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exploring wine with tim fish

Champagne Chauvinists Are on Notice

Dare you compare your beloved bubbles in a blind tasting with the top California sparkling wine?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 19, 2012 11:02am ET

There are a lot of Champagne chauvinists out there. It's not that I can't relate. I don't use a saber to open a bottle of great Champagne; I use one to fend off challengers for the last glass. Yes, some Champagne is that good and without peer.

And yet there are many wine lovers who are still convinced that value is the only saving grace of California sparkling wine. If you're going to spend more than $20 or $25, look elsewhere, they say.

Malarkey.

Chances are that 90 percent of the people who say that have never done a blind tasting comparing Champagne and California bubbly. (Gasp!) It has been 36 years since California went toe to toe with Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind setting in Paris, but Champagne remains the last bastion.

I've been involved with numerous blind tastings that mix Champagne and California sparkling wine over the years, and the results are always surprising. Sommeliers who think Champagne is the Holy Grail are surprised how well the top California sparkling wines show.

I'm not naive. I'm not arguing that California bubbly is the equal of Champagne, but I'm convinced that the top California sparklers are far better than the snobs believe. But if they're so certain, they should test themselves with brown bags.

Just consider the wines listed below. They're among the top wines from each of California's leading sparkling wine houses. They're not Champagne. They're not Spanish cava or Italian Prosecco, either. But they are outstanding wines by any measure: complex, crisp, rich and uniquely, proudly Californian.

A full list of the more than 100 West Coast sparkling wines we've tasted in the past year ia available for free.

Listed alphabetically below are some of the best sparkling wines I've tasted this year. Try them blind with Champagne. I dare ya.

Domaine Carneros Blanc de Blancs Carneros Le Rêve 2006 (91 points, $95)

Domaine Chandon Rosé North Coast Étoile NV (92, $50)

Gloria Ferrer Extra Brut Carneros Reserve Cuvée Late Disgorged 2004 (92, $45)

Iron Horse Brut Green Valley of Russian River Valley X 2007 (92, $50)

J Brut Russian River Valley Vintage Late Disgorged 2001 (92, $90)

Mumm Napa DVX Napa Valley 2004 (94 points, $65)

Roederer Estate Brut Rosé Anderson Valley L'Ermitage 2004 (91, $70)

Schramsberg Reserve North Coast 2004 (93, $115)

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  December 19, 2012 12:40pm ET
I have poured luxury Champagnes, along with NV Champagnes and California "Methode Champenois". Usually, more people are astounded by these "Under $40/bottle" efforts of the latter two than by the super expensive Champagnes. To be honest, I also don't find the quality that much better on these super expensive French Champagnes. I would rather try those 93+ rated California Methode Champenois than the more expensive versions from France for this holiday season.
Jun Garcia
Fort Gratiot, Michigan —  December 19, 2012 1:34pm ET
I agree with the statement of PQR when it comes to the stateside sparklers vs Champagne. Tim has moderately priced DVX, which could go head to head with the best Champagne has to offer. I could buy multiple bottles of this to one Krug 1998 vintage....although the snob in me still wants to try the Krug too. It would be a fun comparison.
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  December 19, 2012 2:40pm ET
The Mumm Napa Brut Prestige has been my "house bubbly" for many years. Not quite as sweet and toasty as the Cordon Rouge - but still true to the style of the maison and consistently good enough year after year to fool me into thinking I'm actually drinking the real thing. Only on holidays and special occasions will I splurge for a bottle of Bollinger or Veuve Cliquot.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  December 19, 2012 5:50pm ET
Thanks for the comments. It's an interesting debate, but sadly too one sided. I don't think the Champagne chauvinists are willing to take up my double dog dare, as my colleague Robert Taylor put it on Twitter.
Ken Heinemann
Singapore —  December 19, 2012 9:16pm ET
We've done the domestic versus Champagne sparkling taste off a couple of different times, and while its usually a Champagne that comes out on top, Roederer L'Ermitage and Argyle's Extended Triage usually are right up there, and at a better price point, against the vintage bubbles, and Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, Roederer and Argyle doing very well against the non vintage ones.
Scott T Koppel
florida —  December 22, 2012 8:06pm ET
My wife is more a fan of champagne than I. But recently I had the Roederer L'hermitage 2003 at the French Laundry and I was so impressed that that I bought a case. I also recently splurged on a n/v Krug and there was no comparison. It was a "wow" experience. However... it was also 5 times the price of the Roederer.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 24, 2012 11:38am ET
I've always found Gloria Ferrer sparklers to be outstanding QPRs. We also enjoy Domaine Carneros' sparklers though they're a bit more pricey.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa —  December 25, 2012 6:57am ET
I'll take the bait. I have not yet had an interesting Cali sparkler.

The ones that retail for around $30 in Ontario tend to be non-premium bottlings, to be sure, but even upon visiting Domaine Chandon earlier this year, I was shocked to see such lavish theatrics for a line-up of wines that lacked complexity and tension, consistent with my experience with California sparkling wines thus far. My wife didn't even contemplate buying a bottle at Chandon, and sparkling wine is her catnip.

I'm not a Champagne snob by any means. humble $15 cavas from Vallformosa remain some of my favourites; this is also how much you can expect to pay for a tasty, medium-range sparkling Vouvray. Nor do I demand that all of my bubbly showcase nervy cool-climate character -- I enjoy the soft plushness of Moet & Chandon's NV Imperial Brut -- yet I cannot find California's "competitive angle" in this category.

In a blind tasting of eight sparkling wines about a year and a half ago, the California sample was among the lowest rated, not just by me, but also by most other participants. The organizer admitted to being surprised that it did not compete favourably, as it came from an established house and he had done his homework to ensure that it showed regional typicity. Same thing: people didn't find it to be distinctive relative to the competition, which included cava, prosecco, a cremant d'alsace, champagne, as well as New World examples.

Maybe I haven't tried to "right ones," alas, continuing the experiment in the face of top-notch competition at all price points is a pricey proposition...

PS: the "ringer" in that tasting was a 2002 Dom Perignon. Just by smelling it, you could tell it belonged in a whole different category.
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca —  January 12, 2013 12:06am ET
A little late for a comment but I will take you up on a different double dog dare. After wasting many dollars over too many years of trying to outdo everyone else on too expensive bubbly, here is my epiphany: cava! Now, instead of waiting for a special occasion to do a sparkling wine, I can afford to drink an awesome sparkler every day if I want. THANK YOU SPAIN!!!!!

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