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Low-Priced Alternative to French, California Champagnes : Spanish Vintner Uses Touch of Chardonnay to Add a Little Sparkle

May 21, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

It is no secret that Spain produces good, affordable, sparkling wine by utilizing the French Champagne-making technique, methode Champenoise . Spanish vintners were introduced to the method in 1872 by Don Jose Raventos, whose family firm of Codorniu is now launching another first, Spain's initial Chardonnay sparkler, Codorniu, Chardonnay Brut, 1984.

Generally, Spanish sparklers are made from native grapes Parellada, Xarello and Macabeo, reflecting a brut or brut natural (drier) style, which is clean, dry, sometimes fruity, with refined, crisp effervescence. The incorporation of Chardonnay will surely upscale the wines to the extent that, although they will manifest their own character, they may at times appear similar to French and California sparklers. For consumers the benefits of spirited competition and low-priced bubbles are obvious.

The 1984 debut is very California-like in style, with a fruity nose and taste suggesting tropical fruit, yet clean and crisp. Produced from 90% Chardonnay and 10% Parellada, the wine displays a generous, dry delicacy and attractive austere finish derived from 1 1/2 to two years bottle aging. Especially fit for table use, it is an excellent beginning at $12.

More Plantings Anticipated

Don't expect to be inundated by Chardonnay-based Spanish sparklers. Vineyard plantings are probably no more than about 10 years old, and it will be decades before the native grapes are pulled in favor of costlier-to-produce and lower-yielding Chardonnay. More plantings are anticipated in the Penedes region near Barcelona, where Codorniu and a number of other firms centered around the tiny village of San Sadurni de Noya, produce 85% of the country's sparkling wines.

Perhaps it is appropriate that Codorniu should launch the debut Chardonnay sparkler. It also is the largest sparkling firm in Spain with production in excess of 35 million bottles annually and with reserves totaling more than 75 million liters stored in 18 kilometers of cellars. It is considered to be the largest in the world. The cellar size is mind-boggling and indeed requires a detailed map before touring.

Not as delicate, but almost as attractive, especially at the tab of $6.99, is a Codorniu sparkler new to the United States, Anna de Codorniu, Brut, 1984. Made with the addition of 20% Chardonnay and divided equally between Parellada and Macabeo, this is a fuller, heavier style, showing a clean taste and long-lasting bubbles. Produced with virtually the same dosage as the Chardonnay Brut, the wine appears ever so slightly sweet from its inclusion of six to eight grams of sugar per liter. At the price it is definitely good value, as well as a prototype for other Spanish sparklers unable to utilize a full compliment of Chardonnay grapes.

Codorniu, by virtue of the acquisition of a Penedes winery, Macia Bach, also produces still wines. Originally built by two elderly brothers, the winery began as an addition to a large Florentine-style mansion. As the winery increased production it became known for some of the very best white Spanish dessert wines, as well as a fruity white and a dry simple, but good, red.

Soft and Round

Made from 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Garnacha (Grenache) and 60% Tempranillo, the basic red grape used in Rioja and the Penedes, Macia Bach Tinto (red), is light structured, soft and round with only a hint of elegance. It is agreeably simple, not unlike a French-made Grenache, although the traditional Tempranillo dominates. Although the wine may appear ponderous and provide a barely discernable sweetness to the taste, it is a satisfactory, everyday drinking red helped by American oak barrel aging for 18 months. At $5.99, it represents good value especially to those new to red wine consumers and those unhappy with big, robust, tannic styles.

The white, labeled as Macia Bach, Exrisimo Seco (white dry), 1985, is a combination of four grapes, Macabeo, Parellada, Xarello and Chenin Blanc. This is a pleasant, unpretentious wine featuring a clean Sauvignon Blanc-like aroma, with a fresh, fruity taste, generous with flavor. It is not a world beater, yet imminently drinkable. Consumers will be pleased with the slight accent of Muscat in the finish and the low tab of $4.95.

No doubt the grape components of the still wines will change as more Chardonnay and Cabernet vineyards are planted. It is fascinating to observe the Spanish adoption of these varieties, initially planted in the region by Jean Leon, Beverly Hills restaurateur, whose winery there produces only Cabernet and Chardonnay, and by Miquel Torres Jr., whose Bodegas Torres features wines made with various proportions of the varieties.

For the moment the still wines are a long way from Cabernet- and Chardonnay-dominated wines. It remains for the sparklers to lead the way, as here, into innovative Spanish wine making, which may not make tasters abandon French Champagne, but it will allow many people, affluent or not, to enjoy well-made sparklers. It is an exciting benchmark time for all Spanish sparkling wines.

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