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james laube's wine flights

New Sparkling Wines Are Exciting

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 11, 2006 2:48pm ET

Corks were flying at our Napa office on Friday, and that was a good thing.

Tim Fish and I tasted a couple dozen new releases of California sparkling wine for our annual report, due later this year, and this research turned into an exciting afternoon of sparklers.

The reason for my enthusiasm is that in the past two years, when we’ve tasted the current offerings of bubbly, the results have been, well, flatter than we’d like.

While we’ve found plenty of good sparkling wines in recent years, too many of the wines were simply uninspiring, lacking the kind of complexity you hope for with sparkling wine.

This year, the wines are richer, more focused and more complex. We found enough goodies in the very good to outstanding range to be encouraged that this category of wines is in better shape than it’s been in recent years.

One reason is that the wines used for the nonvintage Bruts are either of superior quality or based on better vintages. Or wineries are making more deliberate cuvées and focusing on their best wines. (Nonvintage Bruts are typically blends of several vintages, and the right mix makes a difference.)

And it’s likely that producers, anxious to prove they can make superior cuvées, are pushing quality as well.

Some of my favorites came from the bigger, established sparkling wine houses, including Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer and Mumm Napa.

Chandon has also moved to a crown cap (like you find on beer bottles), which it believes is better for wine preservation than cork, for its étoile cuvées. Both the Brut and Rosé were excellent.

Our comprehensive report, covering all the major wineries and cuvées, comes out in December, when Tim will summarize our findings.

Until then, there’s a good reason to slip down the California sparkling wine aisle and grab a couple of bottles.

Everyone needs an excuse to celebrate something.

Randell Phalp
Lenexa, KS —  September 11, 2006 7:21pm ET
I am curious if Falconer was among the sparkling wines you tasted. It is one of my personal favorites.RandyRandell Phalp, Grandview Red-X LiqoursGrandview, MO
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 11, 2006 7:30pm ET
Randell, haven't seen Falconer in many vintages...May try to track one down...
Alex Cobb
Fort Worth, TX —  September 12, 2006 10:28am ET
That's good to hear, James. I was wondering too about the California sparklers, as nothing fared too well in last December's report, when compared to previous tastings. What I didn't understand was for the most part, even the vintage wines scored lower when compared to previous years, and they were of varying years. What did you think happened last year with regard to the drop in quality? Was it just a stream if weak vintages that caught up to wine makers? -Alex
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 12, 2006 2:11pm ET
I must say, after going through a tasting over the weekend in Napa of well over 30 cabs, chards, blancs, pinots and merlots over 2 days, I have a new found respect for you tasters. How in the world do you guys manage to taste anything afterwards. Was there for the 06 crushing of mumms and had a tasting of the recent releases, very nice stuff. Good rest from all those inky reds and "fresh/bright" whites.
Alton D Trawick
Sammamish, WA —  September 12, 2006 5:30pm ET
Absent from the list of your favorites was Schramsberg. Is that because it was not among the sparkling wines tasted, or just not a favorite of yours from the tasting?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 12, 2006 5:39pm ET
Alton, only half done with the tastings and only mentioned a few examples, though Schramsberg is one of my favorites.

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