"Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends." -- Tom Waits
When selling wine the one request that I hear over and over again is "Do you have any cheap champagne?" To this I usually respond, no, but I do have a selection of affordable quality sparkling wines.
Sparkling wine is produced all over the world by different processes and from a variety of grapes. Some of these wines are made in Methode Traditional, which is the process by which Champagne is made. But no matter how good these wines are, or by what method they are made, these wines are not Champagne.
This is not to say that all Champagne is better than sparkling wines made elsewhere. There are shining examples made in other regions in France, as well as amazing wines from the Franciacorta and Trento regions of Italy. Simply put, Champagne is what it is because of where and how it is made. The grapes, normally Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Menuier must be grown within the Champagne region of France. There are yield restrictions and rules about how the still wine can be made. Then there are the bubbles. Champagne is made by blending base wines together, adding some sugar and yeast, and bottling with a crown cap closure. The wine goes through a slow fermentation from anywhere from 1.5 to 3 years, forming tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide.
During this time the bottles are stored with their necks slightly downward. They undergo a process called riddling, which involves turning the bottles in a clockwise fashion and continuously angling them farther downward to slowly collect the yeast in the neck of the bottle. After fermentation is complete and most to all of the yeast is in the bottle's neck, the bottles are submerged in ice water to freeze the yeast into a capsule that, with the popping of the cap, is ejected from the bottle. To fill the space from lost wine, a mixture of base wine and sugar is added back to the bottles, and they are then sealed with a cork and cage. The amount of sugar that is added, the "dosage," will determine the dryness level of the finished champagne.
There are wines produced in this exact method here in California. One of the oldest and most consistent producers is Roederer Estate, in Anderson Valley. Roederer is the the California project of Champagne producer Louis Roederer, and this connection is evident in the wines. A beautiful balance of chardonnay and pinot noir, this wine delivers crisp pear notes with hints of hazelnut and fine bubbles.
Without knowing where this wine was made, It could easily be assumed to be from France. So the next time someone is looking for Champagne at a price that is implausible, hand them a bottle of the closest thing possible, both taste- and California-wise.
Roederer Estate Brut, retails about $18.
Los Angeles resident Michael Newsome, a wine buyer for Whole Foods and a Certified Italian Wine Specialist, joins us every Tuesday for an exploration of California wine. See his previous posts here.
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