Carbonated happy juice became a going concern around 350 years ago, when a lot of wine was being exported to England from the Champagne region of France. Thing is, it gets cold in Champagne in the fall after the harvest. So cold that often the wine’s fermentation would stop prematurely, leaving residual sugars and dormant yeast in the barrels, which was then bottled up tight and shipped to warmer climes. However, when the bottles warmed up, the increase in temperature woke up the yeasties who started eating up all the leftover sugar and crapping out alcohol and carbon dioxide as per usual. A second fermentation. Only now, since it was in a glass bottle instead of a non-airtight cask. When the excess CO2 couldn’t escape it went into solution in the wine, creating the classy gassy glass of headache we love so well today.
Bubbly is popular the world over, especially during the holiday season. Today’s most celebrated sparkling wines still come from the historic province in France where bubbly was born, and are made primarily with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The juice from the Champagne houses of Krug, Cristal, Perrier-Jouët and Dom Perignon are staples on exclusive wine lists the world over. But in recent years, as wine’s consumer base has increased, so too has the demand for sparkling stuff produced for a couple bucks less, regardless of its pedigree.
So with that, we kick off this month’s effervescent installment of informed wine-ing with a steal of a sparkler from the American Southwest...
Gruet Non-vintage Blanc de Noirs American Sparkling Wine ($17)
Gruet’s Blanc de Noirs is straight-up sensational. It’s light, festive, and pops with crisp fruit flavor. Pop a bottle at brunch with some Kumamoto oysters and send me a thank you note. Plus, it retails for under 20 bucks a bottle. If they slapped Napa or Champagne on the label, people would happily pay four times as much. It’s likely the best bubbly value in America, maybe even the world.
RayLen Vineyards Brut Sparkling Wine ($26)
For almost a century, the Asheville, North Carolina, site where RayLen Vineyards is located was home to a working dairy farm. In 1989, however, a merciless hurricane called Hugo paid a visit, and the dairy farm was reduced to ground beef. The land sat vacant for a decade until Joe and Joyce Neely bought the place and planted some vines. In 2001, RayLen became the fifth bonded winery in the Yadkin Valley AVA. Today, there are more than four times that many in the area. So take THAT, Hurricane Hugo! As for the juice itself, it’s crisp, on the sweeter side, with a pleasant nuttiness on the finish. Again, it’s great bubbly made in North Carolina... who knew?
Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs 2012 ($55)
Winemaker Todd Graff employed the traditional méthod champenoise to produce this pale gold delight from the Napa Valley. It’s a fine example of the depth and complexity of sparkling wine coming out of Northern California. Lively bubbles, with some toasted brioche on the nose. Mid-palate is creamy, with predominate green apple and biscuit flavors. A big, bold bubbly tailor-made for special occasions.
Rotari Brut 2013 ($20)
While sparkling wines from the Italian Alps aren’t very prevalent in the U.S., it’s a category certainly worth exploring. So let’s start with this award-winning sparkler from the Trentodoc appellation, a pristine area with unique microclimates that result in fruit that is delicate, aromatic and complex. The Brut smells of white flowers and tropical fruit. It’s full-bodied, with intense strawberry and cherry flavor, and fine acidic balance.
Sokol Blosser Evolution Sparkling ($22)
Small production blend of nine white wines from one of the top producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Tastes of apricots, pears and peaches. Creamy mouthfeel, with a crisp, dry finish. Pair it with chicken Cordon Bleu... or chicken wings, for that matter.
No. 1 Family Estate, Cuvée No. 1 ($20)
This is one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded Methode Traditionelle wines. It’s 100% Chardonnay with a tiny, consistent bead, and firm mousse resulting in a typical, complex, Champagne-like character. Very elegant and stylish. And a fantastic value to boot.
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2002 ($280)
Finding a bottle will be tricky, but not impossible. It’s worth the effort, for the 2002 Churchill is an epic vintage meant for truly special occasions. It’s brilliant gold in color with a bouquet that is to olfaction what the cuvee’s namesake Winston was to statesmanship. As for the flavor, there’s plenty going on in there, and you’re likely to pick up hints of hazelnut, sour apple and buttered croissant. It’s got Olympic gymnast-like balance, too. The ’02 Churchill tastes elegant, to be sure, but there’s also a rambunctious quality to it — like a classic Bond girl in a flute.