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Prestige Bubbly from California Champagne

by Steve Pitcher

New Year's Eve is always a festive occasion, excuse enough to splurge on a higher-classed sparkling wine than what you've been drinking on less exalted occasions during the year. When the turnover is not only one century to the next, but moving from one millennium into the next 1000-year stretch, it's time to pull out all the stops -- and really splurge.

If you've paid any attention to wine merchant catalogs and newsletters, or scanned shelf prices at high-end wine shops, it's become quite evident that you could pay a lot of money for a bottle of bubbly to pop next December 31st. If these wines are normally those that you only read about, but never get to sip, here are some observations that may assist in your decision-making process, since while a lot of cash should buy you a great bottle of wine, style differences abound, and you're entitled to know just what you're getting for your end-of-the-millennium bash.


California's Best Bubbly

Comparatively speaking, California producers offer great bargains in the sparkling wine field -- wonderfully flavorful, perky bubbly with palate-tingling crispness and a fair amount of finesse for under $20. Yet, when compared to French Champagnes (by the way, it's redundant to say "French Champagne" because the only wine entitled to the name Champagne is the sparkling wine produced in the French region of the same name, so from here on I'll refer to it simply as Champagne), the very best bottlings from these California wineries -- the
prestige cuvées -- are even better bargains.

As in France, a prestige cuvČe is also referred to as "tÍte de cuvČe" in California, where it is a relatively recent development. Referring to a limited-production, super-high-quality wine that is offered as the winery's
greatest achievement, the tÍte-de-cuvee concept couldn't be credible in California until the best of the state's sparkling wine producers had thoroughly mastered their craft and gained a complete understanding of the vineyard sources for their fruit.

Thus, it wasn't until 1992, with the premier release by Schramsberg Vineyards of about 1,000 cases of its vintage-dated, specialty cuvČe "J. Schram" from the 1987 vintage, that a California producer offered a true tÍte de cuvČe.

A wine of this class is invariably the most expensive item in the winery's product line. It is distinguished from less-expensive bottlings of the same producer usually by much stricter fruit selection, with an aim to emphasize the particular vintage, and a departure from -- or exaggeration of -- house style, for the most part, with the winemaker allowed the greatest opportunity to bring his or her own winemaking philosophy into play.

These wines are most often given a proprietary name, much like their French counterparts, such as CuvČe Dom PČrignon, Roederer Cristal and Perrier-JouÎt's Fleur de Champagne.

One of the processes that customarily separates a tÍte de cuvČe from the other sparkling wines of the same producer is the length of time the wine spends "en tirage," that is, aging in bottle along with the lees -- the spent yeast cells resulting from fermentation. Other than legal minimum limits imposed in Champagne -- at least
12 months after January 1st following harvest for non-vintage, and 36 months for vintage Champagne -- there are no fixed tirage aging requirements. In California, the bottles usually rest in the cellar for a period of 2 to 5 years, depending on the cuvČe. During this time, vital characteristics of elegance and complexity are
contributed to the wine by a process called autolysis, in which the yeast cells gradually and steadily decompose.

The theory is that the longer the wine is aged on its lees, the richer and more complex it becomes, which is reflected in the six California tete de cuvées described below. All had extended lees aging periods.

Winemaker Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros points out that the most significant event of the last thousand years was the discovery of the New World, and asks "What more appropriate way to ring in the next millennium than to raise of glass of the best New World sparkling wine?"

If that's your sentiment, too, here are all the California tÍte du cuvées currently available, listed in order of personal preference:

Roederer Estate, 1993 L'Ermitage Brut, Anderson Valley ($38) -- A stunning wine from California's premier sparkling wine appellation, this L'Ermitage's blend of 52 percent chardonnay, 44 percent pinot noir and 4 percent reserve 1989 chardonnay aged in French oak was specially crafted by Winemaker Michel Salgues
to increase the wine's ability to age. Less than 6 percent of Roederer Estate's harvest from the relatively cool 1993 vintage was used for L'Ermitage. Primary fermentation took place in large oak tanks -- uncommon for California sparklers, but de rigueur for Roederer, Krug and Bollinger in Champagne -- and the wine was
en tirage for 5 years.

TASTING NOTES: Forward, toasty, biscuity scents mingled with fresh citrus and succulent pear that evolve into hazelnut, light honeysuckle and a hint of rich caramel. Wonderfully round and creamy, with crisp, refreshing acidity and delicious flavors that replicate the nose, accented by notes of anise and mineral, L'Ermitage is a lively, elegant, complex wine with impeccable finesse and harmonious balance, lingering persistently on the palate. A triumph -- the creme de la creme of California's tete de cuvées. (5,700 cases produced; 1.0% residual sugar)

Mumm Cuvee Napa, 1995 DVX, Napa Valley ($40) -- Named in honor of the late Guy Devaux, Mumm Cuvee Napa's founding winemaker who died in 1995, DVX is the epitome of elegance, not only for what's inside the bottle, but also for the bottle itself. Both the chardonnay and pinot noir in the 50/50 blend underwent
partial (30 percent) malolactic fermentation and 10 percent barrel fermentation in French oak to soften the palate and give an extra layer of creaminess and depth to the nose. The wine was en tirage for more than 3 years.

TASTING NOTES: Complex, elegant, fresh fruit aromas focusing on red apple, lemon zest and ripe pear, enhanced by nuances of hazelnut and freshly baked bread. Creamy and richly textured, DVX offers crisp acidity and generous flavors of cherries and red plum, enhanced by notes of fresh citrus, dried apricot and cocoa. Long, lingering finish. A wine of superb harmony, finesse and depth. (4,200 cases produced; 1.1% residual sugar)

Iron Horse Vineyards, 1991 Brut LD, Green Valley ($60) -- This superb, late-disgorged (the "LD" in its name) offering from Sonoma County sparkling wine specialist Iron Horse Vineyards is a blend of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay, and spent more than 7 years en tirage. Timed especially for the millennium with the first disgorging available in November 1999, the exact date of late disgorgement is jet printed on the bottom right side of each bottle's label. The base wine was fermented in stainless steel and underwent no malolactic fermentation.

TASTING NOTES: Powerful, rich, creamy and complex with an underlying hint of youthfulness that seems to contradict its vintage, the Iron Horse Brut LD offers exciting scents of toast, pear-melon fruit tinged with citrus, cherry and anise, which are replicated on the palate, which is deep and lively. Exquisite finesse and length. (1,667 cases produced; 1.2% residual sugar)

Domaine Carneros, 1993 Le RÍve, Carneros ($50) -- Unique among these tÍte de cuvées as a blanc de blancs, this dreamy wine is a blend of 95 percent chardonnay selected from various estate-grown clones, and 5 percent pinot blanc, which spent more than 5 years en tirage. Conceived by owner Claude Taittinger and exquisitely realized by Winemaker Eileen Crane, one of the best in the business, Le RÍve (French for "the dream") bears a striking resemblance to Taittinger's French tÍte de cuvČe, the celebrated blanc de blancs called Comtes de Champagne.

TASTING NOTES: Fragrant, appealing, intriguing aromas of orange blossom, lemon zest, honeysuckle and freshly grated ginger mingle with a generous amount of toastiness. Sumptuous, creamy and rich on the palate with delicious, citrus-dominated flavors that linger nicely into the extended, mineral-tinged, slightly nutty finish. (3,000 cases produced; 1.2% residual sugar)

Schramsberg Vineyards, 1993 J. Schram, Napa Valley ($65) -- Composed of 75 percent chardonnay and 25 percent pinot noir, this wine, named in honor of the winery's 19th-century founder, Jacob Schram, was fermented both in oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, and shows some malolactic grace notes. A specially selected dosage, chosen from barrel-aged wines from previous vintages, adds depth, enhanced by 5 years en tirage.

TASTING NOTES: Fragrant, appealing nose of freshly baked bread, vibrant lemony citrus, vanilla and caramel. Smooth, round and creamy in the mouth with rich flavors of zesty lemon and red cherry plus vanilla bean and a subtle toastiness. A fine acid balance accounts for the seamless structural backbone. Finishes long and smooth. (2000 cases produced; 1.01% residual sugar)

S. Anderson Vineyard, 1991 Diva, Napa Valley ($50) -- This brut blend of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay spent 7-1/2 years on the yeast, which gives the wine an appealing toasty character and imparts a wonderful fullness on the palate.

TASTING NOTES: Full-bodied and powerful, with come-hither scents of succulent pear, green apple, pie crust, spice, lemon blossom and mineral, and deep, wonderfully integrated flavors that deliver what the nose promises and more, including peachy fruit and honey-like richness. Diva's smooth, lusciously creamy
texture is balanced by fine acidity. Persistent on the palate, with a lingering, mineral-tinged finish. (600 cases produced; 1.0% residual sugar)

Highly Prized French Bottlings

Here are some of the finest Champagnes I've encountered during the last several months:

Clos du Mesnil is the crown jewel of the French house of Krug, which makes the fabulous non-vintage Grande CuvČe (about $85), a wine certain to impress any connoisseur with its toasty, biscuit nose and rich, creamy palate. Celebrating the 300th anniversary of this special plot of land, Krug has released the 1989 Clos du Mesnil(about $200), a wine made entirely from chardonnay grapes. Thoroughly seductive nose of ginger, brioche and lemon zest. Bold yet elegant on the palate with intense citrus fruit enhanced with flourishes of toast and minerals; amazingly complex -- the perfect blanc de blancs.

A special 300th anniversary case is also currently available at about $1000, containing one bottle each of Clos du Mesnil 1989, 1983 and 1981. The 1983 offers a tropical-citrus nose and is mouth-filling; one could almost describe it as "boisterous" at first sip, yet it soon catches itself and behaves. The 1981 is probably the most impressive of the three, exhibiting a vigorous mousse of pinpoint bubbles, an exotic nose of tropical fruit, citrus, warm spice and freshly baked bread mingled with intriguing mineral notes. Silky smooth in the mouth with persistent, complex flavors.

Champagne Pommery is noted for a house style that pursues a natural elegance imbued with a refined clarity and charming finesse, elements quite evident in the non-vintage Brut Royal (about $38), which offers mildly toasty aromas tinged with rose petals and refined, yet full fruity flavors, and a lingering, crisp, dry finish. At the top of Pommery's line is the 1990 CuvČe Louise (about $125), a supremely poised wine with delicate, yet persistent scents of lemony citrus and the flinty background of its terroir. Silky smooth and creamy on the palate, Louise evidences remarkable complexity and elegance leading to a long, lively finish.

From Taittinger's current offerings, I was particularly impressed by the 1993 Comtes de Champagne Brut Rose (about $150), which entices with scents of fresh wild strawberries and light brioche, and is mouthfilling, offering lots of strawberry-red cherry fruit and a luscious, creamy texture. Even more profound is Taittinger's 1993 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (about $170), which offers extremely attractive, somewhat nutty aromas of creamy citrus, green apple and wet pebbles. Smooth, round, luscious and supple in the mouth with delicious, citrus-infused flavors that replicate the nose, this magnificent blanc de blancs exhibits so many facets that it can momentarily inhibit conversation.

1992 MoÎt & Chandon Brut Champagne CuvČe Dom PČrignon (about $95), a wine that has become a metaphor for classy Champagne, thanks to Agent 007, is actually a wonderful sparkler and certain to impress with its name alone. Exhibiting complex, bright, fragrant aromas of green apples, freshly baked bread and earth, the wine shows superb balance and elegance. Evolved flavors that replicate the nose and a generous, creamy texture make this Champagne particularly enjoyable now.

1993 Louis Roederer Brut Champagne Cristal (about $170) -- Always an excellent wine, this bottling is truly superb, offering a mildly yeasty nose emphasizing fresh fruit, and a palate of sumptuous, ripe, pristine fruit buoyed by just the right amount of acidity, making the wine sing.

1990 Perrier-JouÎt Brut Fleur de Champagne (about $85), beautifully packaged in its famous "flower bottle," is the height of romance, offering a forward, aromatic nose dominated by a lemony chardonnay character, with floral and red fruit nuances. On the palate, it is a balanced, extremely elegant wine, fresh,
complex and long through the finish. For lovers of the blanc de blancs style, there's 1993 Perrier-JouÎt Brut Blanc de Blancs Fleur de Champagne (about $150), which is brimming with toasty brioche and succulent, slightly honied fruit flavors, which linger persistently through the long finish.

1990 Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne La Grand Dame (about $135) is ultra-creamy in texture and rich with the toasted biscuit aroma and flavor that many find irresistible. A bold, slightly buttery wine with lively effervescence and memorable flavors and length.

And last, but not least, you couldn't go wrong with the 1988 Pol Roger Brut Champagne CuvČe Sir Winston Churchill (about $140), with its mature, mildly yeasty, citrus-like nose and mouthfilling flavors of deep, creamy citrus, toast and spice, enhanced by a deeply woven texture and excellent acidity.


Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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