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STAR QUALITY : You Don't Need a Special Celebration to Pour Sparkling Wines. Any Payday Will Do.

February 09, 1992|Robert Lawrence Balzer

C hampagne is almost a synonym for "celebration." Madame Elizabeth Bollinger of France's famous champagne dynasty never waited for a special occasion to drink bubbly: "I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad," she said. "Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. Otherwise I never touch it . . . unless I'm thirsty."

Born in the province of Champagne in northern France, the clear, bubbly wine known as vin mousseux evolved under three Benedictine abbots, who were winemakers of pre-Revolutionary France: Dom Perignon, Dom Ruinart and Frere Oudart. They conceived the idea of blending grapes from different regions to produce a better-balanced wine, a cuvee , meaning a "tubful." Together, they worked out a system still employed today, albeit with many technological improvements, known as the methode champenoise , for clarifying the fizzy wine of sediments from the secondary fermentation in the bottle--the one that creates the bubbles.

The basic white wine in any champagne, regardless of its country of origin, is more important than the bubbles. The style and elegance of the wine derive from its creative blending and the finesse of its finish. There are about 34 wineries in California producing outstanding sparkling wines in the classic methode champenoise, which includes the proper crushing equipment for the extraction of juice, yeast selection, vehicle of fermentation (barrel or tank), malolactic fermentation (partial, whole or none), time on the yeast in the bottle (known as tirage ), riddling (which moves sediment to the top of the bottle), disgorging of sediment and the final dosage of wine and sugar that determines dryness.

Domaine Chandon winemaker Dawnine Dyer has worked with Champagne master Edmond Maudiere, the creator of the Dom Perignon cuvee in Epernay in France. A virtual commuter between Epernay and Yountville, Maudiere has worked with Dyer "opening windows" of taste with every vintage, walking vineyard rows, tasting the harvest, observing the maturation of the wines.

Most Domaine Chandon sparklers were to be blended of young wines as non-vintage. Particularly fine vintage lots were to be blended and aged in magnums, to be released as Domaine Chandon Reserve. And here is where the mystery of their newest release, Etoile, begins. Maudiere and Dyer learned that for some inexplicable reason, wine aged better in magnums. Maybe, Dyer reasoned, after being in magnums, the wine could be re-bottled in fifths. How would this be done? "Very carefully," Dyer says.

The first lot, a blending of '84 and '86 wines, was released in November, a mere 2,300 cases for the whole world, and sold out before Christmas. A second release, this time of 7,500 cases, is scheduled for April. Born of Pinot Noir for elegance and structure, Chardonnay for crispness and a touch of Pinot Blanc for mid-palate fullness, it has a "most delicate taste and endless finish on the palate," Maudiere says. It tastes of pears, apples, nutmeg and lemon. Like a whiff of wonderful perfume, it's all one complex sensory wonder--for $24.95 per bottle.

The choice of the name Etoile was not difficult; it is the French word for "star," and a star has been the logo of Moet & Chandon for centuries. It was Dom Perignon who said, upon tasting the first accidentally created cuvee at the Abbey in Hautvillers, "I am drinking stars!" And for the packaging of this California champagne, Dyer says, "the designers have come up with a bottle as stunning as the wine." It's inspired by an 18th-Century mold, with the name splashed on by hand in 22-karat gold.

In addition to Domaine Chandon's Etoile, California offers a wealth of choice champagnes. Here, just in time for Valentine's Day, is a batch of bell-ringers, in no particular order. Retail prices were provided by the wineries; consumers may find lower prices in local stores.

Domaine Carneros Brut, $18, is Claude Taittinger's realization of his long-held dream of producing a sparkling wine in California in the tradition of his Champagne estate in Reims. He appointed Eileen Crane to make the wine, exclusively of Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wine is a non-vintage delight.

Codorniu Napa Brut, $14.95, comes from the dazzling contemporary Carneros winery of Manuel Pages Raventos of Barcelona, with young Californian Janet Pagano the winemaker. This newest of California's methode champenoise producers opened last year. The cuvee of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay makes a wine redolent of white chocolate, raspberries and hazelnuts. Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut, $17.50: Winemaker Michel Salgues makes his intense, aristocratic wine only from estate-grown grapes.

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