by Barrie Cleveland
California Winery Advisor
The French have been arguing for decades to persuade Americans to stop calling our sparkling wine “Champagne.” They postulate, rightly, that Champagne comes from that sacred region innorthern France where the bubbly was first created, and should not be confused with the various sparkling wines made from Temecula to Topeka.
According to legend, a blind French monk named Dom Pierre Perignon had the first taste of Champagne, around 1700, when he tasted wine that had mistakenly gone through a secondary fermentation.
The secondary fermentation took place when the wine, that had finished its normal fermentation, still had some residual sugar left in the juice. Within the closed bottle or cask, the fermentation started again, and with no place for the resulting carbon dioxide togo, it was absorbed into the wine, creating those tiny bubbles.
Dom Perignon supposedly came up from the cellarand exclaimed, “I have been drinking stars!”
A great story, but probably not true. Dom Perignonwas a real person and was involved in the early development of this bubbly delight, but probably not such a dramatic character. He will be long remembered due to this story, and that his name isused for some of the most expensive Champagne produced: French VS California.
Recently I had the opportunity to organize a tasting of California and French sparklers. This was a formal tasting with winemakers, wine retailers, plenty of oenophiles, cork dorks, winos and the stray wine groupie. A great cast of characters.
I assembled two flights of sparkling wines plus a mini demi-sec (sweet) flight. I prepared them to drink blind (tin foiled wrapped bottles to cover the labels) and included some soft cheeses, crackers, a dollop of caviar and crème fresh. This was going to be good!
Lots of opinions were expounded, postulated, augured and tossed about by the assembled group of tasters. As the tasting progressed the flinty minerality, ripe apples and pear aromas complimented the yeasty, baked bread and toast flavors of the wines. All were enjoyed but some stood out.
The California versions were clean, and with one exception, free of flaws and well balanced. Most had plenty of fruit and acidity and all displayed plenty of tiny bubbles to marvel at.
The French though took top honors with the mix of rich, creamy, rounded and more interesting wines to enjoy and contemplate. We could find rose pedals, vanilla, flint and hints of nuts and cherries in our glasses. The Champagnes were a mix of non-vintage favorites and some older vintage offerings, one with a $125 price tag.
To host your own sparkling wine tasting the best bet is to have a mix of price ranges and regions. If you have enough tasters (up to a maximum of 14 maybe 16) try tasting two flights of four wines each is a reasonable way to go. With less people you may end up with extra wine or overnight guests!