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California bubbly and Champagne: not the same


I might have argued, until recently, that the best California sparkling wines are equal to the best French Champagne, until Sabawun Kakar, the wine director at San Francisco’s Bubble Lounge, was kind enough to host me through a tasting of 18 French bubblies.

After all, I’ve reviewed California beauties from Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J, Roederer Estate and Gloria Ferrer — mostly bruts — and been dazzled by their authority and finesse. Last year, I gave 97 points to an Iron Horse non-vintage Joy! from magnum that was so good it made me cry. So why wouldn’t I believe California had finally achieved parity with Champagne?

Well, because I’ve been so busy over the years that I didn’t have the chance to pay proper attention to Champagne. Sabawun fixed all that, and opened my eyes to the enormous breadth and complexity of the wines of this ancient region — a breadth that California hasn’t been able to mimic.


We tasted mainly “grower-producers,” small family grapegrowers who produce their own wines, rather than sell exclusively to the big “Grande Marque” Champagne houses, like Veuve Cliquot and Taittinger. (Alder Yarrow wrote interestingly on grower-producers a few years ago, at Vinography.) The wine importer, Terry Theise, is largely credited with introducing Americans to these small producers, and he imported some of the “family fizzes” we tasted at Bubble Lounge.

My favorites were Fleury NV Carte Rouge, Andre Jacquart NV Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, an exotic Michel Loriot NV Blanc de Noirs made entirely from Pinot Meunier, an Henri Billiot NV Brut Rosé (which Sabawun insisted we drink from a wine glass instead of a flute) and a mind-blowingly good Henri Goutorbe 2000 Cuvée Special Club that had us doing handstands. But of more interest  from an intellectual point of view is why these grower-producer Champagnes blew away the Bollingers, Delamottes and Pol Rogers we also tasted.

The question concerns single vineyards versus blends, always an interesting topic whether you’re talking about sparkling wine, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or just about any other noble wine. The Champagnes of the big houses tend to be blends, often from scores of vineyards whose grapes are owned by independent growers who then sell them, whereas the wines from the grower-producers are their own. My thinking has gone round and round over the years about whether the best wines necessarily come from single vineyards. The idea is romantic, but the downside of a single vineyard is that you’re restricted to whatever Nature and the Vintage give you. If the wine has divots any particular year, you have to live with them; you can’t buy fruit to make up for something the wine lacks. Of course, the upside of a single-vineyard wine, as the most involved connoisseurs appreciate, is to experience a truly terroir-driven wine.

It was terroir that we tasted from the grower-producers, and it was exciting. In California, we have nothing to rival the diversity of these smaller-production wines, and we’re not likely to, given the fact that sparkling wine consumption in this country is more or less stagnant, and the number of producers — you can count the good ones on both hands — has been steady. Given the hardship of the American market, sparkling wine producers are not likely to tinker with adventurous new blends or styles; they tend to stick with their tried-and-true bruts.

(By the way, for snacks we had take-out from the little tapas restaurant, Bocadillos, next door. Our mutual friend, the P.R. pro Kimberly Charles, set down the roasted potatoes and mini-sandwiches in paper boxes, and we ate them with plastic stemware; but such is the nature of Champagne that it turned into a 4-star meal.)

I’ve gone to Bubble Lounge on and off since it opened 11 years ago, and it truly has become a San Francisco icon. Sabawun told me business has been a little more difficult this year, but an eclectic mix of older business people and Millennials still fills the sofa’ed room most nights, willingly dropping 50 bucks on a couple glasses. The lounge is in North Beach, right where Chinatown, the Financial District and the design district along Sansome Street converge, and on the window of an antique store I saw the following words, which seem to say something about all great art, including wine:

An interesting plainness is the most difficult and precious thing to achieve. — Mies van der Rohe

P.S. If you go to Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Town-San Francisco on March 26, look me up.

P.P.S. Don’t miss my blog tomorrow, when I’ll debut my new Wine World TV video, with my friend Wilfred Wong.

  1. Steve,

    great reporting from the field. As a totally (and admittedly so) biased cali wine drinker, I have to remind you of one thing. I’m sure that you were truly stunned by the champagne you tasted (or should I say drank by the sound of it) but let’s not forget that NV Joy! that made you cry! if a wine can do that then I would say it is the pinnacle and there is nothing to gain from trying to analyze which viticultural miracle is better than the other, but I guess that’s marketing for ya right?

  2. I would be curious to see if any California producer would tackle “Sparkling Shiraz” (or maybe even some equivalent of red frizzantes – a la lambrusco).

  3. Arthur: Please, NOOO! No sparkling shiraz!

  4. vinorojo, I meant that Calif. can’t rival Champagne in the breadth and array of different types of great sparkling wine.

  5. aww come one, Steve…..
    you’re killin’ my buzz

  6. I’m surprised that this sort of commentary wouldn’t, with some expansion, etc. go into the mag and not the blog. What determines the demarcation, or is it non existent.


  7. Tom, Well, first of all I don’t review French wines for WE, my esteemed colleague Roger Voss does, so I only give very general impressions so as not to steal his thunder. I try to reserve this blog for my more personal musings and a different, looser, more personal style of writing. But you’re right, the demarcation line can be thin.

  8. I know you said in California we have nothing to rival the diversity of these smaller production wines, but that stops at the topic of sparkling. I say this because I’ve worked and lived on a grower-producer vineyard called Tin Cross. There’s about 240 acres of property of which only about 40 of them are planted to vine. As you mentioned, the distinction you tasted may lay in its terroir expression, regardless of the risks of a poor growing season. The people I worked for believe in the value of that trade off. The team has a true passion for expressing that in the wines made from this property. You’re right though, it’s just too bad there aren’t as many grower-producers for the sparkling side of wine.

  9. Dylan, I’m not familiar with Tin Cross, so I can’t speak to that. I would look forward to tasting their wines, sparkling and otherwise.

  10. “I might have argued, until recently, that the best California sparkling wines are equal to the best French Champagne, until…”

    I find this a shocking statement coming from somebody who considers themselves to be a ‘wine expert’…!

  11. hey Steve! I am a beginner wine drinker and haven’t had a ton of opportunity to try the “breadth” of sparkling wines/champagnes that exist out there. It’s exciting to know that there are some out there that will hopefully some day make me tear up. I am from Michigan, and love L. Mawby vineyards for the bubbly they put out in small lots. If you get a chance, I’d love to see if you’ve tried Mawby, and if so, what your thoughts were!

  12. Pete, never tried Mawby.

  13. LG, I think a lot of people believe that the very top California sparkling wines are as good as the top vintage
    bruts. Problem is, there aren’t that many top California sparkling wines. Just a handful.

  14. Steve, I have used regular 20 oz. glasses for Champagne/sparkling wine for many years. Of course, I have flutes, but I save them for guests who are NOT wine geeks. The larger glasses really allow the bouquet to blossom.

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