Sparkling wines improve, but fail to really dazzle


Tastings: California bottlings show producers are trying, but offerings still don't measure up to French style

November 07, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

When drinking California sparkling wine, sometimes it's hard to tell whether your flute is half-empty or half-full.

The wines have certainly come a long way since serious producers started using Champagne grape varieties and the painstaking methode Champenoise -- fermentation in bottle -- in the 1960s and 1970s.

But while many of these wines try very hard to copy the style that made Champagne deservedly world-famous, few truly succeed. A good number come reasonably close, while many more aren't even in the ballpark.

Still, even sparkling wines that are far from French in character can still be pleasant to drink if your palate hasn't been spoiled by the elegance, subtlety and toasty flavors of Champagne.

When I drink a fine Champagne, I am reminded of the bread served in virtually any fine restaurant in France. That's the flavor one so seldom finds in Champagne's imitators. California sparkling wine is in pretty much the same position as the bakery departments of major U.S. grocery chains -- remarkably improved in recent years, but not there yet.

On the half-full side, many California sparkling wines have very good structure and texture. The fruit is seldom subtle, but sometimes fruit is allowed to be a bit brash.

In general, California producers seem to do better with blanc de noirs -- white or pale-pink sparkling wines made from dark pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. This style demands less subtlety than a blended brut (a dry blend of white and red grapes) or blanc de blancs, usually meaning 100 percent chardonnay.

Cream of the crop

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut Rose ($26). The most successful of the California spinoffs of Champagne's great estates is making a dynamite pale rose these days. It offers crisp, cutting flavors of strawberry, Bing cherry, cranberry, apple, yeast and toast. There's a lot of different fruit flavors but they're all subtle and none stands out, which is how it ought to be. Bravo!

Chandon Blanc de Noir ($17). This is the class of the Chandon line, though it's not priced that way. This pale rose shows excellent balance, intensity, grip and finish. The flavors of strawberry, cherry and yeast may not be as delicate as in a French Champagne rose, but they are vibrant and well-suited to drinking with a variety of foods.

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($24). I might be able to distinguish this from a fine champagne in a blind tasting, but I wouldn't bet on it. Its long, crisp, toasty, yeasty flavors are gripping and very authentic. Maybe it's a little edgier than champagne, but very little.

Mumm Cuvee Napa DVX ($50). This luxury blend is a little fruitier than you'd find in Champagne, but the feel, intensity and the finish are all dead-on.

Pacific Echo Anderson Valley Blanc de Blancs ($23). This toasty, yeasty, light-bodied but gripping wine is well-made and does a good impression of Champagne style.

Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut Prestige ($18). Mumm's dirty little secret is that its Napa Valley brut has shown better than its nonvintage brut champagne in recent years. This toasty wine has the elegance and much of the flavor of true champagne, lacking only a little yeastness.

Chandon Etoile Brut Carneros, 78 percent Napa, 22 percent Sonoma ($35). A soft and full style of sparkling wine, the Etoile is a bit on the fruity side but otherwise gets the idea of Champagne across.


Pacific Echo Brut, Mendocino County ($23). This crisp sparkling wine shows good freshness, zip, structure and yeast and pear flavors. Just a tad more complexity would put it in the top echelon.

1997 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Carneros Sparkling Wine ($25). Fruit is what this sparkling wine is about: pear, peach and melon among others. That's very appealing though not particularly subtle or Champagnelike.

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($18). Your typical good but not great California sparkling wine: light, clean, fruity but lacks the toastiness that could give it complexity. Nice price, though.

1997 Mumm Cuvee Napa, Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley ($22). There's an austere elegance to this wine that comes close to Champagne character but falls just short in the finish.

Mumm Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley ($18). This pale-pink wine has appealing strawberry flavor, a good measure of elegance and refreshing crispness. It should go well with seafood or ham.

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma County Blanc de Noirs ($18). This light-colored blanc de noirs shows light, pleasant strawberry flavor without much complexity or intensity.


Chandon Reserve Brut, 52 percent Sonoma, 48 percent Napa ($24). A bit light and watery.

Chandon Etoile Rose ($40). All the good flavors -- cherry, strawberry and a light toastiness -- are upfront in this pale-pink wine. It's pleasant, but drops off quickly.

Chandon Brut Classico ($17). Crisp and clean, but lacking grip and finish. Pleasant but boring.

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