We have several seasons in North Bay wine country—bud-break and the first wave of wine tourists, spring and fall passport events, the crush: Celebrations of cabernets and pinot, chardonnays and zin. But at the end of the year, 'tis the bubbly that takes center stage.
Champagne, as most local oenophiles (Latin for "wino") here knows all too well, refers specifically to the sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France, centered around the town of Aix. Large “Negociant” champagne houses that purchase much of their fruit, such as Veuve Cliquot, Bollinger, Roederer, Tattinger, Perrier Jouet and Nicolas Feuillatte, dominate the international markets.
Other quality sparkling wine are produced in other parts of France and the world. Cremant from Burgundy, Limoux, the Loire Valley, Prosecco from Italy, Cava from Spain and sparkling wine from Argentina deliver quality and value-driven sparklers.
But the favorites hereabouts are doubtless the "California sparklers" - not fireworks, but the bubbly wines made here in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Most of these are made "methode champenoise," with the yeast and sugar added to the wine just before bottling, so CO2 bubbles and a slight sweetness are created in each individual bottle.
The bubbles, along with the intoxicating effect of alcohol (usually around 12%), led to the charming legend of Dom Pérignon himself saying, " Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" upon discovering the method.
Some of the local "stars" of sparkling wine include Napa Valley's J Schram by Schramsberg, the Calistoga winery founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, although it only turned to sparklers in the 1960s under Jack Davies. Their 2005 vintage, just named wine of the week by the Anchorage Daily News (honestly!), retails for $110. Slightly more affordable is their 2008 Blanc de Noirs at $39 a bottle.
Another "wine of the week" with a similar name comes from Sonoma County, where Healdsburg's J Vineyard's NV (non-vintage) Cuvée 20 Brut heads the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's list this week. It's more of a bargain, at $28 retail, and among the least expensive of J's offerings.
Speaking of bargains, the reliable "best buy" in the category comes from Korbel, on Guerneville Rd. in the Russian River Valley AVA. Their NV Brut is widely available for about $12, sometimes under $10. The bone-dry Korbel Natural is harder to find, but more appealing to this palate, for about the same price.
The Iron Horse winery outside of Sebastopol, West Sonoma County, is a reliable producer of quality brut from the Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley, such as their Wedding Cuvée, currently a 2008 vintage. It retails for $38 for the usual 750 ml size, or $375 for an etched Jeroboam (3 liters).
The most celebrated regional appellation for sparkling wine is probably Carneros, split between Napa and Sonoma counties. It's ably represented by Domaine Carneros in Napa, whose 2008 Carneros Brut is very fairly priced at $27, though once again pricier bottles are on the wine list. Visit their sprawling estate on Hwys. 121 / 12 for tastings of their available line, up to their dreamy Le Rêve Rosé at $110.
On the Sonoma side of Carneros, Gloria Ferrer delivers a line of bubblies currently spearheaded by their 2007 Blanc de Blanc at $32, though once again a broad range of styles, vintages and blends are available for tasting at their Caves and Vineyards on Carneros Highway 121, the lower end of Arnold Drive southwest of Sonoma.
Other Napa-based wineries that specialize in sparkling wine include Yountville's a somewhat more affordable label on the whole. The Blanc de Noir will run you only $22, as will the Brut Classic, while the 2007 Carneros Brut tops off the price list at $45.
Then there's Mumm, on Silverado Trail in Rutherford, one of the signature sparklers of Napa Valley and associated with France's G.H. Mumm. Be prepared to spend a bit more for their offerings, but there are more to choose from: the entry-level Cuvée M is $22, the Brut Reserve is $38, up to their DVX Rose at $110.
And Mendocino? The third county in our sparkling triptych is best represented by Roederer Estate, who exclusively produce sparkling wines. Understandable, as their parent company is Champagne Louis Roederer, who have been making the real champagne since 1776 in France. Don't let the lineage scare you: their Estate Brut is an affordable $23, the select vintage L'Ermitage, currently 2003, is $47.
Another Mendocino wine to keep an eye out for is Scharffenberger, also located in the heart of Anderson Valley on the last leg of Hwy. 128. Founded in 1981, and for a time known as Pacific Echo, the winery now produces their Brut Excellence by the traditional methode champenoise, a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes for a value $20, but you can easily find it for under $15.
With all that choice of quality, regional sparkling wines, André need never pass through your lips again. Especially not for New Year's.
TELL US: We want to hear about your favorite local bubbly. Let us know in the comments section below.