Bubbling to the Top
By Tom Gable
Champagne and sparkling wines are for occasions. You can marry the bubbly stuff with fine food, give it as a gift or crack it open for celebrations. During the holidays, it’s advisable to keep at least a chilled bottle or two on hand. If you don’t pop the cork at Christmas, New Year’s Eve is right around the corner.
The quality of sparkling wines from California continues to improve each year, while prices have held steady or dropped. The array of French Champagnes at San Diego wine merchants has never been better, and this includes classics going back to the 1988 vintage (yes, great Champagnes age well).
The best California sparkling wines (the term “Champagne” should be reserved for wines from that legally defined area in France) are made in the classic méthode champenoise using modern technology in combination with techniques developed over centuries in France. California vineyards benefit from warmer weather than those in France. This generally results in higher alcohol content after fermentation and increased varietal character, although the combination can lead to one-dimensional wines with few nuances. The use of French yeasts adds a champagne character to the aroma of most California sparklers, although critics say the differences in styles among the domestic wines aren’t that distinctive.
In France, the Champagne houses strive to develop individual styles based on the vineyard location, soil and winemaking traditions that go back for generations. The influence of the soil, or terroir, is considered most important in France, whether in Champagne or throughout Burgundy and Bordeaux. The styles range from lean and crisp with a nonvintage (NV) blanc de blanc made from Chardonnay grapes to more lush special cuvées of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with select yeast.
How to choose? Create your own mini-tasting to find out. Select one or two California wines from the list below and comparably priced French Champagnes (i.e., the Mumm Cuvée Napa next to the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label). Taste them side-by-side and note the similarities and differences.
Beyond traditional uses of sparkling wines, such as launching your boat or toasting a success, try marrying them with food. Three dishes recommended by experienced chefs: salmon with a dill sauce; swordfish with beurre blanc and capers; and seafood risotto.
The following wines are generally available throughout the county. They are listed by price in the most expensive French category and in order of personal preference in the others. Prices are approximate and vary among merchants. A few wine merchants and phone numbers are listed below. And an added feature: two well-made screw-top wines (!) for your quaffing pleasure from the heretic Bonny Doon Vineyards.
Gloria Ferrer, NV Blanc de Blanc, Carneros, $14
Gloria Ferrer, NV Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma County, $14
Roederer Estate, NV Brut, Anderson Valley, $15
Iron Horse, 1997 Brut, Russian Cuvée, $22
Domaine Carneros, 1999 Brut, $17
Schramsberg, 1999 Blanc de Blanc, $23
Mumm Cuvée Napa, NV Brut, Napa Valley, Prestige, $16
Krug, 1988 Brut Champagne, $160
Louis Roederer, 1996 Brut Champagne, Cristal, $160
Taittinger, 1995 Comte de Champagne, $100
Krug, NV Brut Champagne, Grande Cuvée, $100
Salon, 1990 Brut, Blanc de Blancs Champagne, Le Mesnil, $100
Moet & Chandon, 1995 Brut Champagne, Dom Perignon, $80
Laurent-Perrier, NV Brut Champagne Grand Siecle, $75
Veuve Clicquot, 1995 Brut Rosé Champagne Reserve, $60
Veuve Clicquot, 1995 Brut Champagne, Gold Label Vintage Reserve, $50
Laurent-Perrier, NV Brut Rose Champagne, $45
Champagne, Best Values
Veuve Clicquot, NV Yellow Label, $29
Bollinger, NV Brut Champagne Special Cuvée, $34
Piper-Heidsieck, NV Brut Champagne, $25
Piper-Heidsieck, NV Brut Rose Champagne, $30
Henriot, NV Brut, Blanc de Blancs Champagne, $28
Deutz, NV Brut Champagne Classic, $25
Heidsieck Monopole, NV Brut Champagne, $25
Laurent-Perrier, NV Brut Champagne LD, $26
Henri Abele, NV Brut Champagne, $28
Bonny Doon, NV Big House White (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Grigio and Malvasia Blanc, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc), $8
Bonny Doon, Big House Red (Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Carignane, Sangiovese, Barbera and eight other varietals), $8
UTC, Miramar, Sorrento Mesa: San Diego Wine Company (858-535-1400), Vintage Wines (858-549-2112), WineSellar (858-450-9557) Downtown: The Wine Bank (619-234-7487) Escondido: Holiday Wines (760-745-1200