NO MATTER your personal beliefs about the current presidential administration, you have to admire its penchant for pageantry and pomp. And while a recent Energy Department memo referring to fossil fuels as “molecules of freedom” got understandably roasted online, I immediately knew this rebranding didn’t just have to stop at fossil fuels.
You see, American sparkling wine has always had an image problem. Everyone is familiar with Champagne, the French sparkling wine from the region of the same name. The proper name for sparkling French wines from outside the borders of Champagne is Cremant. Sparkling wines from Italy and Spain have catchy names, Prosecco and Cava, respectively, but what about the many sparkling wines made right here in the US of A? “Sparkling wine” just doesn’t have a ring to it, doesn’t invoke that Pavlovian suggestion of hedonistic celebration inherent in the word Champagne. “Bubbles of Freedom,” though? Well, now we’re on to something.
But of course, creating a name for American sparkling wines begs the question of what, exactly, makes these wines so special? If these wines are worth celebrating, shouldn’t they already have a name? Or at least some measure of cachet out there in the greater wine world?
The history of sparkling wine in the United States dates back to the 1880s, when the Korbel brothers, immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic, set up shop in California’s Russian River Valley. And while much has changed in the wine world over the past 130 years, you can still find Korbel California Champagne (the company is grandfathered in under laws that now ban the term “Champagne” on products that don’t originate in France). In fact, it was producers from Champagne proper who first realized the enormous potential for sparkling wine in California.
To make good sparkling wine, you essentially need two things: a cool climate and thin-skinned, high-acid grapes. Places like Champagne have both of these in spades. Located northeast of Paris, the region is famous for its bracing winters and harsh growing season, a climate too foul for hearty grapes like cabernet or merlot, but perfect for chardonnay and the fickle pinot noir. The cool climate allows the grapes to ripen, but just barely, leaving each individual grape full of acidity, the basic building block of sparkling wine. Wherever you have these building blocks, be it northern France, the Italian Alps, the Russian River Valley or even Tasmania—you’ll have everything you need to produce something delicious.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Champagne producers, along with the rest of the world, began taking American wine seriously and buying land in Napa Valley and other locales that are ideal for sparkling-wine production. Many of these newly founded wineries are still in operation today, including Napa’s Chandon Carneros, owned by Moët & Chandon, and Domaine Carneros, opened by Champagne Taittinger. Over time, as demand for sparkling wines grew and California winemakers got better at making them, new wineries began to emerge, offering alternatives to the more mass-produced, economy-priced wines already on the market.
And here is the prickly point of sparkling wine: price. The fact is that sparkling wine, no matter where in the world you’re making it, is a time-consuming and laborious process. While Italy and Spain have stepped in with budget-friendly, patio-pounding bottles for brunch, drinkers can sometimes be at a loss for where to turn when wanting something a little more, dare we say serious, without stepping quite into the $60-plus price point of French Champagne. This, of course, is where California’s Bubbles of Freedom come in.
California is home to a few special regions that produce sparkling wines that rival those of anywhere else in the world, each one of them in proximity to California’s natural air conditioner: the Pacific Ocean. Regions such as Carneros, the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley are kept cool by deep-cut mountains that funnel the ocean winds inland, washing the vineyards in cool air and locking in the ripeness of their fruit. Modeled largely after Champagne, Californian sparkling wines are dominated by two grapes: chardonnay and pinot noir. Each one adds its own integral component to the blend—the chardonnay brings lightness and finesse, while the pinot noir contributes fruity aromas, body and energy to the wine.
Despite their similarities to Champagne, California’s sparkling wines are at their best when they go against the grain and embrace their exuberant and lively selves. I often liken Champagne to a ballet dancer, a graceful spiral of electric motion, but California’s wines are like Olympic gymnasts, each one taut and lean, robust and full of energy. Champagne may be the prima donna, but California is the pop star.
Roederer Estate Brut, $25
If there’s a sparkling wine with a better dollar-to-quality ratio in California, I haven’t found it. Located in northern California’s Anderson Valley (a few hours north of Sonoma), Roederer Estate is another winery operated by a French Champagne house, this one Champagne Louis Roederer, makers of a little wine called Cristal. Coming in at just 7 percent the cost of its big brother, the Roederer Estate Brut is where I’m constantly looking when it comes to those inevitable weeknights that just demand a popping cork.
Scharffenberger Cellars Brut Rosé Excellence, $28
Another wine from Anderson Valley, this rosé achieves its downy pink color from a small percentage of still pinot noir added just before the wine undergoes the fermentation to get its bubbles. The resulting rosé is summery and bursting with a nose of strawberries and cream. If you’re brave enough to weather the Arkansas summer on a patio, consider this wine required drinking.
Schramsberg Vineyards Brut Blanc de Noirs, $45
Literally translated as “white from black,” blanc de noirs denotes a white wine made from red, or “black,” grapes. The red grape in question here is pinot noir, and without its red skin to give the wine any hint of red fruit notes, we’re left with a wine that’s as spellbinding and dazzling as a disco ball. Marzipan and apricots twirl with almonds and a soft macadamia nuttiness in the glass. Napa Valley-based Schramsberg Vineyards was the first winery to make an American blanc de noir, and it’s easy to see why it’s still one of the best.
Ultramarine Blanc de Blancs Charles Heintz Vineyard, $55
The only thing more interesting than the history of sparkling wine in California is its present, and perhaps no one wine sums up California wine in 2019 better than Ultramarine. Coveted for its wildness, the sheer abandon with which its fruit, all golden apples, white peach and honeysuckle, cascade up out of the glass and onto your palate is unlike any other sparkling wine in the world. If there is anyone still doubting that the sparkling wines of California aren’t world-class, start here. No need to apologize for your mistake.