08/02/06 – Celebrating California

By Jesse on July 31, 2006


Well, we did it.  After seven months of trotting around the globe like the members of an all-black basketball team from Harlem, we’ve finally come home to California.  And what better way to celebrate our historic arrival than with a few bottles of champagne?  (Notice the small “c.”  We can’t say “Champagne,” of course, because we’re using the generic term that refers to all sparkling wines, not the proper name that refers to wine specifically from Champagne, France.)  Obviously, champagne is the traditional wine of celebrations, so this meeting is gonna be off-the-hook and probably really immoral.  But with any luck, we’ll also learn a thing or two about sparkling wine in the midst of the debauchery.  Here’s a few good starting points:

Many oenophiles believe that California is the only place in the world whose sparkling wines match (or even surpass) the quality of Champange wines.  That said, we haven’t had a whole lot of experience with sparkling wines during our world tour (a few in Spain, Italy, and maybe one from South America?… if I remember correctly), and I wouldn’t think that our palates are developed enough to necessitate doing a region-by-region breakdown of California’s sparklers.  So let’s do the whole state at once… buy any bottle of sparkling wine that you’d like to, as long as it’s from California.  The only exceptions I’d like to suggest are the mass-produced offerings from Andre, Cook’s, and Tott’s.  These are made for quantity, not quality, and really don’t reflect the character of California champagne.  If possible, try to avoid those — you should still be very able to find some good bargains that aren’t so generic, either at your local wine shop or perhaps at a supermarket with good selection.

Some interesting things to consider when shopping:

1.  How the wine was made.  Most of the inexpensive stuff we’re gonna find is made with the contemporary “charmat process,” by which the carbon dioxide (fizz) results from fermentation in large steel tanks.  However, look on the bottle and see if you can find any that mention “methode champagnoise,” or “methode traditionelle.”  This means that the wine was produced with in-bottle fermentation, the traditional Champagne method that goes back hundreds of years.  These may very well prove a bit too expensive, though.

2.  Vintage (year).  You might have a hard time finding a vintage on the bottle.  Sparkling wines are often a combination of two vintages — and sometimes four to six in France.  If the bottle does say the year on it, that’s rare, and usually an indicator of quality.  In California, though, vintage is less of an issue than in Europe, since our weather — unlike theirs — is consistently warm, year after year.  Don’t worry about vintage.

3.  Sweetness.  Look on the bottle for terms pertaining to the sweetness of the wine, and get whatever sounds best to you.  The sweetest level is doux (literally “sweet” in French), proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), brut (almost completely dry), and extra brut (no additional sugar added during fermentation, meaning it’s gonna be drier than a straight-edge nun during Prohibition).

4.  The type of grapes used.  Most California sparkling wine is made from the traditional Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  It’s very rare that we see red sparkling wine — such a thing is never done in Champagne, of course, and it’s only the most innovative of New World producers who are starting to experiment with sparkling reds.  However, the white sparkling wines that we’re used to seeing are not always made from white grapes, as evidenced by the presence of the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier on the list above.  Who can forget the scene in Sideways in which Jack incurs Miles’ ire by tasting a glass of white 100%-Pinot Noir sparkling wine and saying, “I thought Pinot grapes were red.”  The wine in question was a blanc de noirs — literally, a “white of blacks,” a white wine made from red grapes.  You may also see the phrase blanc de blancs — a white wine made entirely of white grapes.  If the label carries no designation, it’s a simple “golden,” which suggests a blend of both white and red.  If the wine is a rose (pink), that means that some red grapes were included, and the skins were left on a little longer in order to enhance flavor.

We’ll be meeting at Jason’s house in Brentwood.  Here are the address and some directions: (gone)

Make sure you chill your bottle all day — champagne is meant to be served colder than most other wines —  and don’t worry about bringing extra glasses, cause Jason’s the glassmaster.  We’ll see you all on Wednesday night at 9:00.