Bring on the bubbly
This time of year, one thing is certain. No, not that the kids return to school (although they do, but that’s not what I’m talking about). What happens like clockwork in late summer is that the California sparkling wines start arriving on my doorstep.
I always assume it’s because the proprietors want a fresh new review for bragging rights in order to boost holiday season sales. It’s too bad that so many people think the only time to drink bubbly is Christmas-New Year’s Eve, but they do. I myself like a nice glass of Champagne or sparkling wine whenever I can get one. Champagne, for me, is a nighttime beverage. I love it as an aperitif sipper, especially before dinner in a nice restaurant, although it would not be my choice for a postprandial drink (that would be Port or a dessert wine, or even a cocktail). I’ve even been known, on a hot summer afternoon, to mix a little orange or cranberry juice with sparkling wine and throw in some sliced strawberries. Why not? (I don’t think that’s as bad as mixing Coca Cola with Lafite!)
California sparkling wine has always been very good, IMHO, at least since I’ve been reviewing it, which goes back to the 1990s. But I think quality has been getting better. Prior to 2000, the highest score I could give one was 91 points, to a Domaine Carneros 1993 Le Rêve, always a compelling wine. I gave 90 points to a Folie a Deux 1995 Brut. Do they still even make a sparkling wine?
It wasn’t until after the turn of the Millennium that I was able to give a higher score. That was 95 points, but it was for a Louis Roederer 1994 Brut, from Champagne, so it doesn’t count. (We hadn’t yet established our formal reviewing turfs at Wine Enthusiast back then.) However, in 2000 I gave 93 points for the first time to a California sparkling wine, Iron Horse’s 1991 Brut LD. Also the same point score to a pair of Domaine Chandons, both non-vintage: Etoile Brut and Etoile Rose. Those are still some of my favorite bubblies, and it just proves that a sparkler doesn’t have to be a vintage wine to excel.
This year by comparison, getting at least 90 points for California bubbly is as easy as falling off a log. I’ve rated 21 this year alone at 90 or higher, and there are still more prestige bottlings to come in during September and October, so I expect that number will rise significantly. Schramsberg has, as usual, headed my list, in terms of scores, followed by Gloria Ferrer (such a fine brand), but even Mumm Napa and Chandon, which are not usually included in most critics’ Best Of lists, have scored remarkably well, suggesting that those houses have invested seriously in upping their games. J Vineyards & Winery also has been excellent. As for Iron Horse, they’re the best ever. I don’t necessarily think it’s because of the vintages, because, for example, Iron Horse’s six new releases are from four different vintages, yet all the wines are wonderful.
What I like in sparkling wine is the mousse. I want the wine to glide over my palate, like silk on silk. It’s not hard for sparkling wine to achieve delicious, complex flavors. All you need is good fruit, proper lees treatment for that hit of brioche, acidity and some slight seasoning from wood. What’s hard is to achieve the right texture. My point scores are based almost exclusively on texture. Scores in the 87-90 range mean the wine is very good, but a little scoury, i.e. to me the bubbles feel too big and rough. The smaller and more refined the bubbles feel, the higher the score goes. I think a fine mousse also is necessary for sparkling wine to age. As for sweetness levels, they tend to be all over the place in California. I may be one of the few critics who likes zero dosage, but I can understand those who find the resulting wines too severe. On the other hand, there are some sparkling wines that taste too sweet to me, and seemed designed for palates that like some sugary soda. My own preference is in the middle, toward the drier side.