What makes a great Champagne or sparkling wine?

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE,  – September 16, 2004

I was 24 when I bought my first case of real French Champagne, as a holiday gift to myself. It was the most expensive purchase I had ever made, and on its face illogical. How could I ― a struggling writer living on food stamps in a New York City tenement ― justify Champagne?

The answer was embedded in the question itself. Champagne became the pleasure, the indulgence, the bright spot that made hardship more bearable. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my case of Champagne ― which lasted me a full two years ― was a small argument for the thesis put forth by anthropologist Lionel Tiger in his book The Pursuit of Pleasure (Little, Brown, Boston, 1992). According to Tiger, pleasure is a legitimate, even imperative component of normal life. Were it not for what he calls “accessible pleasures,” we could not have survived the dark nights and bright days of our own evolution.

Exactly what constitutes an accessible pleasure varies, of course, from person to person. But on the big night (I’m refraining from the M word), I, for one, will not be at the Taj Mahal, or in a suite at the Ritz, or on a 30-foot sailboat in the Caribbean. I’ll be in my living room with one husband, two dogs, and a great bottle of Champagne.

So what are the great Champagnes? Or maybe I should rephrase that: What are the great sparklers ― for Champagne, extraordinary as it is, is not the only stunning wine with bubbles in it. In the last decade, California sparkling wine companies, many of them owned by Champagne firms, have begun producing simply stellar wines.

What separates Champagne from sparkling wine is not quality per se, but place. Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France, about a 1 1/2 hours’ drive northeast of Paris. Sixty-five million years ago, this cool inland part of northern France was under a vast prehistoric sea. As the waters receded, they left behind a great crescent of chalk, rich with minerals and sea fossils. From this geologic legacy eventually emerged the vineyards ― and, ultimately, the personality ― of Champagne.

California has no chalk (not much anyway), and no sea fossils to speak of in its soil. But the state’s tumultuous geologic past, driven by volcanic cataclysms, has made California a unique sparkling wine-producing region on its own.

And there’s one more big difference between these two places: sun. Champagne has little; California has a lot. As a result, the flavor profiles of their respective sparkling wines are different. California’s, not surprisingly, tastes of fruit on its way to ripeness. Champagne tastes less of fruit and more subtly of the earth from which it came.

So how do you judge a great Champagne or sparkling wine? Imagine a sphere, and then add an arrow shooting up through the middle. A bubbly should be like that. On the one hand, you feel and taste its creamy roundness, but in the same split second, you also feel and taste a sleek dagger of refreshing acidity that almost seems to vibrate through the center of the wine. I think of it as the contrapuntal tension of opposites. That’s what makes great sparklers fascinating.

Not to mention the bubbles, which add textural excitement and so make a sparkler even more intriguing. I can’t think of a better way to begin the new century than to sip a little intrigue.


There are scores of sparkling wines I love to drink. That said, here is a sampling of my favorites, especially if I’m in the mood to splurge. Prices are approximate.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1996 (Napa Valley), $26.50. Rich, elegant, and supple, with long, creamy brioche and apple pie flavors. Blanc de Blancs means that the wine is made solely from Chardonnay grapes.

Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” 1993 (Carneros, CA), $50. Le rêve is French for the dream. And this is dreamy ― sleek and dramatic on the one hand, but also beautifully creamy, with caramelized apple flavors.

Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé nonvintage (Champagne), $50. Light-bodied, vibrant, and sassy. Fabulous as an aperitif or with appetizers.

Veuve Clicquot Brut Vintage Reserve 1991 (Champagne), $60. Veuve Clicquot always has impeccable balance. The brioche flavors with hints of ginger and spice are long and refined.

Pol Roger “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill” 1988 (Champagne), $120. Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favorite Champagne ― and he reportedly drank prodigious amounts of it. This prestige cuvée, named after the statesman himself, is utterly gorgeous, with irresistible creaminess and zestiness.

Krug Grand Cuvée nonvintage (Champagne), $120. Deep, profound, and complex with nutty, yeasty flavors and marzipan. The classic among full-bodied Champagnes.

SUNSET’S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Domaine Mumm Brut Prestige nonvintage (Napa Valley), $15. Crisp and appley, with a lively frothiness.

Sunset’s Wine Club

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