First, let’s get this out of the way: Domestic sparkling wines are not Champagne, even if it might indicate that on the label. Some labels might say that, but only wines from France’s Champagne region are the real thing. (Korbel’s use of the word was grandfathered in, but those wines are nothing like Champagne in quality and style.)
But they do share this with their French brethren and sistren: Most of the bottles are made at good-sized houses that blend juice from many vineyards (and often vintages) — and they’re better than ever.
They’re also, in almost all cases, less expensive, coming in well under “special occasion” prices.
Which means they can fulfill the role that sparkling wines should play: as an oft-served, incredibly food-friendly beverage that adds vim and vigor, literally and figuratively, to any occasion.
A quick refresher on these bubbly delights:
• The wines usually are made in one of two ways: The méthode Champenoise finds the mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast undergoing a second fermentation in each bottle; in the Charmat process, the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank before bottling. The first practice is used throughout the region of Champagne, the second for Prosecco.
• The terminology denoting the sweetness is often counterintuitive, running from very dry (Natural) and dry (Brut) to slightly sweet (Extra Dry) and sweet (Sec and Demi-Sec).
• ”Blanc de Blancs” (white from whites) and “Blanc de Noirs” (white from reds) indicate that the wine is made entirely with grapes of one color.
• The better ones are made from pinot noir and/or chardonnay grapes, with pinot blanc an up-and-coming option.
• Most of these wines are nonvintage, sometimes marked NV to connote that the vintner blended several vintages (often as many as 10). Some labels will have a vintage year, meaning the grapes that year were especially promising for such concoctions.
I was reminded of this recently when savoring two spectacular 2004s, a Roederer L’Ermitage Brut and a Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs. These are from my two favorite California sparkling-wine producers. And while the former is one of those offshoots of storied Champagne houses — along with Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) Domaine Chandon (Moët & Chandon), Mumm Napa (G.H. Mumm) — Schramsberg is all-American, founded by Jacob Schram in 1862 and lovingly steered by the Davies family since 1965.
All make worthy wines, mostly in Napa; Roederer is in Mendocino County, along with another stalwart, Scharffenberger.
Two other bubble-loving houses, J and Iron Horse, churn out wonderful stuff in Sonoma County. J is also an offshoot — steered by Judy Jordan, whose father and brother run Jordan — and embodies what makes California sparklers distinctive: Cork dorks will find plenty to like (and ponder) here, but these wines are also just plain fun, exuberant and enlivening.
And a welcome addition to almost any dinner table, or at a cocktail party. Bubblies are perfectly suited for anything salty (cheese, nuts and Marilyn Monroe’s favorite pairing, potato chips), anything from the ocean (most famously oysters and caviar) and anything fried (especially chicken).
California has more than 80 producers of sparkling wine, and last year they released 9.9 million cases.
But wait, as the commercials say, there’s more. One of the country’s top sparkling-wine producers is Oregon-based Argyle, whose vintage Blanc de Blancs and Extended Tirage bottlings are of Champagne quality. Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington is an up-and-comer in the bubble-icious realm at lower prices.
And finally there’s a personal favorite, Gruet, whose Blanc de Noirs is a stunning value at $15 or so. It’s from the wine non-hotbed of New Mexico. If that’s still too spendy, Gruet now has a second label, Domaine St. Vincent, with bottles in the $12 range.
Which is absolutely worth toasting.
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4