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Battle Of The Bubbles

Right up until may 1976, the difference between French and California wine was obvious, at least to the French: the former set the world standard for greatness, the latter belonged in a half-gallon jug next to the Fritos. Then came the now legendary Paris Tasting. A nervy young wine dealer set out 20 first-class reds and whites, from France and California, and invited some of the most esteemed enologists in France to assess them in a blind tasting. When the covers came off the bottles, the Frenchmen found to their intense annoyance that they had given highest marks to a Stag's Leap Cabernet and a Montelena Chardonnay--both from the Napa Valley. "All of a sudden, people had to stop saying French French French and open their eyes," says Ralph Hersom, wine director at New York's Le Cirque 2000 restaurant. Today, California wines have prestige to spare--with one exception, stubbornly lodged in the hearts and minds of wine lovers everywhere. If it bubbles, it had better be French French French.

Americans planning to toast the New Year with the best fizz they can afford are already stampeding the wine shops. Sales are up more than 90 percent over last year, and although popular labels are going fast, no champagne shortage is at hand. But a glance at the price tags makes it clear where the quality is supposed to be. The best vintage bottles from France can easily sail over $100; the best from California rarely get past $50. True, anyone who remembers Cold Duck doesn't have to be convinced that most California sparkling wine has precious little in common with Dom Perignon. But in recent years, a few California wineries have been producing high-end sparklers they believe can be classed with the finest in the world. Hardly anybody agrees. That's why NEWSWEEK held a blind champagne tasting--and why our tasters were astonished at the results. Does producing a world-class champagne represent the last frontier in wine making? Or are we really talking about the last frontier in wine prejudice?

The French have long insisted that only sparklers made in the province of Champagne should be called champagne. (In America, sparkling wine can be called champagne if the place of origin is on the label, as in "Napa Valley champagne.") They're protecting a prestigious term, but they're also making a point about terroir, a much-evoked French concept meaning that geography trumps everything else in wine making. Grapes in Champagne grow in uniquely chalky soil, which is said to help keep the roots well hydrated as well as providing minerals that affect the flavor. And the weather in Champagne averages a chilly--for grapes--50 degrees. The long, slow ripening season gives the grapes relatively high acidity and low levels of sugar. "Wine from these grapes is very delicate and full of nuances," says Jean-Louis Carbonnier of the Champagne Wines Information Bureau. "In California, the sun really bakes you. Those grapes have a higher percentage of potential alcohol, which makes an enormous difference to the aromas--they're much bolder."

But champagne grapes undergo considerable processing. After they're crushed and fermented to make the base wine (no bubbles yet), there's a crucial step known as blending--"the obvious solution to the Champagne weather problem," says Bryan Gray, wine educator at Domaine Chandon. Blending lets the wine maker draw on base wines from previous years to formulate recipes for each bottling. Then sugar and yeast are added, and the new bottles of wine rest on their sides to allow the second fermentation to occur--the one that makes the bubbles. If the wine remains on the yeast long enough, usually several years or more, the toasty, nutty flavors of great champagne can develop. Finally, the wine gets a dosage of sugar, the amount determined by how sweet or dry the champagne is supposed to be.

Remember the grapes? Carole Meredith, a professor in the viticulture and enology department at the University of California, Davis, says they affect the flavor of high-end champagne much less than the theory of terroir mandates, primarily because of that long second fermentation. "It's the yeast that contributes a toasty flavor," she says. "The fruit has some influence, but it's secondary."

Nobody claims that French and California champagnes are identical. "The best sparkling wines from California stand out because they've managed to get the grapes in the right balance between alcohol and acidity, while also expressing the fruit of California," says Tom Stevenson, author of "Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine." "That sunshine fruit should come through." But some critics have noticed an increasing similarity between French and California wines, as California wine makers gain experience. "Parity is much closer than the French ever could have imagined," says Tom Matthews, executive editor of The Wine Spectator.

Arguing for the special status of their own fizz over anybody else's has been tricky for the French ever since such legendary champagne houses as Moet, Mumm and Roederer opened wineries in California and began making what they never, ever, ever call champagne. Is it really so different? "It's apples and oranges," says Michel Salgues, the French-born, French-trained wine maker at Roederer's outpost in California, where he rigorously follows the Talmudic French laws regulating champagne making. "Well, apples and pears."

Wine magazines still taste and rate French champagnes separately from California's; and while critics may privately taste the two side by side, they don't pit them against each other for publication. "People in Champagne get terribly exercised at the idea," says Jancis Robinson, editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine. "Having an open bottle of champagne and California sparkling wine in the same room is a sin to them." But once in a while, sin happens. Schramsberg, for instance, which began making California's first high-quality champagne back in 1965, has conducted blind tastings to learn whether its classy J. Schram stands apart from its French equivalents. Most often, it doesn't. And wine educator Karen McNeil likes to pour six glasses of bubbles and invite people to choose their favorites. "The ones people think are the best are never exclusively French," she says.

Maybe it's time to jettison one of the hardiest truisms in the wine world. We invited six of New York's most experienced food-and-wine professionals to taste five champagnes and tell us their first choice for a toast this New Year's Eve. The tasting was held at Le Cirque 2000, and the wines were selected by NEWSWEEK with the help of wine director Hersom. The tasters were Paul Altuna, sommelier at Le Cirque; Roberta Morrell, of the wine shop Morrell & Co.; Paul Grieco, beverage manager at Gramercy Tavern; Tara Thomas, senior editor at Wine & Spirits Magazine; Michael Lomonaco, chef at Windows on the World, and Rozanne Gold, restaurant consultant.

The experts sat down to five glasses of anonymous bubbles: Dom Perignon '92, Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame '90 and Cristal '93, all French; and J. Schram '92 and Roederer Estate L'Hermitage '92, both Californian. The winner? California's L'Hermitage, which came in just ahead of its French sibling Cristal. More important, when the tasters tried to distinguish between the French and non-French wines, most just couldn't. Some identified J. Schram as Californian; others pointed to Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

Clearly, fans of fine champagne can buy a great deal of pleasure for less than they think. "The moral is, trust your palate," says McNeil. "It's not that a $130 French champagne isn't worth it, because it is--it's fabulous. But if you love a $16 wine, it's a mark of how incredible these sparkling wines are now." So, while you're shopping for sparkles, check out the California shelf with an open mind. French wines can be peerless, but when it comes to champagne, the bubble may have burst.