly a thought to its aesthetic qualities. They drink it, they're happy, and that's that. Perhaps that's how so much appalling wine can be sold under the name Champagne.

It's not just the New World imitators, though their cheap, mass-produced products are among the worst offenders. It's also famous Champagne houses that sully the name they fight so hard to defend, by applying it to musty wines that taste more of Flatbush than France.

But enough kvetching! There are glad tidings aplenty for every Champagne Charlie and Charlene this December. Times have never been better for those of us who enjoy the crisp, yeasty, toasty flavors of a fine sparkling wine.

No longer must we depend on the Champagne region to supply our needs. Other French regions produce creditable knockoffs at half the price. California sparkling wine has come of age. Washington state is making high quality available at popular prices. Oregon and New York are emerging as promising sources of sparkling wines made by the classic and painstaking "methode Champenoise."

Even Maryland is producing a sparkling wine, at Boordy Vineyards, and it's not at all bad.

Consumers can also take heart in the knowledge that there is a glut of bubbles on the market, starting with Champagne itself. A combination of huge crops and a crushing European recession have left the caves of Reims and Epernay overflowing with wine. Producers are trying all sorts of schemes to keep prices inflated, but sooner or later they will have to sell their wine, and bargains will be many.

A very good month

A glut in Champagne eventually trickles down to affect the entire market for sparkling wine, so this December will be a very good month for bubble fiends.

Good bubbly will be available for as little as $7 a bottle, perhaps less, as merchants put the remarkable wines of Washington's Domaine Ste. Michelle on sale. On the high end, one is limited only by one's budget and qualms about conspicuous consumption. You can rest assured, however, that the $125 to $175 you spend on a bottle of Krug or Salon Champagne will eclipse the relatively pedestrian delights of Dom Perignon.

So what do you look for in a good Champagne or sparkling wine in the same style? What can you reasonably expect? And what should you expect to pay to get it?

First, you should expect the wine to be clean. There should be no "off" odors. The flavors should not be earthy. The wine's aroma should not remind you of Raid insecticide, as some do. Nor should the dominant smell be that of cotton candy, a frequently found flaw.

Second, you should get the appropriate level of sweetness. If the wine is labeled "brut," it should be close to bone-dry. All too often, wine sold as "brut" is noticeably sweet. In the convoluted nomenclature of Champagne, these wines should be labeled "extra dry," which means lightly sweet. Many consumers who are buying brut sparkling wine would probably be happier with extra dry.

Third, the wine should be crisp, lively and refreshing, with a steady stream of small bubbles to tickle your tongue. Good sparkling wine can be full-bodied, but it can never be ponderous or rough. Far too many sparkling wines have a bitter, raspy edge that makes them more punishment than pleasure. Others are so shrilly acidic they taste like little more than carbonated lemon juice.

And then the nuances

These are the mere basics, before you get into questions of style, nuance and complexity. All good sparkling wines, from German sekt to Spanish cava to Champagne itself, must meet these tests or cheat those who drink them. Yet, it's shocking how many expensive sparkling wines cannot fulfill these most simple requirements.

For an investment of $8 to $12 you can reasonably expect a wine that meets these basic requirements. For moderate complexity and depth you will likely have to shell out $12 to $20. Spending more than $20 gives you a chance at a truly elegant, complex wine, but it's no guarantee. Decent nonvintage brut Champagne starts about there, but the best of these -- such as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Bollinger -- are more likely to cost $30 or more.

Sparkling wine is often judged by how closely it can approximate the style of Champagne itself, where every effort is made to play down the fruity flavors of the grape in favor of the nuances of minerals and yeast.

The Champagne style is wonderful, and that's why people will pay a premium for it.

Until recently, devotees of this style had no choice. No other region came close to the liveliness and complexity of the original.

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