Champagne is the drink of celebration, particularly on New Year's Eve. The presence of bubbles transforms ordinary white wine into something special, and we pay a special price for it, due to limited production and inordinately high taxes on what is viewed as a luxury. Winemakers outside of France are legally entitled to call their bubbly products "champagne," but most of the good ones no longer do, settling for the less spectacular but accurate phrase, sparkling wine, or m,ethode champenoise. That is the process used in Champagne whereby a blend, or cuv,ee, usually of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, is fermented a second time in the bottle and aged to produce a great and gregarious wine.
California sparklers are giving the French a run for their money. Ironically, some of these wines are produced by houses in Champagne that have invested in California, foreseeing the increased demand for good sparkling wine and the upward curve of the quality and production of West Coast wines. They say they do not comsider these California sparklers competitors for the true champagne, but in fact they are. Champagne is relatively cheap at the moment, but the prices will eventually rise; many more people will be reaching for American effervescence in the years ahead.
The first champagne house to invest in California, 11 years ago, was Moet-Hennessey, maker of Dom P,erignon and now of Domain Chandon in Napa Valley. Then Piper Heidsieck launched Piper Sonoma. It was followed by Roederer, Deutz and Lanson, all in various stages of production in California. In addition to these there are a number of good indigenous California sparklers, with more coming onto the shelf every year.
I put together a dozen for an impromptu tasting, and in the spirit of the New Year decided to serve them with food. Ten people went through the wines more or less judiciously; they also went through a fair amount of foie gras with truffles, fresh oysters with a dab of caviar and a sprinkling of chopped scallions, rolled sole filets stuffed with crab meat and shrimp in a white wine sauce, glazed carrots, a strawberry tart, and Christmas pudding with a splash of flaming cognac, accompanied by hard sauce.
The results were mixed but enthusiastic. The sparklers that stood out, including approximate prices, were these:
As aperitifs, the Chandon special reserve brut ($20), clean and flavorful; the '81 Piper Sonoma brut ($13), drier with a bit more depth; and Mirassou's '79 "late-disgorged" Monterey County sparkler ($16), left on the yeasts until shortly before release to add to the wine's complexity.
The '81 Robert Hunter brut de noir, from Sonoma ($14), went well with the foie gras, even though the wine was dry and would be an equally good aperitif. The favorite of the drier sparklers was the Iron Horse '80 brut, also from Sonoma ($16.50), which complemented the oysters without losing its clean, full-bodied character.
A '78 Shadow Creek blanc de noir, from Sonoma, had a fruitiness equal to the richness of the sauced fish, but it was over the hill. It still pleased most of the tasters; the '81 vintage is $14. It was followed by a '77 Martin Ray Napa "California Champagne" ($26), very full and yeasty, not dry enough for the main course and too intense for the delicate tart.
The last entry was Schramsberg's '80 Cr,emant, from Napa ($19), a semisweet, less effervescent sparkler that provided a fine transition from tart to traditional pudding.