Trying to make champagne someplace other than the Champagne region of France is a bit like preaching abstinence on the set of a porn film—it's an exercise in futility. The Champagne region has certain natural advantages that no amount of money, ambition, or talent can surmount: The combination of chalky soil and fickle northern European weather yields sparkling wines that simply can't be replicated anyplace else, or at least anyplace that's been tried. Nothing underscores this point quite as emphatically as a New Year's-inspired tasting of American sparkling wines, which are made using the same three grapes that comprise Champagne—chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier—but don't deliver nearly the same pleasure.
To be sure, sparkling wines aren't the only American wines that beg comparisons with French versions of the same. But nearly every other American wine has now attained a level of quality, and a degree of differentiation, that makes such comparisons almost moot. Take, for instance, California pinot noir. Thanks to the warm climate and the stylistic preferences of producers and consumers, many California pinot noirs nowadays are dark, strapping wines—the complete antithesis of red Burgundies (which are made with pinot noir). Red Burgundy fans may not find much to like about California pinots, but that is a matter of taste; California pinot noir is just a different animal. The same can be said of California chardonnays, syrahs, merlots, and even cabernets.
It cannot be said of American sparkling wines: Apart from point of origin (if national pride or trans-Atlantic politics are considerations) there is nothing that distinguishes them in a positive way from champagne. True, they tend to be fruitier, but that fruitiness invariably morphs into heaviness; they wear on the palate. Champagne, by contrast, is refreshing; it gives the palate a lift (which is why it is the ideal aperitif). And while American bubblies have the same buttery yellow color and fine mousse (read: tiny bubbles), they lack the definition, complexity, and depth of flavor that one finds in better nonvintage champagnes, to say nothing of prestige cuvées like Dom Perignon.
Where American sparklers can compete is on price, particularly at the bargain end. There is almost no decent champagne that sells for less than $25 a bottle, so if you need to keep it cheap, American wines like the Roederer Estate ($18) and Scharffenberger ($19) are good options. Unfortunately, the luxury cuvées are not priced as advantageously. For instance, Schramsberg's top wine, the J Schram, sells for $80 a bottle, which is about the same price the reliably ethereal Bollinger Grande Année champagne fetches. The price of the J Schram is probably justified given the production costs, but if people can get something better for the same money, they will. And that's particularly true when it comes to sparkling wines, which tend to be purchased for special occasions. My advice? If you need to keep it inexpensive, American sparklers are a reasonable choice, but if you're able to pay up, make it champagne—there is no substitute.
Argyle Brut, $21.50 (Oregon)
A heady blast of cherries, lemon, lime, and cloves greets the nose. Just as vigorous in the mouth, with peach and citrus flavors and a nice acidic backbone. Turns a bit candied on the finish, the only off-note in what is otherwise a pleasant bubbly.
Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs 1999, $59 (California)
A blanc de blancs is a sparkling wine made only of chardonnay grapes. This one has an attractive nose of pineapple, macadamia nuts, vanilla, and buttered biscuits. Full-bodied and pleasingly ripe, with tangerine and nut flavors coating the tongue. Could use some more assertive acidity, and quite dry on the finish, but otherwise very good.
Domaine Carneros Brut 2001, $25 (California)
Passion fruit, vanilla, and tobacco scents. More passion fruit in the mouth, along with a hint of marzipan and a strong mineral note. A simple, quaffable sparkler that would taste even better if it were priced a little less ambitiously.
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut, $18 (California)
Melon, lemon, straw, and vanilla aromas, but the bouquet sounds more interesting than it smells. A slightly unruly wine; a little too effervescent, with a lemon custard flavor that grows wearisome on the palate.
Gruet Blanc de Noirs, $15 (New Mexico)
A blanc de noirs is a sparkling wine made only of pinot noir and/or pinot meunier grapes. This one smells of cherries, butter, and a slightly funky mineral aroma. An ebullient little bubbly, with cherry and lemon flavors. Also a little dilute, and finishes on a distinctly tart note. All in all, though, not bad for the price.
Iron Horse Brut LD 1996, $60 (California)
Bubbles so fine they barely break the surface. Pear, ginger, candied lemon, and baking spices greet the nose. Quite yeasty as well. In the mouth, it's a riot of citrus and acidity, finishing dry. The taste buds probe for something deeper, some nuance; they come up empty.
Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs 1998, $35 (California)
A pure, slightly tropical nose, heavy on the pineapple and grapefruit. Some buttered toast and baked spiced apple, as well. Citrus and peach flavors in the mouth, with a nice spine of acidity. Some elegance and grace to this sparkler.
Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut 2000, $30 (California)
A change of pace—a strong mineral smell, with some muted aromas of lime, ginger, and vanilla. Lots of lemon and pear in the mouth, with a metallic edge. A bit austere, which has a certain appeal in a tasting full of fruity, rather forward, sparklers.
J Vintage Brut 2000, $30 (California)
Lime, hazelnut, fresh baked bread, and a dollop of honey on the nose. Creamy and quite mouth-filling, with good acidity. Fades rapidly on the finish, however, leaving less of an impression than it should.
Laetitia Brut Cuvée, $14 (California)
There's some pinot blanc in the blend here, and it makes its presence known to the nose—pear, melon, and floral notes abound. Unfortunately, the wine lacks concentration and is unappetizingly bitter.
RoedererEstateAndersonValley Brut, $18 (California)
Grapefruit, vanilla, and yeast aromas. Candied lemon on the palate, with some grapefruit kicking in on the finish. A good spine of acidity, and though the wine lacks complexity, it is a nice bubbly with an inviting price tag.
Scharffenberger Brut, $19 (California)
Red berries, sweet pear, baking spices, and a touch of minerality. Decent fruit, acidity, and concentration. Good for a crowd, and good value for the money.
Schramsberg J Schram 1999, $80 (California)
A bouquet with some brio: aromas of honey, apricot, wildflower, and orange peel, along with a slight whiff of sherry, suggesting some oxidation. Unfortunately, the wine is one-dimensional in the mouth, with none of the layered complexity one expects from a first-rate champagne—or from any wine in this price range.
Schramsberg Reserve 1999, $70 (California)
Rich yellow color. An elegant sparkler, seamlessly combining honey and grapefruit flavors with excellent supporting acidity. The best wine of the tasting, and the one wine that would not be out of place in a tasting of upper-rung champagnes. But, again, better bubblies can be had for the same price.
Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2002, $32.50 (California)
This blanc de noirs smells of butter, along with apricots and orange peel. On the palate, it has a rich, creamy texture, with apricot and apple flavors predominant. All the elements of a good, interesting bubbly, but the wine never quite pulls it together.
Soter Brut Rosé 1999, $40 (Oregon)
An attractive bouquet of cherry, tangerine, red roses, and honey. The fruit turns slightly candied and chunky in the mouth, but otherwise a very pleasant wine. Decent rosé sparklers are hard to come by, and this is a commendable example by legendary winemaker Tony Soter.