This week brings the conclusion of what is generally considered the Champagne season – from Christmas to New Year’s – and sale prices make it a good time to stock up. But there’s really no need to limit one’s consumption of what many consider the world’s finest alcoholic drink to such a brief period of time. Originally from France, the bright, crisp, bubbly beverage now is made all over the world, but I think that French Champagne is the best, with the French-based American producers of sparkling wine running a close second.
There are so many Champagne-style beverages out there that it is impossible to check all of them, but we did a bargain-search tasting last week, and had considerable success with sparklers under $20 a bottle.
As a reminder, by French law, the word Champage may be used only on beverages made in the Champagne district of Eastern France. Anything else made in France must be called "sparkling wine," like a 2005 Vouvray we sampled. In other countries, winemakers are free to use any words they like, and they do.
There was no advance planning on the sparkling wines we tried, but we found ourselves with California bubblies from three French-based houses. One was very good, the other two were excellent, and the Domaine du Margalleau Vouvray, from the Loire Valley of France, was different (made from different grapes) but still flavorful, with strong fruit on the palate, though the bubble vanished rather quickly. All were labeled Brut. We prefer the dry sparklers, and by French law, they are ranked from dry to sweet, by residual sugar content. in order: Extra Brut (0-0.6% sugar); Brut (less than 1.5%); Extra Dry, (1.2-2.7%); Sec (1.7-3.5%); Demi-Sec (3.3-5%); Deux (over 5%). By some peculiarity, Brut is drier than Extra Dry.
The others, all non-vintage, were Piper-Sonoma, from the Sonoma County winery owned by the Piper-Heidsieck folks from France, and Roederer Estates and Scharffenberger , from Mendocino County, one of our favorite California areas for visiting, dining, looking and relaxing. The former, in its US. location since the 1980s, owns the latter, a Mendocino standout since 1981. Both are under the umbrella of Maisons Marquis & Domaines, a marketing and distribution firm owned by Roederer of France, maker of Cristal and other fine Champagnes.
Both Roederer and Scharffenberger are in the little town of Philo, on California Highway 128, that goes from U.S. 101 in Cloverdale, Sonoma County, north-west through Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean. Roederer is on the north side of the highway, Scharffenberger on the south. Both make crisp, delicious, dry sparkling wines, with the bubbles exploding in the glass for a long, delightful release that tickles the nose. It’s also a lovely ride, past vines and through eucalyptus groves, with sheep and goats in the fields and good snacks available in Boonville.
They are blends of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in the classic Champagne style, with the former ranging from 60 to 65 percent. Roederer is bright, extremely refreshing, with excellent balance and a feeling of toastiness on the palate. Scharffenberger has a longer finish, more fruit forward. They’re terrific, a half-step ahead of the Piper Sonoma; there’s something about those Mendocino wines that make them a perfect toast to what we all hope will be a prosperous, happy, healthy New Year.