’Tis bubbly season

Champagne isn’t the only variety of sparkling wine

Break out the cham… , er, sparkling wine!

Break out the cham… , er, sparkling wine!

Late this fall, Phil LaRocca will be topping off several thousand bottles of wine with a shot of brandy, plugging them up with corks, and stashing them in a dark cave. When the vintage is released two presidential terms from now, it may take a well-trained nose to distinguish LaRocca’s wine from true French Champagne.

For this cave-aged sparkling wine is made in the traditional methods of the Champagne region, where classic bubbly wine gained its stardom. LaRocca’s first sparkling vintage was a 2003 “Blanc de Blancs,” and a few bottles remain. No vintage since then has yet seen daylight, though the 2004 will soon hit shelves.

The LaRocca Vineyards certified-organic bubbly, which goes for $40 a bottle, is made of Sierra foothills chardonnay grapes. Like French champagne, the wine is bottled immediately after the first stage of fermentation. The bottles are placed nozzle down in wooden racks and are “riddled” by hand—that is, each one rotated a few degrees week by week, a process that coaxes falling sediments up the neck of the bottle. Eventually, the bottle ends are frozen and the plugs of spent yeast removed, and each topped off again with a shot of spare wine reserved for the occasion, called dosage. For the 2011 vintage, LaRocca will experiment by using brandy as the dosage, and for his 2012 vintage he is including pinot noir grapes in the wine, also a French tradition.

While the art of making sparkling wines is an esteemed and delicate one today, sparkling wines were once the bane of the winemaker. Stories are told of French cellars in which bottles began exploding in the springtime as fermentation, which had halted months before in the chill of winter when the wine was still in vats, resumed unexpectedly as the temperatures increased again. Even Dom Pérignon, the French monk for whom some of the most esteemed champagne is today named, was no fan of bubbles in his bottles. While the superstitious of the era called these mysterious exploding vintages “devil’s wine,” Pérignon sought to understand—and stave off—the chemistry of bubbly wines.

Eventually, though, winemakers in England in the 1600s learned not only to like bubbly wine but also intentionally make it: They bottled the wine before it had entirely finished fermenting in extra-strong, heat-treated glass bottles, and even before the winemakers of Champagne had realized the lucrative future of sparkling wine, corks were flying in England.

Today, the word “champagne” has become synonymous with flying corks and foaming eruptions of wine and is often mistakenly used in reference to all sparkling wine. In any official context this is illegal, according to international wine-labeling laws. The erroneous use of “champagne” also fails to recognize the variety of other sparkling wines available. There is cava, Spain’s classic bubbly made with macabeu, parellada, xarel-lo and several other grapes. The ancient Anna de Codorniu winery’s brut ($15) is one example, with yeasty citrus aromas and dry fruity flavors of green apple and guava.

From northern Italy comes moscato d’asti, a semi-sweet, low-alcohol style made of moscato bianco grapes. The 2011 rendition from Ricossa ($15) features a slight sparkle of effervescence, flavors of citrus, honey and tart apple, and a scant alcohol content of just 5.5 percent, all giving the wine an appealing cider-like quality. Also from northern Italy, just south of the Dolomites, is the sparkling wine of Trento. The Ferrari brut metodo classico ($25) is a famous wine of the style, bready and musky on the nose, thick and fruity on the tongue, and with a creamy hint of buttermilk.

Champagne tends to be dry, sometimes bitter and estery. The Charles Heidsieck brut reserve ($60) opens with a bang (and a blown-out ceiling bulb if you aren’t careful). Aromas of spices and grains open into nutty, chewy, bready flavors.

Many American winemakers mimic the Champagne style—like Biltmore Estate in North Carolina with its dry and tropical-scented “Blanc de Blancs” brut ($25), made with Russian River Valley chardonnay grapes. In Napa, Chandon is among California’s bubbly-wine pioneers, with a 40-year repertoire that includes a rosé, brut classic and extra dry riche (each $22). Chandon’s bubbly wines are dry, aromatic, and, as expected, explosive, with all the qualities of the original bubbly of France—and should you blow the cork off this one at Thanksgiving dinner, you can be sure someone will call it “Champagne.” But, of course, it’s just California sparkling wine.