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Sparkling Shivers


It must be said right away: When you talk about sparkling wine, you're talking almost purely about individual preference. The usual wine standards simply don't apply. With the best still wines you can compare, say, a set of Cabernets or Chardonnays from particular districts and arrive at a consensus about how well a particular wine expresses its climate, soil and grape variety. From there you can talk about quality. It's how nearly all of the world's best wines are recognized.

But this doesn't apply to sparkling wines. They are purposely assembled from multiple grape varieties and vineyards. You can find single-vineyard sparklers, as well as single grape versions made from either 100% Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but they are exceptions.

Knowing this, the wise reader bears in mind the supreme truth about all sparkling wine judgments: They are utterly subjective. Beyond a basic level of quality--which is easily established by just about any taster--the rest of the discussion is like talking about carnival rides. It's all about what sends a thrill up your palate and down your spine.

Every sparkling wine is its own private world, with a predictable and consistent style and taste. Producers want their customers to become not just loyal but partisan customers. Winston Churchill, for example, was a fanatic for Pol Roger Champagne--he named one of his race horses after it.

In California, this phenomenon of loyalty and partisanship is still embryonic. When then-President Richard Nixon used Napa Valley's Schramsberg sparkling wine in a highly publicized toast with Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing, it was not because of any Churchillian loyalty on Nixon's part, electrifying though it was for Schramsberg's business. Rather, it was tasteful chauvinism: Schramsberg was the best of what was then only a handful of good American sparkling wines.

Competition was soon to emerge. A year later, with the 1973 founding of Domaine Chandon, California saw the first outpost of a French Champagne house. Since then, dozens of other sparkling wine producers--French, Spanish and American--have jumped into California. This was particularly so in the '80s, when demand seemed limitless.

Today demand has slackened to such an extent that you can even say there's a glut of California sparkling wine, although not in the best bottlings. "In the '80s, there were annual increases in sparkling wine sales of about 15% a year," recalls Greg Fowler, winemaker of Mumm Napa Valley, a sparkling wine house founded in 1985. "But in the last few years, sales are essentially flat, increasing at most maybe 3% a year. Really, we're just stealing market share from each other."

Proof of this is the trend among California sparkling wine producers toward making still (non-sparkling) wine. To offset their soft sales, such producers as Piper Sonoma, Gloria Ferrer, Codorniu, Domaine Carneros and Maison Deutz are expanding into straight Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production.

Just why California sparkling wine sales are flat is open to discussion. Surely, one element is excess capacity. Tantalized by the market optimism of the '80s, players rushed in to fill the need. Not coincidentally, many of these same producers--Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Mumm, Domaine Chandon, Codorniu--insisted upon being near Napa Valley to take advantage of its tourism.

This meant that nearly all of these producers used the same grape source: the Carneros district straddling Napa and Sonoma counties. Although Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes certainly are desirable for sparkling wine, because of their excellent acidity and flavor, too many California sparkling wines started tasting alike.

Carneros doesn't have near the range of microclimates that are found in the Champagne region of France, which allow producers there to create truly distinctive styles derived simply from the grapes.

Fowler concedes the point. "If you source all your grapes from Carneros, I'm not sure how distinctive a style you can create," he says. "That's why at Mumm we're getting grapes from as far north as Mendocino and as far south as Santa Barbara. Only 50% of our blend now is Carneros." Other producers are casting a wider net as well.

But Fowler also points to new possibilities in Carneros, thanks to the vine root louse, Phylloxera, which has necessitated wholesale replanting of vineyards. "You're going to see a greater variety of flavor nuances than in the past," he says. "This is because where there were only two clones of Pinot Noir, now there are many more. In our own vineyard, for example, we've got eight Pinot Noir clones. This is sure to make a difference. It will expand the opportunity for different styles derived from the grapes themselves."

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