‘Tis the season for sparkling wine, and I don’t hear anyone complaining.  Ok, so I do hear some complaints: I’m hearing that there are just too many great sparkling wine choices, and people want help sorting through the billions of available bubbles. (With 49 million bubbles per bottle, I think I may be understating the situation here.)

Any discussion of sparkling wine should begin at the beginning, in Champagne. The only wines that can truly be called Champagne come from grapes grown in the chalky soil of the region of the same name in northeastern France.  These are the granddaddies of the sparkling wine world, and range in price from the affordable to the unfathomable, but the savvy shopper can pick their way through the shelves and emerge with a winner that suits their budget.

Of course Champagne is not the only source of sparkling wine out there. In fact, virtually every wine-producing region has their own sparkling wines, from Peru (yes, it’s true) to Austria.

What to Expect: Champagne Blends

Champagne is usually, but not always, a blended sparkling wine that generally includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and occasionally Pinot Muenier. In the blend each component contributes certain characteristics: Chardonnay adds finesse and a bright elegance, Pinot Noir adds richness and depth of fruit, while small additions of Pinot Muenier add earthy complexities.

Sparkling wine from around the world

Find Great Sparkling Wine
California has made great strides towards improving the overall level of sparkling wines produced in the state since Schramsberg bottled theirs -- the state's first Methode Champenoise Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine way back in 1965.

Prosecco, Cava or Cremant
If you are looking for value there are several European options worth perusing from Italy, Spain, and France. All of these regions have long histories producing sparkling wines that are distinctive and delicious.

California has made great strides towards improving the overall level of sparkling wines produced in the state since Schramsberg bottled theirs -- the states first Methode Champenoise Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine way back in 1965.

While I still rank Schramsberg as the best domestic producer, they face increasing competition from many of their neighbors as the industry as a whole recognizes the vineyards that are best suited for the production of sparkling wines. While there are many great wines being produced in California, one producer vies for the tile of “greatest domestic sparkling wine producer” each year, and they hail from New Mexico!

Yup, that’s right. New Mexico. The mountains of New Mexico, to be precise. During a visit to the States in the early 1980’s, Chapagne producer Gilbert Gruet found the mountains of New Mexico, and felt they offered great promise from the production of Sparkling wine. In 1982 Gruet planted vineyards of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at his 4300 ft high vineyard and thus began one of America’s greatest wine success stories.

The sparkling wines of Gruet are both affordable (delightfully so) and delicious, with real class and elegance. They might not yet reach the heights of the best bottlings from producers like Schramsberg, but they do consistently best many producers' products, and at half the price. No easy feat.

If you are looking for value, there are several European options worth perusing from Italy, Spain, and France. Look to Cava from Spain for an inexpensive sparkling wine made in a fresh style. The grapes used in Cava, typically Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada (instead of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier typically used for Method Champenoise wines) so the flavor profile of Cava is distinct from that of Champagne; the wines are zippy and fruity, if a bit sweeter than your typical Champagne.

Italy is one of the world's largest sources of sparkling wines and many are quite well known, though some are lurking just on the edge of fame. Prosecco from the Veneto is much like Cava in that the more common bottlings tend to be sweet, though Prosecco’s flavors are generally more orchard-fruit driven and perhaps ultimately simpler than Cava. I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at Prosecco and the other sparkling wines of Italy in a later article, so look for more details then.

That leaves us where we started -- in France -- though now with our eye on value. We’re looking at Cremant, as opposed to Cramant, which is a great vineyard, ironically in Champagne. Cremant sparkling wines are wines made with the Method Chapenoise process, but that come from regions outside of Champagne. Thus there are Cremant d’Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne, and, the greatest in terms of production, Cremant du Loire. These are wines that rely on the grapes most well-suited to each region, but are always produced in the traditional style. They are a very varied and unique set of wines that need to be explored in-depth to be fully understood. In light of the limited space here let me just say that the sparkling wines from the greatest Loire producers have consistently impressed me.

So that’s a not-so-brief rundown. Actually. it’s much longer than I had intended it to be so without further ado: Here are the many sparkling wines I tasted this past month.

2001 Schramsberg Reserve – A subtle yet complex nose that reveals layers of yeast, dried orchard fruits, peach, and hints of cinnamon spice. In the mouth this is big and rich with lots of deep fruit tones laid upon a creamy, toasty frame with spicy top notes. The finish is long and complex with layers of spicy and nutty tones. 92pts

Domaine Chandon NV Etoile Brut – Very subtle aromatics offer up notes of green tea and herbs over white fruits that recall pears. The feel in the mouth is really elegant with a fine mousse and nuanced notes of toasted almond, juicy tart pear, peach and gooseberry. This is almost weightless in the mouth with a long finish that combines mineral and almond notes with notes of ripe gooseberry. Lovely texture and complexity here. 92pts

Iron Horse 2004 Classic Brut – Notes of beeswax, white mushroom, rose petals, and radish greet the nose in this wonderfully fresh and very white smelling wine. In the mouth this has a huge presence with subtle berry and citrus tones that are crisp and crunchy. There’s a touch of sweetness but it is very well integrated leaving this full of freshness and a feeling that makes me think of freshly washed linens. 92pts

Delamotte 1999 Blanc de Blanc – Hugely aromatic with waxy fruits, smoke, almond croissant, and chalk. Real depth to the nose. Fine mousse, great attack with sweet nutty tone, fruit, brie, flowers, chalk. This is suave across the palate with a richness and creaminess that makes it easy to appreciate, though it is tightly wound with excellent cut. 92pts

Louis Roederer NV Brut - As usual this is very youthful right off the shelf, and benefits from 2-6 years in the cellar, but his has the classic slightly yeasty, apple and toasted, buttery almonds. In the mouth it was predictably tight but combined admirably weight and depth with fine balance and an acid driven, refreshing finish. 91pts

2001 J Schram – Minerally and buttery on the nose with a real creamy appeal. In the mouth this has an elegant texture and fine mousse with flavors of green melon and citrus delivered in a very linear style that is layered and richly flavored. Great length on the finish, which shows a hint of red fruits on the final. 91pts

Iron Horse 2004 Russian Cuvee – This immediately impresses with huge lemon curd and biscuit notes on the nose that are vivid and complex and layered over notes of dried apricot. The mousse is slightly coarse though this is really very well balanced with deep, earthy flavors. The acids keep this so well balanced and accentuate the elegance and length this offers. 91pts

Iron Horse NV Joy – out of magnum – Crisp on the nose with great focus and finesse to the apricot pit, pear, herb, steely mineral and yeast aromas.  In the mouth this is subtle and crisp with a top note of sassafras overly the unabashedly fruity, and gently sweet mid-palate that is laced with vanilla and honey. An in your face style of bubbly but in it’s own way very appealing. 91pts

2000 Iron Horse Brut LD – Nicely perfumed with white floral notes, heather, mineral and apple fruit notes. In the mouth this shows significant acids and a very moderate dosage that allows the fine mousse and nicely developed, citrussy fruits to dominate the mid-palate. Delicate and bright with cleansing acids on the finish this shows good poise. 91pts

Delamotte NV Brut Rose – Walnuts, spice and custard on the nose with sweet red apple skin and brie cheesiness.  Rich entry with notes of walnut, earthy, spices, great intensity of flavor with nice golden apple and toasty nuances.  Very complex and fresh with excellent length. 91pts  Domaine Chandon NV Reserve Pinot Noir Brut – Very fresh and complex on the nose with complex notes of dried citrus zest, chalk, smoke, mineral and slightly balsamic tones. In the mouth this medium weight wine shows a certain sense of restraint but offers up layers of dried orchard fruits and exotic spice top notes, with toast and toasted nut accents. With good length on the finish and nice persistence to the fruit flavors. 90pts

Iron Horse NV Wedding Cuvee – Very yeasty on the nose with bright citrus tones and with complex hints of almost salty mineral tones, caramel, and a crisp, slightly vegetal note that recalls earthy jicama. In the mouth this is very crisp with a slight vegetal edge to the intense flavors. Rather light and elegant with solid length 90pts.

Schramsberg NV Blanc de Blanc – Yeasty and fresh on the nose with a hint of Pina Colada that appears on the tropically fruited palate. Nicely integrated but obviously yeasty notes compliments the yellow-fruited palate which offers up a touch of creaminess and leads to a nice finish. 89pts

Mumm Napa NV Brut Prestige – Very nice nose with a touch of chalk, some funghi notes, hints of torrone candy, and sandy soil top note. On the palate this is very fresh though the dosage is a bit on the high side accentuating the sweetness of the fruit, which is fantastically ripe, luscious and delicious. 89pts

Delamotte NV Brut – Floral, honey, almond and lemon on the nose with a touch of peach and raspberry.  Mousse is a bit rough but the wine has lovely creamy notes across the palate with bright strawberry tops, golden raspberry and apple fruit. The finish is minerally and reveals a touch of toast and caramel. 89pts

2002 Gruet Blanc de Blanc - This has a lovely nose of lime and lemon cream with hints of sweet nutty oxidation and fading spices. In the mouth is quite bright with citrus fruits and grapefruit pith notes balanced by a nicely yeasty,slightly toasty doughy note. The finish is almost bracing with a nice mineral finale. 89pts

Schramsberg NV Brut Rose – Powdery on the nose with an assertive floral element that suggests roses, and rich fruit tones that recall red currants and red grapefruit. In the mouth this is airy and a bit sweet, with notes of powdered sugar and vanilla framing the yellow cherry fruit. The sweetness helps drive the finish which remains fairly firm with supporting acids and finishes on notes of red apple skins.  89pts

Langlois NV Rose – Gentle tones of strawberries and flowers great the nose with nice chalky mineral background tones. In the mouth this is lovely, crisp and bright, delivering a huge mouthful of creamy strawberry fruit that leads to a dusty, crisp, refreshing finish. 88pts

Parigot Cremant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blanc – Chalk, mint, and hazelnut oil all combine on the deft and defined nose. In the mouth this is cool and crisp with a layered mid-palate that has soft fruit backed up with lemon oil and mint tones that roll onto the moderately long finish. 88pts

2004 Iron Horse Blanc de Blanc - Mineral on the nose with notes of dried fruits, dried dates, and apply fruit. In the mouth this is lovely and strong with a core of apple and citrus fruits married to a medium bodied wine with a superfine mousse. 88pts

Veuve Clicquot NV Brut – With a slightly cheesy note on the nose that, along with the patissiere tones, recalls cheese Danish this offers good complexity with ample yellow fruit and floral tones.  Classic Veuve on the palate, a touch sweet, soft, caressing and easy with plenty of yellow fruit in a somewhat simple package. 88pts

Mumm Napa Cuvee M – Really wonderfully fresh and clean on the nose with bright high tones of root vegetables, rhubarb, arugula, and a touch of peach. In the mouth this is quite sweet and should probably be labeled as demi-sec. it’s got tons of fruit to back up all the sugar and good acids for balance but the fruit flavors are too rich and sweet to allow the wine to reveal much detail. 87pts

Iron Horse 2004 Ultra Brut – Very direct and obvious nose with a huge pumpkin note. On the palate this is very dry with a sculpted texture that is very precise with mineral and chalk tones and crisp pear fruit. This lacks the length that the sugar of higher dosage wines creates. 87pts

Gruet NV Brut - This is light and bright with a lovely, fresh nose of apples ready for pie, touched with a little lemon and spice and just the faintest notion of butter crust. In the mouth the wine is a bit more linear than the nose would suggest but it offers up a balanced mouthful of moderately intense fruit with good length. 87pts

Schramsberg NV Blanc de Noir – Fruity and floral on the nose with light cherry and earth tones. On the palate this comes off as a tad coarse and subdued with yellow cherry fruit tones and a soft, simple, fruit driven finish. 87pts

Domaine Chandon Brut Classic - Lightly yeasty and toasty scents meld with notes of hazelnut and dried orchard fruits on the nose. In the mouth this is a bit coarse with an intense core of fruity apple, nectarine and citrus fruits. The finish is pretty short but offers a hint of marzipan to help add some contrast. 86pts

Santa Margherita NV Prosecco - Citrussy and briochy on the nose with notes of apricot filled powdered doughnuts.  This has a slightly buttery edge on the palate to the clean pear and peach toned fruits that are a touch sweet, yet regain a bit of snap on the finish. 86pts

Cameron Hughes Lot 25 Sparkling Wine – This has a huge, cheesy, brie accented nose of toasted nuts. In the mouth this is very fruity with notes of pear, persimmons, apples and honey and noticeably sweet as well with a long, honied finish. 86pts

Oriel Prosecoo 365 – With sweet notes of peaches and pears this is offers a simple but appealing nose. Solid acids battle the sugar on the palate and allow the nice ginger and apricot flavors to drape across the palate and linger aromatically on the finish. 86pts

Mumm Napa NV Rose – Slightly smoky on the nose with notes of mineral and yeast accenting the sweet smelling cherry fruit of the nose. This is touch simple in the mouth with lots of red fruit and a touch of yeast all getting a lift from a touch of VA.  A touch on the sweet side and with decent length. 86pts

Korbel NV Organic Brut – Clean and bright on the nose with yeast scents paired with white orchard fruits. On the palate this is noticeably sweet with lots of fruit, pears, and spice tones. It’s very richly fruited and retains a youthful, green grape tone to the mid-palate and onto the moderately long finish. 86pts

Cupcake Vineyards NV Blanc de Blancs France – Fresh apples,  lime, yeast, tea and dried leaves on a nose that smells a bit sweet. Very high acid help to cut through the noticeable sweetness on the palate. This is fruit driven and full of lemony and apply fruit, tastes much like fizzy Chardonnay. A bit coarse and rough and tumble but full of fruit and zippy acids. 85pts

Cupcake Vineyards Brut Rose – France – Vanilla, cherry, and very bubblegum scented with some floral notes and an underlying sweetness.  Big bubbles in the mouth, easy and simple with the same vanilla, cherry, and bubblegum notes found on the nose. Finishes with some sticky strawberry fruit and a certain coarseness. 84pts

2005 Iron Horse Brut Rose – Really yeasty on the nose with sweet, ripe fruit notes. On the palate this is surprisingly hard and very dry with an assertive earthy, and almost metallic tone over rich strawberry fruit but finishes with some bitter, and dirty notes that detract from the impressive depth this offers. 83pts

Barefoot NV Bubbly - Earthy and yeasty with fairly neutral aromatics. In the mouth this has coarse mousse with some nice fruit that’s a bit rough around the edges and virtually no finish.  82pts