Great Domestic Sparklers

Our own Sparkling wine industry comes of age.


I recently was lucky enough to have a day and a half free in California’s wine country and given the timing, it was in fact just last week, I took advantage of my time as appropriately as possible. I went sparkling wine tasting! I am just as bad as the next guy when it comes to sparkling wines. Thinking about them only rarely, and mostly towards the end of the year.
There is of course no need for a holiday to pop a bottle of bubbly. You know what the next line is of course. Bubbly turns every day into a holiday. And while that is patently untrue, the bubbles do come as a welcome treat whenever they are popped. And with the case of California’s bubblies, that has never been truer. 
After years of being told that Californian Sparklers are just that way: fruity and generous and fun if not complex, and we’re really only in about the third decade of California’s modern sparkling wine renaissance so we are talking of an eternity here, California’s Sparkling wines have come of age. Of course there were always standout offerings but what we have now is a full fledged market segment offering a variety of styles. A novel idea to be sure.
I was only able to visit five producers on my recent trip, and though I’ve visited Schramsberg in the past it is of course worth mentioning here as they are one of the most important and the most historic Sparkling wine houses in the country. I look forward to spending some time with them on my next visit to the region when I also hope to visit Roederer and Scharfenberger up in Anderson Valley, but alas on this visit it was all Sonoma and Napa.
I started in Sonoma and then moved onto Napa before ending in Carneros. I present the tasting notes that follow in chronological order but will go out on a limb and briefly discuss the wines on a more qualitative level. For me the general level of quality at Iron Horse and J Winery was a notch higher than at the other, larger houses, though it is quality you have to pay for. For minerality and wines of terroir Iron Horse cannot be beat. J specializes in wines with the nuance that careful ageing brings. They are the equal of the Iron Horse wines, though in a different style. 
The wines from Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, and Domaine Carneros were all of a high quality as well, though there is more of a distinction here between their most broadly distributed wines, serviceable and well priced, and each winery's top of the line offerings which are often only available direct from the winery, and via each’s website. It comes with the territory of course. If you are going to produce in large quantities it is basically inevitable that quality will take a hit so we should applaud the affordability of wines of this quality on offer at each winery.
Once you venture into the more expensive offerings you do tend to get a noticeably improved product, which tends to give you a fuller idea of house style specifically and the potential of Sparkling wines in a more general sense. There is no doubt that even with sparkling wine, when fruit is picked less ripe, that california has an edge when it comes to richness of fruit flavors, and in truth nowhere is this more evident than at the lower end of the price range. These less expensive California Sparklers should prove terrifically popular because they do tend to be fruitier than say their European counterparts. A trait that is well in tune with the marketplace. It’s a feature of the wines that the industry celebrates, while holding it in check, particularly as one moves up the price scale when one hopes to encounter the creamy textures and subtly toasty flavors and aromas of brioche, nuts, and dough that are integral to fine Methode Champenoise wines.  
It is a fine line to walk, and each of these producer has chosen their path. All are successful, and yet unique. If I had to associate each with one word to help guide consumer the results would look like this:
Gloria Ferrer: Fruity
Iron Horse: Terroir
J Winery: Ageing
Mumm Napa: Confectionary
Domaine Carneros: Earthy
More complete notes will of course help frame the production of each, and reading them with that one word in mind certainly helps to focus on what I found important in each. It’s the holiday season and the truth is that every day this week is special, thus every bottle of bubblywe open is a celebration. Make the most of what little we have left of 2013 and celebrate with a weekend full of bubblies as a lead in to the big event next Tuesday night! Taste test some of these domestic sparklers and see for yourself that they are up to the challenge of welcoming in the New Year!

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Top 10 Domestic Sparkling Wines tasted in 12/13

Iron Horse "Ocean Reserve" Blanc de Blancs (2009)
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J Vineyards & Winery Vintage Brut Russian River Valley (2007)
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Iron Horse Brut X (2009)
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J Cuvée Xb (NV)
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Iron Horse Winter's Cuvée (2009)
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Domaine Carneros Blanc de Noirs (2009)
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Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvee (2001)
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Domaine Carneros Brut Rose (2010)
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J Brut Cuvee 20 Russian River (NV)
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Mumm Napa Reserve Brut (NV)
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