By now you probably know that Champagne is really just sparkling white wine, but specifically refers to bottles that hail from the Champagne region of France. Most newer growers don’t put champagne on their bottles anymore, but you still know roughly what you’re getting when you buy a bottle of California sparkling wine. But do you really know why your bottle of California brut cost so much less than the champagne on the next shelf and what that means for the drinking experience you’ll enjoy?
Champagne remains the holy grail of sparkling wine, especially for makers in the United States and California.
While everyone agrees that no sparkling what wine makers have been able to get very close to the taste of the French standard, the question of whether that should really be their goal is a good one.
The champagne region of France is colder and its soil is chalky. California is warm and rich, and it’s soil reflects these climatic differences. So as long as the best French bottles are the standard, it’s impossible for California sparklers to achieve the same quality, let alone the same characteristics. Yes you can still get a dry, crisp sparkler that bounces in the mouth and leaves you feeling giddy. But it won’t be the same, experts agree, as what you’d get from the top tier of Champagne.
California does offer something unique and special, and that’s what you should be considering when you pick up a bottle of brut from the golden state. Warmer climates and richer soils produce riper grapes with a fruitier taste.
This is clear in all the state’s wines. It means you will probably not get the same nutty taste that certain chemical processes that require the higher French levels of acidity produce. In exchange, you’ll enjoy a warmer drinking experience, often with a less-pronounced buttery flavor and more tart, apple-hints. This is the nature of a California sparkler.
There are those who are working very hard to produce a California Champagne analogue. They’ve found ways to get autolysis and malolactic conversion to happen in their bottles without too many additives. They’re working on a way to balance out the flavor lost with the absence of pinot meunier, which doesn’t grow well in California but makes up a large percentage of the Champagne blend. You have to do a lot of research to track down makers like Scharffenberger Cellars in Philo, California, who are committed to this ideal and the soul-crushing years of testing that have been required to get closer to their goal. But if that’s a priority, you can do it.
For the rest of us, who just want to enjoy some affordable bubbly from California, the range of California sparkling wines is impressive. And when you walk up to the shelves and see price tags that are a faction of the French price, you’ll know why. With a California brut, unless you’re picking the very best, most exclusive, you won’t be buying the same drink from a different country.
You’ll be buying the sparkler that is actually Californian in flavor profile and drinking experience, which makes it distinctly different from Champagne made with grapes grown at a different latitude in a colder, more European country.