The Champagne region of France has the loftiest reputation for sparkling wines, while Spain leads the world in the quantity of sparkling wine produced. In the middle are California bruts, a step up in quality from under $10 Spanish cavas, but generally less expensive than Champagne.
The best California bruts are top quality -- for me clearly the best in the world after Champagne. (By the way, I use the word "brut" interchangeably with "sparkling wine," because almost all of the better California bubblies fall into the brut -- very dry -- category.)
Most of the standard bottlings of California sparkling wines retail in the $15 to $25 range, while the average non-vintage brut Champagne retails for $25 to $50. When you're thinking of buying one or more cases for parties and weddings, California sparkling wines might be the more prudent choice. And yet, the finest California bruts -- such as Roederer Estate's l'Ermitage, Iron Horse's Late-Disgorged Brut and Blanc de Blancs, Mumm Napa's DVX, Domaine Carneros' Le Rêve, Domaine Chandon's Etoile and Gloria Ferrer's Carneros Cuvée -- do challenge Champagne in quality, but at Champagne prices.
California bruts make more sense for parties and large gatherings. They are generally fruitier than Champagne because they are made from riper grapes. And because they are usually aged for a shorter time, California bruts are frothier than Champagne -- perfect for parties. While they might lack the toasty, biscuity character you find in Champagne (except for the finest, most expensive California bottlings), if you'e at a party, you're not necessarily contemplating the toastiness, or caramel, biscuit qualities of your beverage. Besides, the fruitiness of California bruts goes perfectly with the casual, informal foods that are the usual fare of most large gatherings.
California Brut is made up and down the coastline, mainly in cool areas. For example, even though many sparkling wineries, such as Domaine Chandon and Mumm Cuvée Napa, are located in the Napa Valley, they obtain all or most all of their grapes from the very cool Carneros sub-region, which straddles both Napa and Sonoma Counties at the southern end.
Taittinger's Domaine Carneros is located right in the heart of Carneros, while Gloria Ferrer is also in Carneros, in a very cool, windy part of Sonoma. Iron Horse is in the coolest part of Sonoma's Russian River Valley -- Green Valley. Champagne Louis Roederer researched Califonia's regions very well before deciding on the cool Anderson Valley in Mendocino for its premium sparkling winery, Roederer Estate. Scharffenberger and Handley Cellars are two other wineries making sparkling wines in the Anderson Valley.
The two grape varieties that predominate in California bruts are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, just as in Champagne. A few wineries, such as Domaine Chandon, also use the third Champenoise grape, Pinot Meunier, a black-grape relative of Pinot Noir. Some wineries also use a little bit of Pinot Blanc and/or Pinot Gris.
The primary difference in the composition of grape varieties between California bruts and Champagne is that quite a few California wineries tend to use more Chardonnay in their blends than do Champagne houses. For instance, Roederer Estate's typical blend is 70 to 80 percent Chardonnay, 20 to 30 percent Pinot Noir. Domaine Carneros also favors Chardonnay.
I asked Michel Salgues, the former CEO/winemaker of Roederer Estate, the reason for the predominance of Chardonnay. Salgues explained that in the relatively warmer climates of California -- as opposed to the Champagne region's very cool, marginal climate where the grapes barely ripen -- Chardonnay performs better. A predominance of Pinot Noir would make California bruts (at least his, he believed) too heavy and plodding.
All of the better California sparkling wines are made by the same method used in Champagne, known as the Méthode Champenoise, in which each bottle you buy has undergone its second fermentation in that bottle, trapping the carbon dioxide, which dissolves into bubbles. The following is a short description of ten of my favorite California bruts:
Founding winemaker Michel Salgues received his training at Roederer Estate's parent company, Champagne Louis Roederer. From the beginning, in the early 1980s, Roederer Estate has been receiving accolades for its sparkling wines from leading British as well as American wine writers. Roederer Estate makes four bruts: its basic non-vintage brut (primarily Chardonnay, also available in magnum); its very delicate, very dry non-vintage Rosé, half Chardonnay, half Pinot Noir; its premium Vintage Brut, L'Hermitage, 56 percent Chardonnay, 44 percent Pinot Noir; and its newest wine, L'Hermitage Rosé.
Near the Pacific Ocean, Iron Horse makes both still and sparkling wines, but has attained its renown on the basis of its bubblies. Winemaker Forrest Tancer makes many different cuvees -- I counted eight, all vintage-dated. Some of the perennial favorites are Vrais Amis, the Wedding Cuvée (a blanc de noirs) and the Russian Cuvée. My particular favorites are Iron Horse's two Late Disgorged (LD) Bruts -- made from the best grapes and given extra aging. Currently, the 1996 LD Blanc de Blancs and the 1996 LD Brut are available.
Mumm Napa sources almost all of its grapes from the cool Carneros region. Now making 200,000 cases a year -- only Domaine Chandon is larger among the more serious sparkling wineries -- Mumm Napa defies the rule that bigger cannot be better. Founding winemaker Guy Devaux, now deceased, was sent by its then owner, Champagne Mumm (both are now owned by Pernod Ricard) to establish "the best winery outside of Champagne." And Guy Devaux came close, especially considering how many sparkling wines Mumm Napa produces. Seven different cuvees are made. Its pride and joy are its two premium bubblies, DVX and the new DVX Rosé.
The California outpost of Champagne's biggest house, Moët & Chandon (LVMH), Domaine Chandon began the wave of French Champagne houses owning sparkling wineries in California when it opened its doors in 1973. Domaine Chandon's great strength is the consistency of its sparkling wines and its wide availability. Its basic brut and blanc de noirs are both good values. Chandon always had a policy of making non-vintage bubblies, but they now produce a small amount of Vintage Reserve that is excellent. Its two shining stars are its premium bubblies, the elegant Étoile and the Étoile Rosé. And they still have one of the best restaurants in Napa Valley on their premises.
The indomitable Eileen Crane has been directing Domaine Carneros from its beginning. Jointly owned by Champagne Taittinger and Kobrand (an important wine importer), Domaine Carneros has a magnificent winery right in Carneros. As you might expect, Domaine Carneros models its style after Taittinger, and so elegance rather than power is its calling card. Its premium sparkling wine is also a blanc de blancs (just like Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne). It's called Le Rêve.
The award for most beautiful bottle of California sparkling wine goes to "J." And it's also a very good brut! Judy Jordan now has a winery in the cool Russian River Valley, completely separate from Jordan's still (non-sparkling) wines, run by her dad. The "J" style emphasizes richness of fruit and purity of flavor. It's a vintage bubbly, also available in magnum, and now also as a non-vintage Rosé.
You must visit Gloria Ferrer, near San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean, to understand why Carneros is so cool. As the winds come whipping up in the afternoon, you reach for a sweater, even in the heart of summer. Since it is owned by the very wealthy Freixenet (the world's largest sparkling wine company), as you might expect, Gloria Ferrer is a gorgeous, state-of-the-art sparkling winery on the southern Sonoma coast at the western edge of Carneros. Gloria Ferrer has two premium bubblies, the reasonably priced Royal Cuvée and the more expensive Carneros Cuvée. The style emphasizes freshness and fruitiness. Bob Iantosca has been the winemaker since 1987.
S. Anderson, in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, might be the least-known of the quality sparkling winemakers. It is best known for its still wines, and only produces about 2,500 cases of bubbly. It does have a complete line of sparkling wines, but my favorite always has been its Blanc de Noirs. The brand is now owned by the Cliff Lede Vineyards.
Another winery best known for its still wines, especially its whites, Handley Cellars happens to produce two fine sparkling wines up in Mendocino's cool Anderson Valley. The winemaker is the very capable Milla Handley. I especially like her dry, delicate Vintage Brut Rosé.
John Scharffenberger is now making gourmet chocolates. He sold his Anderson Valley winery to Champagne Veuve Clicquot, who renamed it Pacific Echo. Bad choice. Veuve Clicquot never really had much success with Pacific Echo, and sold it to Roederer Estate, who renamed it Scharffenberger. This winery, perhaps because of its location, has always emphasized Chardonnay in its blends. Roederer Estate is running Scharffenberger as a separate estate with its own style. It should only get better and better under its leadership.
The following are some of my favorite California sparkling wines that I have recently tasted:
Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley (California ) Estate Brut NV ($22-$24 Maisons, Marques & Domaines): Roederer Estate's style is for me closest to that of Champagne's: it is very dry, earthy, less fruity than other California bruts, and elegant, with its dominating Chardonnay component. It ages extremely well from my experience. For its quality, it gets my vote as the best-value bubbly in the U.S. 90
Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley (California ) Estate Rosé NV ($25-$26 Maisons, Marques & Domaines): What a beautiful, totally dry rosé! If you have not been thrilled with California brut rosés, try this one. Roederer Estate's Rosé is very dry, pale coppery-pink in color, delicately flavored, with hints of wild strawberries, very subtle and understated. I absolutely love it! 92
Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley (California ) L'Ermitage Estate 1998 ($45-$48 Maisons, Marques & Domaines): L'Ermitage has been one of the great sparkling wines in the world from its first vintage, less than 20 years ago. It is complex and toasty, with hazelnut flavors. It is one of the only California bruts that really improves with aging. In a blind tasting, it could easily be identified as a Prestige Champagne. And at a very fair price for its superb quality. 94
Iron Horse, Green Valley (California) LD Brut 1996 ($55-$56): When I think of the best U.S. sparkling wine houses, Iron Horse immediately comes to mind. It leads the way for American-owned sparkling producers. Iron Horse has a huge line of bruts for each occasion, but its two late-disgorged bubblies, its brut and its blanc de blancs, are truly exceptional--and also its priciest bruts. The 1996 LD Brut, aged six years on its yeasts, is powerful and intensely fruity; 50 percent Pinot Noir, 50 percent Chardonnay. Long-lasting, complex, and pure. Still quite young. 91
Iron Horse, Green Valley (California) LD Blanc de Blancs 1996 ($55-$56): The LD Blanc de Blancs, 100 percent Chardonnay, is my favorite Iron Horse brut. It is very dry, with only 7 grams dosage (about the same as Krug Grande Cuvée). It is aged on its yeasts for seven years! The 1996 LD Blanc de Blancs has a creamy texture, with lemony, nutty flavors and excellent acidity. It should drink well for another five to ten years. Top quality! 93
Mumm Napa, Napa Valley (California) DVX 1999 (about $45): Mumm Napa has undergone different ownerships, but has remained one of California's top sparkling wine producers for over two decades. Its DVX, named in honor of founding winemaker Guy Devaux, is truly one of the country's best sparkling wines. The 1999 DVX, 50 percent Pinot Noir, 50 percent Chardonnay, has its grapes sourced from Mumm Napa's finest Carneros vineyards. It is complexly flavored, elegant, and has good acidity, guaranteeing the 1999 a long life. (I recently tried a 1992 DVX, still magnificent.) 92
Domaine Chandon, Napa Valley (California) Étoile Rosé NV ($34-$38): I marvel at the quality and consistency of Domaine Chandon's sparkling wines, considering that it produces several 100,000 cases of bubbly a year, but its parent in Champagne, Moët & Chandon, does the same thing on an even larger scale! I've been a fan of Étoile Rosé, Chandon's premium rosé brut, from its beginnings. It is delicately flavored, dry, and redolent of small red berry flavors, especially strawberries. Aged five years on its yeasts; complex, elegant, and quite delicious! 92
Domaine Carneros, Carneros (California) Le Rêve 1999 ($52-$54): Le Rêve, Domaine Carneros' premium brut, is a blanc de blancs. Like many fine blanc de blancs sparkling wines, Le Rêve really needs a bit of aging to show its stuff. The 1999 is very dry, even austere at this point, with excellent acidity and complex, citric flavors which linger on the palate. 91
"J" Wine Company, Russian River Valley (California) Brut 2000 ($30): I love giving "J" as a gift. It comes in a dramatic, dark green, beautifully-shaped bottle with a big, yellow J painted on it. "J" emphasizes elegance, richness, and pure fruit flavors, especially pear. It's now making a rosé that is just as good as the brut. 90
Gloria Ferrer, Carneros, (California) Royal Cuvée Brut 1996 ($26-$28): Gloria Ferrer is also one of the larger premium sparkling wine producers in California, and except for its top-of-the-line, small-production Carneros Cuvée, all of its bruts are reasonably priced. Note the excellent price for its 1996 Royal Cuvée, aged for seven years on its yeasts before it was released! The 1996 Royal Cuvée, 65 percent Pinot Noir, 35 percent Chardonnay, has citrus aromas and flavors hinting of lemon, cherries, and pears. It could just be a touch drier for my palate. 90