France's Champagne region sets the standard for sparkling wines. That isn't exactly breaking news. It's been that way for several centuries and probably will stay that way for at least several more, depending on how this climate-change matter pans out.
Vintners in many other wine regions strive to come up with their own convincing version of Champagne, including winemakers in California, where today the range and quality of sparklers is perhaps higher than it has ever been. They aren't Champagne, but in blind tastings they probably could persuade some participants that they are.
Where California really lags in the sparkler sweepstakes is price. Of all the styles of wine made in California, sparklers offer the best buys. Major mass- market producers such as Korbel, Domaine Chandon and E&J Gallo under its Ballatore and Barefoot brands regularly rack up high honors on the competition circuit and on the palates of critics.
A notch up are releases from such long-established specialty houses as Roederer, Schramsberg, Mumm Napa and Iron Horse.
And let's not overlook Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards of the Carneros district at the southern reaches of Sonoma Valley, hard by San Pablo Bay, whose chilly breezes provide the ideal incubator in which the principal grape varieties for fine sparkling wine chardonnay and pinot noir can thrive.
In 1982, José and Gloria Ferrer arrived in Carneros from Catalonia, where Ferrers had been winegrowers since the 1500s. In addition to the Carneros winery Gloria Ferrer, their holdings today include Freixenet, the world's largest producer of sparkling wine made with traditional Champagne methods. In Carneros, the Ferrers bought a 160-acre cattle ranch and began to plant vines. In 1986, they opened their winery.
Since then, they've added still wines to their Gloria Ferrer portfolio, but sparkling wine accounts for 70 percent of their production. They make eight styles, current releases of which range in price from $20 to $50. They've won enough medals, ribbons and points to fill the hold of a veritable armada of galleons.
Most recently, the Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards 2007 Carneros Brut Rosé was declared the best specialty wine at the commercial wine competition of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The specialty-wine sweepstakes involved a broad range of wine styles, from dry sparklers to sweet late-harvest releases.
The Gloria Ferrer Brut Rosé won on the strength of its bright color, a kind of brassy salmon; a smell that adds notes of Asian pear and citrus to the strawberry delivered by the pinot noir that constitutes most of the blend; a veritable curtain of fine and steady beads of bubbles; and a finish smooth and refreshing. It's a California sparkling wine, with not much of the earthy yeastiness that distinguishes so many Champagnes, but it's high-toned and sharp as well as fruity.
"Our wines here are more vineyard-driven than process-driven," says winemaker Steven Urberg. "Fruit characters are more showcased, rather than yeast and aging characters. That's especially true of the brut rosé."
The key to capturing the fruitiness of the pinot noir in the sparkler is to leave the juice in contact with grape skins for precisely the correct time, long enough to extract a touch of color and strawberry and red-cherry flavor but not so long that the result is at all astringent, he explained.
"For the brut rosé, we extract just enough fruit and color for what we want, but not so much that we get a red-wine character. That would make the wine bitter, hard or edgy."
His boss, executive winemaker Bob Iantosca, has been with Gloria Ferrer for a quarter of a century, during which he has helped the winery's vineyards grow from an initial 20-acre test plot to 335 acres today.
He's been especially keen on searching out, studying and experimenting with different clones of pinot noir, and today the estate is planted to around a dozen strains that please him. What he's been seeking is clones that yield wines of deep fruit character but don't come off with the candied cherry flavor often associated with pinot noir.
His continuing research isn't Gloria Ferrer's only costly investment in sparkling wines. When sparkling wine is made with traditional French techniques, as it is at Gloria Ferrer, the process is labor-intensive and demands specialized equipment.
"Machines are programmed in French, so when they break we've got to fly (someone) over here for the repairs," says Urberg.
As other sparkling-wine producers in California, he'd like to see his wines fetch higher prices.
"The lament of all sparkling producers in California is that they don't get the respect that the French get. A lot of people buy Champagne for prestige rather than the quality of the product. As a reflection of that, California sparkling wines are vastly underpriced," says Urberg.
For consumers in these economically trying times, that's not such a bad thing, especially as the biggest night of the year for bubbly wines draws near.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards
2007 Carneros Brut Rosé
By the numbers: 12.5 percent alcohol, 2,500 cases, $42
Context: Few beverages are as compelling and rewarding entirely on their own as sparkling wine. At the table, however, a sparkling wine as exquisitely structured and flavored as the brut rosé can accompany a wide range of foods. "I drink sparkling wine through a whole meal. I don't save it just for appetizers or dessert," says winemaker Steven Urberg. At community wine tastings where a variety of finger foods are served, he commonly pours 3 1/2 cases of sparkling wine, whereas winemakers with still wines may pour no more than one or two cases.
Availability: Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines are readily available in the Sacramento region, though the brut rosé is pretty much limited to the winery's tasting room. It can, however, be ordered through the winery's website, www.gloriaferrer.com
Information: The tasting room at Gloria Ferrer, 23555 Highway 121 in Sonoma, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.