Wine consumers in the U.S. have a problem. Our government is one of the few in the world that takes no action to protect consumers from being misled by erroneous wine labeling that suggests a wine made in the U.S. is actually from one of the world’s special winemaking areas that have a long tradition, particular soils and climates, and strict rules on what can be bottled and sold as wine from that region.
I’m talking about outmoded and highly misleading laws and treaty provisions in the U.S. by which wineries here that happen to have misused terms like “Port,” “Sherry,” “Champagne” and 13 other place of origin names on their labels at any time prior to 2006 are allowed to keep doing so on a “grandfathered” basis.
Although consumers should rightly expect potatoes labeled as being from Idaho to actually be from that state and that a “Napa Cabernet” started out as grapes grown in Napa, many don’t realize they are being seriously misled as to the origin of certain wine products.
Wine not actually produced in France’s Champagne region is prohibited from being sold with that designation in over 100 countries of the world. The only major countries that currently permit this kind of labeling are Russia, Vietnam, Argentina and the U.S.
The biggest abusers of this giant anti-consumer loophole are a handful of big producers of sparkling wine misleadingly labeled “Champagne.”
When crates of sparkling wines mislabeled as “Champagne” accidentally show up in other parts of the world, which does periodically happen, they are seized by authorities and destroyed. Here in the U.S., however, sparkling winemaking giant Korbel–the country’s 12th largest wine producer at 2.4 million cases per year—uses “Champagne” in the name of its brand, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and in all of its marketing. Its website even has a lengthy story purporting to describe the “History of American Champagne.”
Cook’s and Tott’s are the two other major labels that advertise themselves as “Champagne,” with “California” appearing in much smaller letters, providing minimal adherence to the U.S. legal requirement that those who continue to use a grandfathered wine name also indicate the actual place of origin somewhere on the label.
And it’s not only consumers who are misled. One even finds people writing about wine who mistakenly refer to products that never came near France as “Champagne.” For example, a piece in Huffington Post last December made that error in its headline, purporting to recommend “The Best Champagnes under $11.” Not a single wine included in that post was actually a Champagne.
Besides the fact that none of these ersatz “Champagnes” allowed in the U.S. are actually from Champagne, and therefore follow none of the strict rules laid down for that region, they bear no resemblance to the real thing. They are typically not made with the grape varieties required for real Champagne (i.e., Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). And most are not made by “méthode champenoise” or “méthode traditionelle,” the process of inducing a secondary fermentation in bottle, including lengthy aging of the wine on the spent yeast cells, or “lees,” used for finer sparklers.
Bubblies of this caliber rely on a much cheaper process created for industrialized production levels called “charmat.” This process uses pressurized steel tanks that induce a rapid secondary fermentation after a sugar and yeast mixture is added. The product is then cooled, clarified and bottled, ready for sale. Some cheap sparklers are even made by simply injecting carbonation, just like soft drinks.
There are, of course, very good sparkling wines from other areas of the world. Some sparkling appellations, like Spain’s Cava, and Prosecco and Franciacorta in Italy, also have rules about what kinds of grapes can be used, how long they need to be aged and the like. These kinds of standards help to promote quality and ensure that consumers are receiving a product actually made in those regions according to those rules.
We have some excellent domestic sparkling wines too. My recommendations on best buys among domestic sparklers currently on the market appear below.
What all the top domestic sparkling wines have in common is that they are not misleading about where they are made. The ones on the market that abuse the loophole and prominently display the word “Champagne” on their labels, websites and retail store signage are the ones you should avoid. Not only are they committing a fraud on unsuspecting consumers; the wine inside also tends to be of inferior quality to accurately labeled domestic sparklers on the market.
The fact is, sparkling wine as a category has experienced a significantly greater increase in U.S. sales than other wine categories in recent years. There’s a demand for both the imported and domestic stuff, and plenty of people buy good sparkling wine that isn’t mislabeled as “Champagne.” So why do some of the biggest sparkling wine producers continue to use misleading packaging on their wines in this country?
I sent a request for an explanation to Korbel weeks ago, but they never bothered to reply. Korbel’s answer seems to be that they’ve been producing something they’ve called “Champagne” since 1892, so they’re darned well entitled to continue.
Well, we’ve made a lot of improvements in our society since 1892. Women have the right to vote; racial segregation was outlawed. And there are truth-in-packaging laws that apply to the vast majority of products we buy. That makes outliers like grandfathered “Champagne” all the more insidious. Since consumers rightly expect most of what they buy to be accurately labeled, they tend to believe what they see written on the label.
So this Valentine’s Day, if your love is true, shouldn’t your bubbly be authentic too?
If you’re looking for good, authentically labeled domestic sparkling wines, here are your best bets. And these bubblies aren’t all from California either. The best domestic sparkler I’ve had to date, my first listing below at 93 points, was actually produced in Massachusetts! There are also a few very good Virginia bubblies and one from Oregon on my list of 20 domestic sparklers rated 88 points and above. (None of the ersatz domestic “Champagnes” I’ve tried rate anywhere near that high.)
A few of these are very limited production, so not available in many parts of the country, but the excellent Roederer Estate sparklers can be found in most states.
2003 Westport Rivers Brut Robert James Russell RJR – Massachusetts
Light yellow color with steady stream of pinpoint bubbles; flavorful, tart pear, tart apple, chalk nose; tasty, rich, poised, delicate, juicy, tart pear, tart nectarine, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (astonishingly good) 93 points
2002 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut California, Anderson Valley
Delicate, light, creamy citrus nose; tasty, tart creamy citrus, mineral palate; medium finish (I prefer it to the ’02 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal, at least at this stage) 92 points
NV Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley
Biscuit, apple nose; apple, stone fruit palate with great acidity; medium finish 91 points
2011 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Sea Spray Sta. Rita Hills, California
Light pink color with abundant, steady, tiny bubbles; appealing, light tart cherry, golden raspberry nose; tasty, tart cherry, golden raspberry, tart strawberry, chalk, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (very impressive Cali sparkler, and excellent pairing with foie gras; 12% alcohol; sample provided by winery) 91+ points
2003 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut Anderson Valley
Light green yellow color with lots of small, speedy bubbles; poached pear, tart apple nose; tasty, tart apple, tart pear, yeasty, mineral palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points
NV Piper Sonoma Brut Réserve California, Sonoma County
Pale yellow color; seductive blossom nose; big entry, nectarine, white peach palate with good acidity; short-medium finish 90 points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut Sur Lees California
Light lemon yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; saline, chalk, tart lemon nose; tasty, leesy, tart lemon, chalk palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (unexpectedly leesy and non-fruity for a California sparkling wine) 90 points
2009 V. Sattui Winery Chardonnay Prestige Cuvée Napa Valley
Light pinkish yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in several columns; appealing, chalk, tart apple, floral, tart pear, ginger nose; tart apple, chalk, mineral yeasty palate with medium-plus acidity; medium-plus finish (81% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Noir; 12.5% alcohol) 90 points
2009 Buena Vista Sparkling Brut Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow color with abundant tiny bubbles in multiple columns; chalk, tart lemon, ripe peach, apple butter, yeasty nose; vinous, mineral, chalk, tart grapefruit, light toffee palate with medium acidity; tart apple medium finish (12% alcohol) 89 points
2010 Flying Goat Cellars Pinot Blanc Crémant Goat Bubbles Sierra Madre California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with few, medium-sized bubbles; tart apple, yeasty nose; tart green apple, lime, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 89 points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California
Wheaty, baked bread nose; grapefruit, floral palate with depth and good balance; medium finish 89 points
NV Veritas Vineyard Scintilla Brut – Virginia, Monticello
Light yellow color with a good amounts of tiny bubbles; tart apple, tart peach nose; sharp acid attach, light mousse, crisp tart apple, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium finish (2 years in bottle) 89 points
2010 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Cork Jumper Blanc de Blancs Riverbench – California, Santa Maria Valley
Light yellow color with speedy column of very tiny bubbles; lemon powder, tart apple, lime, tart pear nose; bright, tart pear, fresh cut lime, mineral, chalk palate with tangy acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 89+ points
NV Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut California, North Coast
Light yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; poached pear, ripe apple nose; yeasty, poached pear, chalk palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (55% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier) 88+ points
NV Horton Vineyards Viognier Sparkling Virginia, Orange County
Very light yellow color with an abundance of tiny bubbles; tart green apple, tart citrus nose; tasty, refreshing, tart citrus, very tart apple, lime, chalk palate, reminiscent of a good cava, but with little Viognier character; medium finish (left on lees for 7 years) 88+ points
NV Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noirs California
Light medium peach yellow color with steady, tiny bubbles; tart peach, apple nose; baked apple, ripe apple, chalk palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish (approx. 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier) 88 points
2009 Argyle Brut Oregon, Willamette Valley
Light yellow color with few small bubbles; tart apple, oxidized apple nose; tart apple, oxidized apple palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (12.5% alcohol) 88 points
NV Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs Napa / Sonoma, Carneros
Light yellow pink color with abundant, tiny bubbles; light cherry, raspberry cream, raspberry nose; creamy textured, ripe raspberry, golden raspberry, black cherry palate; medium finish 88 points
2008 Afton Mountain Vineyards Tête de Cuvée Brut Virginia, Monticello
Light lemon yellow color with medium-sized bubbles; chalk, tart green apple nose; tasty, chalk, tart green apple, mineral palate; medium finish (50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay) 88 points
2005 Mumm Napa DVX Napa Valley
Light yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles; tart lime, yeasty, gooseberry nose; tart gooseberry, ripe lime palate; medium finish 88 points