After his discovery of the method for making champagne, the blind monk Dom Perignon, exclaimed, “Brothers, come quick! I am tasting stars!”
Most quality, sparkling wine firms in California are now controlled by French champagne makers. But French parentage isn’t necessary to producing good-value sparkling wine. One California house is owned by Freixenet, a family-owned firm from Spain and one of the world’s largest producers of sparkling wine.
Freixenet (pronounced ‘fresh-eh-net’) was among the first European wine producers to build a winery in California. Gloria Ferrer, a wine house located in the highly acclaimed Sonoma Valley, was named after the matriarch of the family that rules over the Freixenet dynasty. Gloria Ferrer is one of the best value producers when it comes to California sparkling wine.
The production area has one of the longest growing seasons in California with gentle sloping terraines, cool nights and bay breezes -like a mild Mediterranean climate. The grapes mature slowly, a prerequisite for producing quality sparkling wines. The combination of climate and geography create an outstanding ‘terroir’ for producing the finest wines.
Spanish sparkling wine is generically known as ‘cava’ after the word for ‘cave’ or ‘aged cellar.’ It was born around 1870 in the region of Catalonia, capital of Spanish art, gastronomy, literature and now, finance. The word ‘cava’ was adopted in the 1960’s when French court actions forbade the Spanish from using the term ‘champagne.’
‘Cava’ is made in the classic ‘methode champenoise’ tradition, a labor-intensive process in which a secondary fermentation – that produces the bubbles – occurs in each bottle rather than in large tanks. Made entirely of white grapes ‘cava’ has a different flavor profile than French champagne or California sparkling wine. Many find it earthy, fruity and citrusy. The alternative ‘charmat’ method is a quicker and cheaper way to produce sparkling wine because the second fermentation occurs in large tanks before bottling.
‘Cavas’ made in the ‘methode champenoise’ are generally light, crisp and refreshing. Like the Catalan spirit, they have more character and complexity. Small bubbles poured from the bottle dance elegantly on the palate. If you prefer fresh sparkling wine, avoid the older Cava wines. In a tasting of wines from around the world, The Wall Street Journal named Freixenet the ‘Best of Tasting’ and a ‘Best Value.’
For your New Year’s Eve celebration, check out Freixenet and other international sparkling wines as a nice alternative to champagne. From Spain, Freixenet produces Mont Marcal Brut Reserva, using traditional grapes from Catalonia. Sparkling wine is also made by CodornÃu, a Spanish firm that built the sparkling wine house, Codorniu Napa in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. The focus here has changed to ultra-premium still wine production and the name is changed to Artesa Winery. But both Spanish firms offer several different Cavas in the U.S. market at very reasonable prices.
Italian sparklers also have a delightful taste that many enjoy. Top choices from Lombardy include Bellavista, Ca’ del Bosco, or Cavalleri. Check out the Muscat-based sparklers from the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy.
Asti, made in the Piedmont, is an inexpensive, charmat produced wine. Formerly called Asti Spumante (‘sparkling’), the now improved wine is made by familiar names such as Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. It is relatively low in alcohol and often frothy, instead of bubbly. Moscato d’Asti is also slightly spritzy and a nice choice.
Sparkling wines lend themselves well to mixing with fruit juices. Prosecco, another charmant produced wine, is an elegant Italian sparkler from the Veneto region north of Venice. Zardetto is a very popular prosecco with the little mascot Mr. Bubbly on the label. The Prosecco grape has a slightly bitter finish that harmonizes well with sweet peach or apricot nectar to make a Bellini cocktail. The Bellini was created by the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice. Linda Hiltner at the Gourmet Shop recently introduced me to a wonderful new canned Bellini mixer for making this drink.
German sparkling wine is called ‘Sekt’ and tends to be fruity. Sekt can be bulk- or bottle-fermented and is usually made from Germany’s Riesling grape.
Even the French are producing non-champagne French sparkling wines. Look for bottles of sparkling vouvray from the Loire Valley. Cremant de Limoux is a French sparkling wine made in the Languedoc with the local Mauzac grape. From California, try Domaine Carneros or the 2002 Cameros Brut, founded by Taittinger.
Domestic sparkling wines keep getting better and better, from New York to Washington State. Many domestic sparklers can now compete with the top French champagnes.
California leads the pack for quality but the Pacific Northwest is also producing top-notch wines. Argyle in Oregon produces magnificent pinot noirs – try the 2000 Willamette Valley Brut. California Korbel is usually fruitier than champagne and bottle-fermented in the French manner. Roederer Estate winery in Anderson Valley produces an excellent non-vintage Anderson Valley Brut. (They first produced their luxurious French Cristal in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II)
St. James Winery in Missouri makes a sparkling blush that is sweet, fizzy and good for parties. For expectant moms, serve a nonalcoholic beverage like St. James’ Sparkling Raspberry or Cherry or Peach Spumante. Or the low alcohol Duche de Longueville French Sparkling Cider. Charmingly fresh, the cider exudes apple scents and flavors and has a lively effervesence.
When serving sparkling wine, it is important to use room temperature flutes or tulip-shaped glasses to help preserve the bubbles. Condensation from chilling will kill the bubbles. In shallow-style glasses, the bubbles quickly disappear. With flutes, bubbles rise to the top allowing the aroma to concentrate near the surface. As a result, you can taste the complex flavors better.
To purchase sparkling wines check the Gourmet Shop, Total Wines, World Market, Greens and other local package stores.
Check out Allison Askin’s primer on champagne published in The State newspaper on December 28, 2005.