Corks a-Poppin' for California

Dresser is wine columnist for the Baltimore Sun

Anybody tempted to underestimate American ingenuity should consider California sparkling wine.

Two decades ago, people would have laughed at the suggestion that California might one day produce a worthy rival to French Champagne. Only a handful of the state's wineries specialized in sparkling wine, and none, except for Schramsberg, received (or deserved) much respect. True, some French Champagne houses were beginning to develop California operations, but these ventures were widely regarded as no more than an attempt to capitalize on their famous names.

How times have changed. Today, nobody need apologize for serving a well-chosen California sparkling wine in place of Champagne, unless the guest of honor is the French ambassador.

Dollar for dollar, the best California sparkling wine producers have matched, and in many cases surpassed, their French counterparts. In some cases, those California branches of famous Champagne houses are producing better wine than their French parents.

California's extraordinary progress has come in spite of what were seen as crippling disadvantages 20 years ago. Many doubted that "torrid" California could ever make wines similar to those of Champagne, one of the world's coolest wine regions. California's soils were all wrong, and California wineries lacked that age-old French expertise.

The most critical discovery to be made since then is that California isn't all hot. In Mendocino County's Anderson Valley and Sonoma County's Green Valley, marine influence keeps temperatures downright chilly except under the midday summer sun.

Such conditions are perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes when you want to make sparkling wines. So it's little wonder that dairy cows and hop plants have been giving way to grapevines in those regions.

Soil is still an advantage for the French, but only in that they've had centuries to learn the properties of their vineyards.

The expertise gap took a few years to close, but now there is no lack of talent in the effort to make fine California sparkling wine. Imported French expertise has helped many of the California producers get off the ground, but native winemakers like Iron Horse's Forrest Tancer and Kalin's Terry Leighton have shown that Americans are fast learners.

In recent years, California sparkling wines have been closing the style gap as well. With deeper stocks of old wine on hand, wineries have been able to blend for greater complexity rather than relying on pure fruitiness. There's more of the toasty, bready, yeasty quality of Champagne and less of the lemon, green apple and tropical fruit character of early California efforts.

Of course, one reason California has been able to catch up in such a hurry is French complacency. Many Champagne houses have been resting on their laurels and neglecting the quality of their lower-priced wines, which are still quite expensive for the average American consumer. That's why you're generally better off with the California versions of Mumm, Moet & Chandon or Deutz.

Without pretending that this list is comprehensive, let me pass along a few suggestions:

* Roederer Estate Brut Rose, Anderson Valley ($22.49): The Mendocino County outpost of Louis Roederer has in the past produced a brilliant conventional Brut, but this Rose takes the California operation to an entirely new level of quality. Its elegance and complexity leave little daylight between it and the finest roses of Champagne. It's a very attractive light salmon in color, and the flavor has nuances of strawberry and exceptional length. This and the next two suggestions need to be served with food.

* 1990 Iron Horse Brut Rose, Green Valley ($23): Which is finer, this great wine or the Roederer? You'll have to taste them side by side to find out.

* Mumm Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noirs ($15): This intensely flavorful Blanc de Noirs could have been marketed as a Rose, so deep is its salmon color. It's a clean, intense, racy with loads of fruitiness but a classic structure.

* Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley ($16): Crisp, toasty, elegant--one of the great values in sparkling wine. It's sometimes marked down to $14. Since it's finer than all but a few Brut Champagnes, that's a steal.

* Scharffenberger Brut, Anderson Valley ($22): Here's an understated, subtle, very elegant Champagne with a lot of the bready character of true Champagne.

* 1992 Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee Brut, Green Valley ($23): Clean, crisp with steady bubbles and distinct apple and pear flavors. Thoroughly enjoyable, if not particularly complex.

* Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Carneros ($16): Although it's not quite as fine as last year's blend, Chandon's Blanc de Noirs is still a well-made wine to serve with food.

* Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($14): While not particularly Champagne-like, it is an enjoyable fruity sparkling wine in its straightforward, obvious way. Is that a hint of coconut bubbling up with the peach and pear flavors?

* Chandon Cuvee Brut ($15): A crisp, clean wine that keeps getting closer to the model of Champagne with each year. Shows good yeastiness and fine length.

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