Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Tasty bubbles? No trouble

Many sparkling-wine producers appreciate that sparkling wine draws the attention of wine writers once a year, but they regret that almost invariably it is in December, when robust sales already are assured by the approach of family reunions, festive soirees and numerous holidays, especially New Year’s Eve.

What’s more, this timing flies in the face of a message that sparkling-wine producers have been trying to sell for years, that bubbles aren’t just for special occasions. The official line goes something like this: “Use sparkling wine to make any occasion special; don’t save it for occasions that would be special even without it.”

They have a point. By its fruit, build and acidity, sparkling wine is a natural to accompany all sorts of food at the table, broadly speaking.

But sparkling wine as an all-purpose beverage has more going for it than that. For one, it’s made in all sorts of styles, from bone dry to sticky sweet, from deep red to pale straw, from assertive to delicate. There are Italian sparkling wines, Spanish sparkling wines, and Australian and German, as well as American and French.

Also, for all the precision that goes into making sparkling wine, and for all the marketing acumen that has been devoted to positioning it as a luxury item, it is remarkably inexpensive, by and large.

And despite its aura of tradition and history, the sparkling-wine trade isn’t static. However subtly and slowly, sparkling wine undergoes shifts in how it is made and revealed. Whereas the grape varieties chardonnay and pinot noir continue to provide the foundation for the finest sparkling wines, including champagne, other varieties are intruding on their turf – zinfandel, viognier and syrah, among others.

The wide range with which bubbles are offered consumers became evident to me this past year as I joined several wine competitions and trade tastings. From those experiences emerged several favorites and curiosities:

For the sweet tooth

•  Sutter Home Family Vineyards Bubbly Pink Moscato ($12): Starting with white zinfandel a generation ago, Sutter Home has been quick to capitalize on any style of wine that looks like it has traction, and this release seizes in one bottle three popular attributes – pinkness, bubbles and the floral, fruity and sweet flavor of the grape muscat. In color, sugar and sparkle, it’s a wine made for bachelorette parties. The marketing folk at Sutter Home must have had that in mind when they included in the wine’s marketing material a recipe for making Bubbly even sweeter and more festive – rim the glass with sugar. Beware, that’s overkill.

All on its own, the wine is surprisingly impressive, with streams of bubbles more vivacious than lugubrious and a fruitiness round and refreshing. Balanced if not exactly elegant, it won gold medals this year at the Los Angeles International and Long Beach Grand Cru commercial wine competitions. Serve with home-baked rhubarb pie, suggest the cards at Sutter Home.

•  Barefoot Bubbly California Brut Cuvee ($10): Once upon a time, “brut” on a bottle of sparkling wine could be relied upon as code for “this here bubbly contains only enough sugar to be barely perceptible, if at all.” No more; nowadays, the translation is more along the lines of “this here bubbly is just a little less sweet than the other kinds of sparkling wine we make.” Barefoot, a brand of E&J Gallo Winery in Modesto, makes nine kinds of sparkling wine, and the Brut Cuvee may indeed be the driest of them all, but it still tastes sweet.

Nevertheless, beyond the sugar is a whole lot of other things going on – enough essence of lime to render the finish tart and uplifting, a suggestion of granite, a whiff of smoke, and a steely grip. Another well-balanced and inexpensive sparkling wine that won’t enthrall sophisticates at the party but just might have them shyly asking for another pour. Also another gold-medal sparkling wine at the Long Beach Grand Cru.

Korbel’s year

But what year isn’t? Korbel Champagne Cellars might not have the elan of other California sparkling wine producers, but it does have the grapes they’d like to get their hands on. Korbel is heavily vested in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, widely and enthusiastically applauded for its pinot noir and chardonnay, the founding blocks of refined sparkling wine. What’s more, Korbel’s long tenure in the region means it owns many of those vines, which explains how it can release such fine takes at prices substantially lower than its California competitors. This year, two Korbel releases stood out when they hit my palate:

•  Korbel Champagne Cellars California Brut ($14): Here, “brut” still means something. It means that the wine contains 1 percent residual sugar, which is pretty much the historic standard for sparkling wines labeled “brut.” Given the wine’s lean build, vigorous beads, delicate fruit and biting acidity, the sugar is elusive, and a flute comes off tasting more off-dry than sweet. Korbel makes an astonishing 850,000 cases of this wine each year, which helps explain why it likely is poured at more weddings, reunions and the like than any other bubbly on the planet. It’s no slouch on the competition circuit, either; at this year’s Riverside International Wine Competition, it was the sweepstakes sparkler.

•  Korbel Champagne Cellars California Blanc de Noir ($11): California sparkling wines are the best buy on the market these days, with the Korbel non-vintage Blanc de Noir the best bargain of them all. With 1.5 percent residual sugar, it’s a little sweeter on paper than the Brut, but on the palate it tastes drier, thanks to the attack of its strawberry and raspberry fruit, its overriding complexity (it’s mostly pinot noir but includes four other grape varieties) and its snappy acidity. For a measure of its vitality and charm, no other sparkling wine may have won as many high awards on this year’s competition circuit. Among other tributes, it won the sparkling-wine sweepstakes at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January and best-of-show white-wine honors at the California State Fair Wine Competition in June.

A special sparkler

Schramsberg, which in 1965 began to show that California was as capable as Champagne in producing noble sparkling wine with traditional grapes and techniques, continues to release interpretations of exceptional vitality and complexity.

Two current releases will dress up the holiday table with uncommon gracefulness and power. One is the J. Schram 2005 North Coast Reserve ($110), a chardonnay-based sparkler partially barrel fermented and aged on yeast for nearly six years, a painstaking breeding that expresses itself in unusual complexity and richness; its flavors range from the lilting (citrus and apples) to the weighty (mushrooms and nuts).

The other is the J. Schram 2005 North Coast Rose ($140), also chardonnay-based but with enough pinot noir to give it a pretty pink hue as well as suggestions of strawberries and raspberries, all backed up by a viscosity and earthiness from being aged on yeast seven years.