CHAMPAGNE (OR NOT)
Just as we christen ships and welcome the New Year, we inaugurate DANNY’S TABLE with Champagne, or at least a discussion thereof.
Spoiler alert— I recommend that you don’t buy actual French Champagne unless you have so much money that you don’t mind wasting it and/or you feel the need to impress someone (boss, in-law, client, etc.) who is more concerned with a bottle’s label and pedigree than with the actual quality of its contents. (I personally avoid such people, but then again I’m a truck driver... so maybe THEY avoid ME.) But before getting to my recommendations for alternatives to Champagne, a little overview is in order.
“Champagne” is the place-name for a specific wine region in northern France. Before the advent of bubbly production, it had been long known for producing light but delicious still (i.e., non-sparkling) wines from grapes that barely ripen at that northerly latitude. It is generally accepted that the bubbles were at first accidental, the result of bottling freshly-made wine whose vat fermentations had stalled in the cold autumn temperatures and then, come the following spring, restarted with the resulting carbon dioxide (a by-product of fermentation) trapped within the cork-sealed bottle. In some cases the resulting wine “winked at the brim,” displaying a delightful twinkle of carbonation. In other cases— such as especially ripe vintages followed by early winters— whole cellars-full of bottles spontaneously exploded.
The French have long been masters of making virtue out of necessity. As such, they painstakingly sharpened the craft of transforming cold-climate fruit into thin, high-acid wine and then— through a legally-defined process known as méthode champenoise— inciting a second fermentation in a well-sealed (and sturdy) bottle and finally clarifying it of spent yeast. The French are also jealous guardians of their place-names, especially Champagne. In the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, for example, they insisted that the term “Champagne” refer only to sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region and by the prescribed method. But America was not a party to this treaty, and American bubbly producers were thus allowed to call their output “champagne” (albeit with a small “c”) as long as they also indicated the method of carbonation... which, in America, was usually the “charmat bulk process,” which is a) much cheaper, but b) results in something approximately halfway to beer.
As Americans grew more wine-savvy beginning in the 1970’s, our wine labeling laws got stricter and more respectful of French demands, and today the term “champagne” appears on only a handful of grandfathered domestic brands. And quite coincidentally, just as Americans started awakening to the joys of table wine, our domestic bubbly suddenly got much better.
Before Americans became significant wine consumers, Champagne (or its cheap knock-offs) was little more than a ritualistic tipple— the de rigeur celebratory toast at weddings, a vital accompaniment to red roses and chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and a do-or-doghouse purchase for husbands on their anniversaries. Despite an indifferent market in America, growth in worldwide demand for real Champagne paralleled post-WWII prosperity, particularly in Europe, and eventually pushed French firms to their legally-delimited production capacity. Their solution? Mon Dieu! The same folks who vehemently proclaimed the unique and superior soil and climate of the French Champagne region felt compelled to venture way west to sunny and warm California.
The great Gold Rush of 1849 attracted throngs of fortune seekers to westernmost America. Whether or not their quest for wealth was successful, they found themselves in an agricultural Eden of unequaled bounty where seemingly everything that grew— including the grapes for America’s young wine industry— grew better. It didn’t take long for a few intrepid Frenchmen to find their ways west, and word found its way back to their Motherland about California’s potential for producing world-class wine. It almost wasn’t fair— whereas French vignerons in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy often watched helplessly as whole vintages were destroyed by untimely spring frosts, summer hail, or autumn rains, the California-grown grapes— the same varieties planted in France!— luxuriated in reliably warm and steady sunshine to full, exuberant ripeness.
As the 1960’s dawned, high-quality Champagne-style sparkling wine was not an unknown entity in Californian winemaking, but it was a minuscule drop in the Golden State’s ocean of annual wine production, most of which was devoted to cheap jug wine in the pre-wine boom era. But then, in 1965, Schramsberg Wine Cellars began crafting what quickly became California’s benchmark bubbly, produced from premium grapes and spare-no-expense winemaking using traditional French techniques. (President Nixon brought their 1969 Blanc de Blancs to China in 1972 for a “toast to peace” with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.)
Möet et Chandon (see the first line of Queen’s first big hit, 1974’s “Killer Queen”) is the giant Champagne house responsible for the cuvée Dom Pérignon that James Bond personally popularized. They were also the first French firm to follow Schramsberg’s lead, offering two fabulous bottlings from their newly-constructed Domaine Chandon in the heart of Napa Valley, each at half the price of their French counterparts— a crisp, dry blend from two-thirds Chardonnay and one-third Pinot Noir called “Napa Valley Brut,” and a fuller-bodied, coral-hued nectar from 100% Pinot Noir labeled as “Blanc de Noirs.” Their timing was perfect. Domaine Chandon was immediately and hugely successful, and many of the other big French Champagne houses— including Taittinger, Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck, and Roederer— quickly followed their footsteps west.
Fast forward to today— 50 years after the great American wine boom began and the French began making Californian bubbly, Americans have learned to enjoy California grown-and-produced Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, and yet they still reserve bubbly for special occasions... a major consequence of which is that domestically-produced méthode champenoise sparkling wines from the aforementioned French producers OR one of the many all-American producers (like Schramsberg) remain a fantastic value— better bubbly for your buck than French Champagne, and often better wine PERIOD for the money than red or white still wine at the same price.
Want to try the very best of these upstart Californian gems? To my palate, Roederer’s “Brut L’Ermitage” for $45-50/bottle beats the pants off the ubiquitous French Champagne Veuve Clicquot ($65, IF you can find it; artificial scarcity, anyone?) and rivals any French Champagne up to $100. Meanwhile, Schramsberg’s $35 “Blanc de Blancs” remains a worthy accompaniment to groundbreaking diplomacy (international OR marital) at a lower price than that for entry-level French Champagne. For bargain basement All-American decadence, pair it with domestic sturgeon caviar and smoked salmon. Want the best VALUE? Bottlings of Domaine Chandon, Mumm Cuvée Napa, and Piper-Sonoma remain pinned at well below $20. I personally prefer the Pinot Noir-dominant versions labeled as either “Blanc de Noirs” (which may or may not be pink) or Brut Rosé (which always is, to some degree.)
My preference for pinks notwithstanding, my bride and I spent the previous two years in search of the Great American Blanc de Blancs, bubbly fashioned from only white grapes (often 100% Chardonnay, sometimes blended with Pinot Blanc for added body.) Blanc de Blancs occupies only a small portion of the bubbly market, perhaps because it requires more precise winemaking. And yet it is preferable with seafood and particularly excellent with oysters raw or cooked.
It was a delightful search. Schramsberg’s entry reigned supreme; no real surprise there. However, the second-best was not only the cheapest but comes from a winery in… New Mexico?
The Gruet Winery was established in 1984 by the children of French Champagne producer Gilbert Gruet. They found the growing conditions in New Mexico perfect— the dry weather and wide daynight temperature swings would yield the high acid levels so necessary for making quality bubbly. When I was a wine wholesaler two decades ago, Gruet Blanc de Blancs was vintage-dated and only produced in tiny quantities. And it was superb, displaying the yeasty richness that comes from extended bottle aging before the clarifying process. However, following the 2016 vintage, Gruet apparently decided to broaden its reach with a non-vintage marque simply labeled “Blanc de Blancs,” with the legally-required indication of its origins now reading “American” rather than “New Mexico.” This gives the winery the latitude to use fruit from California or anywhere else in the country. Another version, slightly more expensive, is labeled “Sauvage,” indicating absolute dryness.
We liked the less expensive version better. In fact, we liked it better than the rest of the field save for the Schramsberg, which costs more than twice as much. We liked the Gruet Blanc de Blancs so much that we recently bought a case of it for $14.99/ bottle at our fabulous local wine store, Lisa’s Liquor Barn.
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Whatever the color, if you want to really enjoy your bubbles, don’t wait for a special occasion— or next New Year’s Eve— to pop a cork! Drink it before dinner instead of martinis... drink it WITH dinner instead of your usual wine... hell, drink it with popcorn while snuggled up on the couch watching a movie.
It’s really hard to go wrong here.
(For a very long and highly detailed oral history in pdf of the development of Domaine Chandon, click here.)