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Sparkling Wines You Can Afford : Lancers' Two New Entries Are Produced Under Patented System

February 06, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Looking for decent, inexpensive sparkling wines? Lancers, long identified with its popular Portuguese Rose in the crock bottle, offers two new sparkler entries, Brut and Extra Dry Blanc de Noir, both at less than $6. Not made by traditional Champagne methods, the wines are produced under a patented system, Espumante Metodo Continuo , which can fashion a Champagne-style wine in 30 days instead of three years for the elegant, vintaged French variety.

The process is dramatically different from Methode Champenoise . According to Joao Pedro Miller-Guerra, Lancers' wine maker, the continuo method employs a still-wine base not unlike Champagne which is then continuously introduced into a succession of vats taking approximately 30 days to move from the first to the last.

He explained that "active yeast is injected to allow biological aeration and close contact between wine and yeast. During the transfer to the next vat, another dosage of yeast is injected as well as a mixture of sugar and wine commencing the fermentation which then proceeds to the following. Fermentation is enhanced by wood shavings that take up two-thirds of the space in each vat and provide the surface area needed for yeast contact which adds flavor, hopefully similar, to Champagne."

Lancers' Goal

It is Lancers' goal to simulate Champagne's yeastiness character, a taste consequence that is only partially evident in the two offerings. The Brut is the drier of the two, with crisp acidity, clean semi-austere flavor and nice balance. While not the same, of course, as Champagne, it can take on the same kinds of foods that more expensive sparklers handle with ease. The Extra Dry shows sweet lushness and less crispness, ideal for desserts. Both are much better than Charmat Process sparkling wines, which can take an even shorter period to produce (a week or less), but without the desired yeasty character.

Miller-Guerra believes the continuo process is made to order for the Portuguese red grape Periquita, the exclusive variety used in his sparkler. The Periquita grape generally produces a Portuguese red wine capable of long-term aging. Some authorities liken it to reds of Chateauneuf-du-Pape or robust California Zinfandel. Apparently, there is a considerable quantity of the variety and Lancers has found an additional, exceptional use for it.

The continuo process is used exclusively by Lancers, which may be the only winery in Europe or California to employ it. Developed about 40 years ago in the Soviet Union, Lancers has modified the process under a license obtained from the Soviets and Seitz Enzinger Noll of West Germany. Total output is expected to be 150,000 cases annually.

In 1944 when Lancers introduced its crock bottle Rose to the United States it quickly became a household word. Its then crackling, semi-sparkling style required higher importation duties so Lancers dropped the bubbles and went to a still style. It also added a red and white. With today's consumer interest in the bubbly, the winery's two sparklers are fine values.

Imports are not the only good buys right now. Several low cost outstanding values are available from the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley. A new release, Pinot Noir, Las Amigas, Napa Valley, 1980, is a softer styled red, well balanced, varietally rich and at an attractive price of $10. Exclusively Pinot Noir from cooler vineyards of the valley's Carneros Region, the wine was showing a bit of heat finish from its 13.4% alcohol. Drink now as long-term aging is not required. Carneros is fast becoming California's finest Pinot Noir region, an area the Martinis helped pioneer.

New for Martini is Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast, 1983, which is nicely done. Finished with 32% Semillon grapes grown on the winery's old Semillon Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma County, the intent here is to understate the Sauvignon Blanc fruity character with the softening style of the Semillon. With only 11.7% alcohol, the wine is generous to drink, emphasizing soft melon-like characteristics to make it a fine choice for most fish and seafood. At the price of $6.79, it is worthy as an everyday white wine.

At a higher price of $7.83, Martini's North Coast Chardonnay, 1983, is a medium bodied, not overly aggressive fruity wine with a hint of the Chardonnay grape's "applely" character, blended nicely with oak. A desired, crisp, tart-like finish qualifies it as a handsome choice for fish, fowl and even veal.

Martini is a master blender. The winery enjoys mixing grapes from several ranch areas in order to achieve its desired style. The Chardonnay is a blend of Martini's own Los Vinedos Del Rio Ranch on the Russian River of Sonoma County, Las Amigas Ranch in Carneros and Alexander Valley of Sonoma County. All are considered prime growing areas for Chardonnay.

Smooth Cabernet Sauvignon

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