Champagne dominates the popular perception of sparkling wine, in part because of French marketing acumen but mostly because it’s so darn good – pretty, vibrant, insistent.
That isn’t changing, though the world of sparkling wine is becoming more diverse, and consumers are responding favorably to the rising way in which bubbles are being delivered to their palates.
Champagne sales in the United States are holding steady, but French producers must be glancing nervously over their shoulders at upstarts encroaching on their turf, even if many of them aren’t so much emulating traditional sparkling wine as carving out new niches.
If you attend a New Year’s Eve party, for example, don’t be surprised to be handed a flute of sparkling wine flavored with pomegranate or pear. The bellini (prosecco flavored with peach) and the sgroppino (prosecco flavored with lemon) have been around for decades, but sparkling-wine producers now are cutting out the middleman – the bartender – and infusing their bubbles with assorted fruit flavors.
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California wineries aren’t unmindful of this trend, especially the biggest of them all, E&J Gallo of Modesto, which releases 11 sparkling wines under one brand alone, Barefoot Bubbly, four of which are flavored: berry, citrus, peach and “tropical” (pineapple, papaya, mango). They are true to flavor, relatively thick, pointedly sweet, softly effervescent and, like most Gallo wines, astutely crafted and invitingly priced ($11 each). At the Long Beach Grand Cru wine competition this summer, for one, both the luxurious citrus and the exotic tropical won gold medals.
All on its own, however, prosecco is the sparkling wine of the moment. Sales of bubbles overall in the United States last year rose 5.5 percent, with prosecco leading the pack with a surge of 27 percent, according to the beverage-tracking service Impact Databank. Champagne sales rose just half a percent.
Prosecco is Italy’s most traditional and best-known sparkling wine. Made in nine provinces of the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Guilia regions of northwest Italy, solely or in large part from the indigenous grape glera, it customarily is gently effervescent, delicately fruity and at least a little sweet, though interpretations can vary widely in style and quality.
According to wine-industry observers, millennials who aren’t shy about acknowledging their sweet tooth and who embrace novelty and value are driving the growing interest in fruit-infused and other alternatives to Champagne, including such styles as asti spumante, prosecco and lambrusco from Italy and sparkling shiraz from Australia.
The upshot is that New Year’s Eve revelers this year have a richer range of sparkling wines with which to toast. From my tasting on the competition circuit and elsewhere this year, here are some sparkling wines I wouldn’t mind seeing New Year’s Eve, broken down by origin:
Mionetto is the brand that’s done the most to promote prosecco in the United States. Or, for that matter, in Italy, where it has been producing prosecco for 125 years. Mionetto’s production is massive and its lineup is varied, but it has the resources and the experience to turn out consistently straight-forward and refreshing styles of prosecco.
My current favorite is the basic Mionetto Prosecco Brut ($12). The beads of bubbles in prosecco generally are spare and languid, but the Mionetto Brut breaks from tradition. Here the beads are numerous and vibrant, their tiny bubbles lifting and opening aromas of apricot, lemon and pear. People who prefer their prosecco sweet should be aware that this one tastes surprisingly dry, despite 17 grams of sugar per liter. The wine is made solely from the grape glera, the principal variety for prosecco.
Surprise of the year
New Zealand isn’t generally recognized in wine circles for its sparkling wine. Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, yes, but not sparkling wine.
A sign that that could change came at this year’s San Francisco International Wine Competition, where the Sophora New Zealand Sparkling Cuvee ($16/$18) was in the sweepstakes round to determine the judging’s best bubbly. It didn’t win that honor, but I doubt I was the only member of the panel who wanted both to learn more of the wine and to get my hands on some.
The wine is a refreshing, fruity and off-dry blend of 52 percent chardonnay and 48 percent pinot noir grown in the Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay regions. For its richness and vitality it’s an outstanding buy. Because of its equilibrium, complexity and length I speculated in my notes that it was Champagne. Had it been, the price likely would be twice what it is.
However attractively priced the Sophora may be, nothing from this year’s competition circuit dissuaded me from my conviction that the best buys in sparkling wine these days are from California.
The gold-medal results can be divided broadly into two classes. First, the best from the big producers:
▪ Korbel Champagne Cellars California Chardonnay Champagne ($11): Here’s a sparkling wine that will please the chardonnay enthusiast as much as the guest who simply wants a sound and refreshing flute of bubbles in his or her hand. Korbel uses “chardonnay” on the label not only to recognize one of the traditional grapes of Champagne but to deliver a message about the wine’s style. It seizes chardonnay’s apple fruit while topping it with fleeting notes of oak from the partial barrel fermentation of the juice. The result is a sparkling wine of unusual muscularity. It’s precisely the kind of bubbly you will want to serve at a dinner party both to spark conversation and to pair with most any savory dish.
▪ Korbel Champagne Cellars California Blanc de Noir ($11): Another steal from Korbel’s large stable, and another consistent winner in competitions. In composition, this is one atypical blend, being made with the juice of four black grape varieties – pinot noir, zinfandel, sangiovese, gamay – which on the palate deliver fresh, layered and compelling fruit all hung on a sturdy trellis. It won sweepstakes honors among sparkling wines at this summer’s Long Beach Grand Cru.
▪ Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma County also had another terrific year across the board on the competition circuit. I’m hard pressed to pick my favorite among the four gold-medal entries I tasted, but for profundity coupled with value I’d reach first for the Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut ($22) – medium-bodied, expansive, brassy and fruity yet dry, with suggestions of brioche that the French seek in Champagne. All those attributes added up to a unanimous gold medal at the Riverside International Wine Competition. That said, you also won’t go wrong with the toasty, yeasty and persistent Gloria Ferrer 2005 Carneros Reserve Brut ($45) or the frank, sunny and lingering Gloria Ferrer 2006 Carneros Royal Cuvee Brut ($37), about as noble a sparkling wine as you are apt to find from California.
Smaller producers’ best
▪ McFadden Vineyard Mendocino County Potter Valley Cuvee Brut ($25). Everybody seems to love this cheery and buoyant sparkling wine, especially judges at this summer’s California State Fair commercial wine competition, who voted it the best bubbly in the judging on the strength of the richness of its fruit, the featheriness of its texture and the revitalizing strength of its acidity.
▪ Rack & Riddle North Coast Sparkling Rosé ($22): A custom-crush sparkling-wine house that relocated from Hopland in Mendocino County to Healdsburg in Sonoma County this summer, Rack & Riddle isn’t likely to remain a small under-the-radar producer for long, not when it turns out such solid bubbly as this pretty, spicy and grapefruit-laced interpretation.
▪ Saint Gregory Mendocino County Potter Valley “Cuvee Isabella” Cuvee #10 Brut Blanc de Blanc ($40): That’s a mouthful of a name, but given the bluster of this sparkling wine, it’s appropriate. The fruit comes down on the lemon side of the citrus family, accounting for its sunniness and snap, but the wine also is distinguished by a thread of minerality. All that complexity added up to best-of-show white-wine honors at the Mendocino County Fair commercial wine competition.
And finally, something from France
Poor me. Seems that most of the sparkling wine I tasted this year came from someplace other than Champagne.
Nonetheless, I do recall one fabulous Champagne. From the chalky soils and caves of Ay, it was the Champagne Collet Vintage 2004 Brut ($76). The sweepstakes sparkling wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, it showed with grandeur, complexity and length just why Champagne continues to set the standard for the genre. It also shows just how nobly Champagne can age, what with the initial directness of its fruit and the angularity of its construction rounded off with notes of toastiness and cheese.
The folks of Champagne Collet are right on the mark when they suggest that the wine can be enjoyed on its own as an aperitif or savored through an entire meal of haute cuisine.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.