By Dan Berger
Just because it has bubbles is no reason to call it Champagne. Yet that’s what some writers suggest is the beverage to consider for the upcoming holidays.
Indeed, using the term “champagne” with a lower-case c will incur the wrath of some French citizens who consider that the word itself must be capitalized and never used generically. It refers, they say, to the district of that name, and to the classic bubbly that has for hundreds of years been an unmitigated triumph.
World Series locker rooms indeed!
So, by extension, “California Champagne” is a phrase that has irked the French for decades and one that people in the Champagne district of France think is a fraud. Legally, many nations now are restricted from using the term “Champagne” to refer to sparkling wine, including the United States, though a few U.S. producers are grandfathered in and may still use it.
The process used to make Champagne was actually mentioned first by an English inventor 360 years ago — a decade before the blind monk Dom Pierre Perignon was credited with its discovery.
One of the first to make sparkling wine in California was Paul Masson in the days before 1900. His sparklings were first recognized for their quality by the French in 1900.
California is a relative newcomer to fine bubbly. The first California winery to make classic French-method sparkling wine a la Champagne was Schramsberg in the Napa Valley in the 1960s. In the 1970s Domaine Chandon was the first French-owned house to leap into the category.
California’s early achievements with top-rate sparkling wine didn’t dim Champagne’s star, but they did raise enough eyebrows to make the world realize that California could make some good stuff.
Today California’s top sparkling wine producers have a style Americans seem to like, and which befits the grapes they grow. That style features fruit over Champagne’s yeasty complexity and focuses on brightness of youth rather than maturity.
Most California sparkling wine producers today prefer a fruit-driven style of wine and have abandoned efforts to make imitation Champagne. They did this because they knew California was blessed with ideal weather conditions that produced bright, flowery-scented fruit.
Today, U.S. consumers have a range of choices of top-grade domestic sparkling wine and among the best are the following:
— Gloria Ferrer: A Spanish-owned project that pioneered special clones of chardonnay and Pinot Noir to make their distinctive bubblies. The brut is reliable and tasty and the rarer Blanc de Noirs is spectacular.
— Schramsberg: One of the top producers, all its bubblies are sublime, and its top-of-the-line J. Schram is one of the finest and most complex wines on the shelf, though it can cost as much as Champagne.
— J by Jordan: This Russian River Valley-based producer offers bubbies that are a bit lemonier and grapefruity.
— Domaine Carneros: This French-owned (Taittinger) winery’s brut is ultra-sophisticated, and its all-chardonnay La Reve a spectacular hit.
— Mumm Napa: Its slightly spicier sparkling bruts are reliably tasty and its deeply flavored Blanc de Noirs is a bit fuller and works brilliantly with salmon.
— Roederer Estate: Yet another French-founded project, with a drier, more complex wine than many listed here. A top-of-the-line L’Ermitage is spectacular and ages beautifully.
— Iron Horse: This family-owned property makes a huge array of limited release wines, each of them superb, and none better than the Wedding Cuvee. Iron Horse makes great use of its own vineyards deep in the heart of Russian River Valley and its bubblies are seem as among the finest in the state.
In addition to the above-mentioned houses, sparkling wine buyers will be able to find that several dozen California wineries that do not specialize in bubbly nonetheless make exceptional sparkling wines of their own, most of which are made in tiny amounts and are sold primarily at their own tasting rooms.
All of the wines mentioned here are exceptionally designed for special occasions with people who appreciate the best. With Champagne prices starting generally around $55 per bottle, cost becomes a consideration.
To find out more about Sonoma County resident Dan Berger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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