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ON WINE

Tiny Bubbles : California Champagnes Add a Sparkle to Domestic Wine Sales

September 13, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

CHAMPAGNE IS EASILY the most provocative and sophisticated wine, with a range of quality and taste as broad as the descriptive called style; there's something for everyone.

There's really no answer to the riddle of recommendation, despite the fact that consumers always want to know "which one is the best?" Tastings only serve to tell something about the averaged preferences of that particular panel. The top-scoring bubbly in a recent Los Angeles tasting, Domaine Mumm Non-Vintage Brut, is notable for an uncommonly sweet edge. Way down on the list were Schramsberg 1981 Reserve and Scharffenberger 1984 Brut, both classically crisp, dry and thoroughly elegant. One could not impugn the tasters; all of them had impeccable qualifications. In short, there are no absolutes in the search for "the best" in sparklers, foreign or domestic. As a consumer, you're on your own to find the one that pleases you.

This absence of absolutes does not, however, stop the rush to buy bubbly. Champagne sales across the board over the past five years have shown the most positive growth worldwide. In the United States there has been a strong 5.2% per year increase in champagne sales, bested only by wine coolers, on which no comment is needed. This healthy growth has accounted for the very substantial investment in sparkling-wine production in California by the indisputable leaders of French Champagne, led by no less than Moet & Chandon in 1973, when the late Count Robert de Vogue bought 875 acres of prime vineyard land in the Napa Valley. The debut of Domaine Chandon occurred in December of 1976. Piper Sonoma, from Piper-Heidsieck, came out in September, 1982. The target date for the first California sparkler from Louis Roederer's extensive vineyards in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley is December, 1988. Taittinger's first vintage from the 1987 Domaine Carneros harvest will be a mere 500 cases, release date unscheduled. Maison Deutz's first non-vintage release in the fall of 1986, less than 3,000 cases, was sold out in less than 30 days; the winery's "First Anniversary" release of about 6,000 cases was just celebrated.

A rather incredible news release, headlined "Freixenet Aims to Capture Entire Sparkling Wine Market," well describes this Spanish firm's view of the marketplace for their Cordon Negro, Castellblanch Brut Zero and Segura Viudas, blanketing the demand for bubbly "from $2 to $26." They're introducing three cuvees from the Henri Abele Champagne house, established in Reims in 1759. Last but not least, of course, is their very handsome Gloria Ferrer sparkling-wine facility in Sonoma.

In June, I spent a morning with Eileen Crane, who pioneered the first Gloria Ferrer wines with very positive convictions about styling. The next day, I tasted the Experimental Cuvee 835 of Domaine Chandon with its dynamic creator, Dawnine Dyer. It was made in 1982, with 50% of the Chardonnay grapes from John Wright's vineyard on Mt. Veeder. In both wines, the fruit character shone through with new and uncommon loveliness, with a wholly new persona. The taste of Dyer's champagne was a beguiling revelation, several notches beyond anything in my champagne- tasting experience--except Crane's experimental cuvee for Gloria Ferrer. Obviously, a new wavelength has been found in California.

In July, I received word that Eileen Crane had accepted the appointment as wine maker and managing director for Domaine Carneros, the California program of Champagne Taittinger. Robert Iantosca was named as her replacement at the Gloria Ferrer cellars of Pedro Ferrer and Freixenet.

California is producing world-class sparkling wines of incredible finesse. Here are some you may recognize: Almaden, S. Anderson, Beaulieu, Chateau St. Jean, Culbertson, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Mumm, Hanns Kornell, Iron Horse, Korbel, Maison Deutz, Mirassou, Paul Masson, Piper Sonoma, Scharffenberger, Schramsberg, Sebastiani, Michel Tribaut, Wente Bros.

Whenever the subject of champagne comes up, I am reminded of a couplet by Dorothy Parker: "Three are the things I shall never attain: / envy, content and sufficient champagne." Too much is sometimes easy, but "sufficient champagne"? I don't think so. It's the perfect wine for any and all occasions.

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