The holiday season is hard upon us, and as of the end of September, America’s 2010 trade imbalance with France was a negative $10 billion, give or take a little global-scale pocket change.
The first sentence suggests Champagne — the real stuff with a capital “C.” The second implies a look at trading the big C for a small “s” — American sparkling wine.
But helping a struggling economy is not the primary reason for touting domestic bubblies (many of which are run by French companies anyway). Omniboire genuinely feels that the quality of our sparklers has done nothing but improve in the past decade, and it’s time to give them a whirl. It’s not inconsequential that they are usually much less expensive, as well. So we begged — and even bought — our way up to 10 bottles with impeccable American pedigrees. Reflecting the domestic wine demographic, seven were from California, one was from New York State, one from Oregon, and another from New Mexico. (Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michele does a perfectly party-worthy sparkler, but we didn’t taste it this time around.)
Our host for the event, Sandbar, is a restaurant that has no problem putting domestic bubblies on its impressive global wine list. Tasting were Sandbar and Il Sogno’s wine wonk in residence, Gabriel Howe; chef/partner Steven McHugh of the soon-to-be-opened Lüke restaurant on the River Walk; recent victim of an On the Rocks bartender profile, Jeret Peña of Le Midi; and yours truly. And before you get all what-a-posh-gig on us, let it be known that tasting through 10 high-acid wines can be brutal. Fortunately, Sandbar’s head chef, Chris Carlson, came to the rescue with a beautiful scallop ceviche, his upscale version of fish nuggets, and a cheesecake that has just rocketed to the top of our all-time-favorite desserts list
Here’s another thing you need to know: most of us on the panel formed our sparkling-wine palates with the big-C (though not necessarily big-$) French stuff, so there are expectations and standards, conscious or unconscious. (“I tend to prefer `sparklers` with a bready/yeasty quality,” admits Howe. Omniboire agrees.) Scoring was, accordingly, a little ruthless. But there were some good bottles standing when the mousse dissipated — even if they didn’t all evoke freshly baked brioche.
Roeder Estate Anderson Valley Brut, $19
And Best of Bubbly goes to the Roeder Estate Anderson Valley Brut, at around $18, one of the least expensive in a tasting that ranged from $14 to $40 — and the $40 contender, usually very dependable, didn’t make the cut. In a way, the Roederer won almost by default: “There was nothing there — even in a bad way,” opined Howe — who nevertheless scored it reasonably well. McHugh thought it had “a good quality on the nose” and rated it high on appearance, with appealing color and good bubble action. Omniboire went so far as to find desirable green apple on both the nose and palate.
Gruet Blanc de Noirs New Mexico. $14.50
It may surprise all but its many fans that the runner-up was a contender from New Mexico, the Gruet Blanc de Noirs, weighing in at under $15. McHugh found sweeter notes in this one and also noticed that it had better body than many. Howe ferreted out a little rose petal, probably a result of the pinot noir base, while Omniboire was almost reluctant to admit to detecting caraway and celery seed — odd but not unpleasant aromas once the surprise wore off.
Argyle Willamette Valley 2005 Brut, $30
Another unexpected victor was the 2005 Argyle Willamette Valley Brut, baby brother bubby to the Extended Tirage sparkler that has been getting effervescent reviews of late. The panel had a kind of food fight on this one: “Pear” said Peña; “melon — which I find odd for a sparkler,” countered Howe. Eschewing fruit altogether, Omniboire detected a certain vegetal funk. McHugh agreed that there was a musty note but praised the wine’s “buttery, fatter, rounder” qualities. Whatever floats your flute.
Mumm Napa Cuvée M Napa Valley, $18
With number four, we’re back to California and Napa Valley’s Mumm Napa Cuvée M. At last, bread dough, yeast, all the bready good stuff. “We drink this one at home,” admitted Howe, who, along with the rest of us, sussed out a note of sweetness. “It’s almost like a demi-sec,” he said. For Omniboire, this makes the wine immensely appealing as a food partner, the acid and sweetness balancing one another — and many holiday foods — beautifully. It would also be a crowd-pleaser at a party. “Refreshing,” added Peña. “Good balance at front and back of palate,” summed up McHugh.
Domaine Carneros Taittinger 2006 Brut, $20-$24
Next in line is the 2006 Domaine Carneros Taittinger Brut. “It reminds me of the chamomile and pisco infusion I have going at the bar,” said Peña, and since Omniboire again detected an odd, seedy-spice note, we agreed in principle. “I get some vanilla,” claimed Howe, who was still desperately seeking bread. “I gave it points off for a watery look and a faint nose — though it was better on the mouth,” said McHugh.
There was a dead-heat tie for the remaining three wines, each of which got the 13 out of 20 points required for inclusion. So, in alphabetical order:
Chateau Frank 2004 Brut Finger Lakes, $33
Chateau Frank 2004 Brut Finger Lakes. “`Finally` I got more toastiness, yeastiness,” sighed Howe. “Not the best nose,” countered McHugh, who must not be a bread boy. “I like the acidic quality,” said Peña, a characteristic Omniboire noted as well — in addition to a little smokiness.
Scharffenberger Brut Mendocino County, $25
Scharffenberger Brut Mendocino County. “Good balance, but nothing jumped out — it’s just ‘there,’” said McHugh of this sparkler that has recently reclaimed its birth name after being called Pacific Echo for a time. “Yes, nothing blew me away,” agreed Peña. Omniboire, on the other hand, thought it had a great “champagne” nose and a pretty apple/pear quality.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc 2007 Brut North Coast, $38
Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc 2007 Brut North Coast. 100 percent chardonnay, this wine was deemed “toasty” with good, classic apple and pear by Omniboire. Nobody else much agreed. “Lifesavers … plus an odd vegetal, asparagus quality — maybe cut grass,” allowed Howe. (The asparagus doesn’t sound good, the cut grass is a little better.) “It has a weak nose but is more intense on the palate,” said McHugh, claiming the defensible middle ground. At $38, however, there are much better choices. On that we could all agree. •