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Bubbles on a Budget


It's the bubbly season. Almost half of all sparkling wine sold in the United States is sold in the final three months of the year.

In a recession, however, quality sparkling wine is a luxury few can afford. The best, meaning French Champagne, is terribly expensive, in part because of the weak U.S. dollar.

Can you celebrate with $6 sparkling wine instead of Champagne? The Los Angeles Times tasting panel tried to determine that by blind tasting a range of sparkling wines designated "brut." None sell for more than $6 a bottle.

The conclusion: With one exception, don't waste your money.

Although the quality of inexpensive sparkling wines is better than it used to be, none are very exciting. In general, the aromas and flavors of the less than-$6 sparklers were strange. Even worse, most of the wines were much sweeter than brut should be.

The word "brut" itself is a story. Most dictionaries in the United States (at least those I checked) have the definition wrong. The word is supposed to mean "dry," a lack of sugar.

In French, the word means "raw, crude, unfinished"--pretty much the way the French saw unsweetened Champagne back in the 1850s. There may be a small amount of sugar added to balance the high acidity of the wine, but such a small amount of sugar usually is not perceived as sweetness; it merely softens the aftertaste.

Today French law says the term brut may be applied only to sparkling wines with less than 1.5% residual sugar by weight.

Producers of most top-quality sparkling wines use the term to refer to wine that is dry on the palate. But confusing references to the word exist in wine literature. Tom Stevenson in his excellent 1986 book, "Champagne," says a "realistic description" of the word brut refers to wines that "can vary between dry and very dry."

The origin of the term has a history that may be more legend than fact. In the middle of the 19th Century, before Champagne was widely appreciated, the French and Germans (and especially the Russians) liked their bubbly much sweeter than we now drink it. It was only British high society that preferred Champagne to be nearly or totally dry.

Madame Pommery, the dynamic owner of a major Champagne house, was asked repeatedly to make Champagne with less sugar for the British. To that, says the legend, she sniffed, "The British are brutes to like it so austere, so that's what we'll call it."

U.S. sparkling wine producers appear to use the term differently depending on the way the wine is made. When found on bottles of wine made by the methode champenoise, brut generally means the wines are dry or near-dry. But most of the bruts made by the Charmat or bulk method seem much sweeter.

(In the methode champenoise, the bubbles develop in the dry, still wine after additional yeast and sugar are put into the bottle and the bottle is capped to undergo a second fermentation. The cap traps and preserves the carbon dioxide. In the Charmat method, the still wine develops its bubbles in a huge vat.)

By U.S. law, the method by which the bubbles were produced must be stated on the label. But a year ago, five California bulk-sparkling wine producers--Gallo, Bronco, Guild, the Wine Group and Canandaigua--filed a petition to change the regulation.

"We think it should be optional as to whether to state the process on the label," said a spokesman for Gallo. "We think the process is immaterial. Champagne is Champagne, regardless of how it's made." Producers of methode champenoise sparkling wine oppose the proposal. The petition is still pending before authorities.

Following are results of our tasting of the $6-and-under sparkling wines. All bottles were bought at chain supermarket stores. Prices are those we paid for them, but prices vary greatly. MC denotes the wine was made by methode champenoise.

Panel members were wine writers Bob and Harolyn Thompson; John Thoreen, head of Meadowood Country Club's wine program; and Dawnine Dyer, winemaker for Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley.

1. NV Alexander Valley Vineyards Brut Rose ($5.99)--Stylishly fruity Pinot Noir blend, dry but not austere, with a load of flavor and a nice crisp finish. This is the only wine our panel could recommend. It is available at Trader Joe's stores and carries a Trader Joe's neckband. Sadly, the winery discontinued its sparkling wine project after this wine was made. MC

2. The 1988 Codorniu Brut Classico (Spain) ($5.88)--Fewer bubbles than we would have liked and a faint floral quality made the wine slightly odd, but there was a toasty quality some liked. MC

3. Sebastiani Brut ($5.97)--This could have been better wine; tasters were put off by a note of oxidation that made it seem older than it should have been. The heavy flavors were decent and it was relatively dry. MC

4. Tott's Brut Reserve ($4.89)--Gallo's premium entry has a toasty note in the aroma and the taste isn't bad, but the sweetness almost masks the acid. A taste of hay made it controversial.

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