A thrifty toast to the new year Wine: Some good bottles of bubbly can be bought for $20 or less.

December 21, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

It really is a pity to have to ring in the new year in an economical fashion, but sometimes it's necessary.

On New Year's Eve two years from now, when we ring in 2000, let's damn the cost, throw caution to the winds and drain bottles of the finest vintage Champagne. (The empties will be useful for "reasoning" with the killjoys who natter that we're celebrating the millennium a year too early.)

But the year at hand is merely 1998 -- another 12 months of credit-card bills, mortgage payments, car loans and all the other annoyances that stand between us and total self-indulgence.

So Dom Perignon is out. Even the typical nonvintage brut Champagne looks pricey at $25-$35, especially when you're thinking about multiple bottles. In a spirit of frugality -- but not excruciating frugality -- we'll hold the line at $20.

That limit excludes some of the finest sparkling wines from California -- Iron Horse, Schramsberg, Roederer Estate's Ermitage and Mumm's DVX, to name a few.

But my recent tastings showed that sparkling-wine lovers can revel quite elegantly within our price limit. California, in particular, is producing a bevy of lively, complex, well-made sparkling wines that do at least a reasonable imitation of true Champagne.

And by extending one's horizons to Washington state, one can enjoy creditable dry sparkling wine -- made from the original Champagne grapes according to painstaking Champagne methods -- for as little as $10 a bottle.

Two stand out

The two stars of the tasting represent far different approaches to making sparkling wine in California.

The 1989 Gloria Ferrer Brut Royal Cuvee ($18) lets its ripe California fruit shine through -- with fascinating hints of bing cherry, strawberry and apple. It's a wine of impressive intensity and complexity that sets its own style instead of imitating Champagne.

The Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($20, but widely available on sale for as low as $15) takes an entirely different road. Roederer's cool Mendocino County vineyards produce some of the most Champagne-like grapes coming out of California today, and the results show in the bottle. With its yeasty, toasty flavors and tight-beaded bubbles, Roederer comes as close as any sparkling wine in California to replicating the style of Champagne.

While those two clearly stood out from the pack, several others offered significant value.

Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut Prestige ($16) has improved significantly from its early years, when the wine often seemed thin and lemony. Now the California spinoff of the famous Mumm Champagne house is producing excellent wines in its own right.

Gloria Ferrer has come on strong, not just with its top-of-the-line wines but also with its Sonoma County Brut ($15). This wine shows plenty of crisp, lively fruit, with nuances of peach and pear. Many wine drinkers who have not cut their teeth on Champagne will find they prefer this style.

It was a distinct pleasure to find that Piper Sonoma, which for many years produced thin wines with more bubbles than character, has rediscovered flavor. The current release of its Select Cuvee Sonoma County Sparkling Wine ($14) shows an impressive roundness and yeastiness that wasn't there when I gave up on this label back in the 1980s.

Domaine Chandon, the first of the Champagne house spinoffs to take root in California, continues to provide consistent value. Its Blanc de Noir ($16.49) is a highly flavorful sparkling wine that is particularly suitable for serving with food.

Joining the ranks of high-quality California sparkling-wine producers is none other than E. & J. Gallo, operating under the Indigo Hills label.

The Indigo Hills North Coast Brut Chardonnay Sparkling Wine ($12) won't make anyone forget Roederer Cristal -- or even Roederer Estate -- but it is a clean, crisp, refreshing sparkling wine at a reasonable price. It shows a little sulfur on the nose when first opened, but that dissipates quickly, leaving behind a wine with a cheerful fruitiness offset by Champagne-like yeastiness.

Washington state's Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wines have a new and much more attractive package, but the wine inside them remains about the same -- perhaps the best values in good American sparkling wine on the market today.

Selling for about $10 -- and often less on sale -- the Domaine Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Brut and Blanc de Blancs rival the quality of many wines twice their price. Neither is a wine of great complexity, but both are clean-tasting and refreshing -- with none of the "off" flavors or odors characteristic of inexpensive sparkling wines.

The Brut still shows more intensity and character than the Blanc de Blancs, but it seems the gap has closed a little in recent years.

Spanish sparkler

Spanish cava -- Spain's version of sparkling wine -- is inexpensive and popular but usually lacks the class of sparkling wines made from the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier of Champagne. Usually, there's some kind of funky odor or flavor that detracts from the experience.

One cava that has consistently avoided these pitfalls, while keeping its low price, is Paul Chenau Brut Blanc de Blancs ($8.49). There's a slight earthiness that distinguishes it from Champagne or California sparkling wine, but this earthiness doesn't get out of hand. This sparkling wine is an excellent

choice for the struggling graduate student.

Finally, France itself produces some tasty budget alternatives to Champagne. One of the better ones is the 1985 Chateau Moncontour ($15), a sparkling Vouvray from the Loire Valley.

Made from the chenin blanc grape, the Moncontour displays more obvious fruitiness and acidity than any Champagne. Nevertheless, it is often served as the "house Champagne" in French restaurants in this country. The purist in me objects to the practice -- as would any Champagne producer -- but I haven't noticed any other diners complaining.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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