All that sparkles isn't necessarily top-priced Wines: For $15 to $25, you can get a classy Champagne or similar bubbly from France or California

Vintage Point.

December 02, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

Welcome to the last relatively normal holiday season of the 20th century - an event well worth toasting with a fine sparkling wine.

Next year this time, despite the objections of the not-till-2001 crowd, the millennium hype will be upon us. The world could be facing a cataclysm.

No, I don't mean Armageddon or the imminent collapse of the world's computer systems. Why sweat the small stuff? The real danger is that with the Party of Parties approaching, there could be a worldwide shortage of Champagne and other fine bubbly.

Don't worry about the fizzy stuff that's fit only for pouring over sweaty athletes' heads. The world's mass-market wine producers will doubtless step up to the challenge of producing vast quantities of mediocre sparkling wine.

But the amount of cool-climate vineyard land dedicated to the production of traditional Champagne varietals is finite. It can't be expanded to meet a one-time surge in demand.

So logic dictates that we:

a) Enjoy this year's bounty, and b) plan a year 2000 strategy well in advance.

The first part is relatively easy. If a consumer is willing to part with $15-$25, a reasonable sum for a semi-special occasion, his or her chance of acquiring a classy sparkling wine is excellent.

One reason is that some small, quality-oriented Champagne houses have begun exporting impressive nonvintage brut (dry) wines to the United States.

Such producers as A. Charbaut, H. Germain and Nicolas Feuillatte are giving American consumers exciting new alternatives to familiar names such as Mumm, Taittinger and Moet & Chandon. Another reason is the continuing progress being made in California, more than any other place outside France, in making world-class bubbly.

These are only a few of the high-class choices in dry Champagne and Champagne-style wine on the market today:

* A. Charbaut et Fils Brut Champagne ($21). This lively, elegant nonvintage wine is an excellent expression of the lighter side of Champagne. Lightly fruity, with hints of yeast and fresh French bread, it's a perfect Champagne with which to greet guests.

* Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Premiere Cru (stretching the limits at $25.99) is a rich, almost creamy style of nonvintage Champagne. This gripping, mineral-flavored wine, reminiscent of the full-bodied style of Bollinger, deserves a place at the dinner with seafood or pate.

* Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs, Carneros Methode Champenoise ($17). This pale sparkling wine doesn't offer the color of a rose but the red-grape influence can clearly be found in the crisp, dry flavors of raspberry and cherry. It's less restrained than its Champagne counterparts but has an elegance all its own. Bring on the salmon.

* Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($21). Quality keeps improving at this New World outpost of the Roederer Champagne house. This is an elegant, yeasty, toasty wine that I'd be hard-pressed to distinguish from the real thing.

* Pacific Echo Brut, Mendocino County ($20). The name used to be Scharffenberger, but the quality hasn't changed at this pioneering winery. This is a rounded, soft style of wine with the yeast and toast flavors of Champagne but a fruitiness that says "California" in a charming French accent.

* 1990 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee, Carneros Sparkling Wine ($19). For intensity, see the Ferrer Blanc de Noirs; for elegance, try this premium bottling from this increasingly impressive winery. You'd have to be a better taster than I to reliably distinguish this product from a lighter-style Champagne.

* Pacific Echo Brut Rose, Mendocino County ($21). Bold pink color is matched by bold strawberry and cherry flavors in this long, clean, gripping wine. Definitely serve it with food.

* Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut Rose ($23). This wine offers intense strawberry flavor and excellent grip. It lacks the elegance of Roederer's brut but would be a formidable companion to salmon, ham or spicy Asian food.

* Mumm Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noirs ($18). This pale pink wine is crisp and forceful, with a strong resemblance to a good Champagne rose. It's a good appetizer-course wine.

* Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut Prestige ($18). This pleasant, overtly fruity, distinctly Californian wine captures the feel, though not the flavor, of true Champagne. It's just fun to drink, with food or not.

While any of the wines on this list can meet your celebratory requirements of the 1998-1999 holiday season, 1999-2000 is another story. None of the wines is one to squirrel away for a year or two. Besides, you might just want to celebrate with the best, and the 1990 Champagne vintage has been hailed as one of the finest in recent decades. Many of the best Champagne houses have their best wines of the vintage on the market now.

If you want to usher in 2000 (or 2001) with the very best - and if you have a cool cellar in which to store fragile wine - it would be wise to acquire your 1990 cuvees de prestige this year or early next year.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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