The champagne challengers


In the hierarchy of sparkling wine, champagne clearly occupies the top rung by reputation and merits. That said, champagne producers are hardly lonely up there.

In the quest to make bubbly that compares favorably to champagne, producers in Italy -- the Franciacorta and Trentino regions, to be precise -- and California have made tremendous strides over the past three decades, narrowing the gap between champagne and its keenest competitors. 

The quest began in California by Jack and Jamie Davies, who in 1965 restored an abandoned vineyard on Diamond Mountain in the Napa Valley to become the historic Schramsberg Vineyards. It was founded with the stated intent of producing America's finest sparkling wine, despite the fact that chardonnay and pinot noir grapes -- the money grapes of champagne -- were scarce at the time. 

The success of Schramsberg inspired a number of top-notch champagne houses to invest in California so that today, Tattinger (Domaine Carneros), Mumm, Chandon and Louis Roederer are French names that are common in California wine circles. Add to that group Iron Horse Vineyards, J Vineyards and Gloria Ferrer, and together they form a powerhouse nucleus of sparkling wine producers who can give champagne a run on their best day. 

Northern Italy is another excellent source for sparkling wines that compare favorably with champagne, meaning they are beautifully structured and deliver exceptional depth and complexity with the ability to improve with age. The leaders are Ca' del Bosco and Bellavista in Franciacorta, and Ferrari in Trentino. 

While all the wineries mentioned here can knock it out of the park in blind tastings alongside comparable tiers of champagne, their bubblies are generally less expensive. That doesn't mean they're cheap. Because of the length of aging required to achieve profound complexity, outstanding sparkling wine is costly to produce. 

Tasting Notes 

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine. 

J Vineyards 'Cuvee 20,' Russian River Valley ($38) -- This is J's most popular cuvee, and there's a reason for it. It combines the zest and freshness of California chardonnay with the depth and power of pinot noir, and for additional complexity, there's a dash of pinot meunier. This bubbly shows notes of spiced apple, lemon oil and subtle red fruits enlivened by refreshing bubbles and mouthwatering acidity. Pair the Cuvee 20 with steamed crab or freshly shucked oysters. Rating: 93. 

Schramsberg 2013 Blanc de Noirs, North Coast ($42) -- This lightly colored blanc de noirs draws you in with a toasty nose of buttered brioche and subtle aromas of soft red fruit, pear and crunchy apple. On the palate it is beautifully balanced, showing crisp acidity wrapped around a creamy center. The finish is subtle and lingering, with a hint of wood. Rating: 93. 

La Crema 2015 Pinot Noir 'Fog Veil,' Russian River Valley ($50) -- La Crema's Fog Veil pinot noir is richly layered and powerful. It shows ripe flavors of cherry and black fruits and a wood-spice note through the long, impressive finish. It drinks beautifully now, though it's a bit grippy on the back end, so additional cellar time would benefit it mightily. Rating: 92. 

Arrowood 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley ($40) -- This is another stellar Arrowood cab from the 2014 vintage. It shows ripe flavors of blackberry, cassis and blueberry with a touch of oak vanillin and firm tannins that will smooth out nicely in another two to three years. This vintage also offers an intriguing note of cedar that is often a marker in top-notch Bordeaux. Rating: 90. 

Schramsberg 2014 Blanc de Blancs, North Coast ($40) -- Made from 100 percent chardonnay, the blanc de blancs to me is Schramsberg's signature wine. Fresh, crisp and clean, it delivers a chardonnay experience throughout. There are notes of lemon curd with perhaps a hint of green apple. Rating: 90. 

Mumm Napa Valley Brut Prestige, Napa Valley ($22) -- Consistently one of the greatest values in nonvintage brut bubbly from California, the Mumm brut prestige delivers refreshing acidity combined with a creamy mid-palate and inviting notes of lemon curd and green apple. It's an excellent inexpensive sparkling aperitif for the holidays. Rating: 88. 


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