Corked for Good

Rating the local bubbly for New Year's Eve

Our annual holiday sparkling wines roundup is back by popular demand—the demand being, that is, the hopeful queries of Bohemian staffers with visions of foil-wrapped bottles dancing in their heads. This year, the theme is brut, local brut. It would seem a necessary good that “Champagne” is exempt from the kind of moral considerations that have us soul-searching over the provenance of every pullet’s corpse, and the words “carbon footprint” rarely add cheer to a hearty toast. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to buy local when you’re buying bubbly—especially when it can be as full of finesse and roiling possibility as any in the world. Besides, we broke the rules with a blanc de blancs—and why not, it’s the holidays, dammit.

Same as last year, wines were awarded one to five stars based on our reviewer’s opinion, but listed in order of preference of the rabble; i.e., the thirsty Bohemians on a recent afternoon.

Trader Joe’s North Coast Brut NV ($9.99)

The sleeper hit of the session, relatively unnoticed until the unveiling of the bottles. Charmingly, some tasters wanted to know if there was something “wrong” or unsophisticated about liking it. Fear not, for this méthode champenoise blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was produced at Hopland’s Rack and Riddle, a custom crush where wineries that lack the facilities to produce sparkling wine have theirs made—including locals like Robert Hunter, my personal favorite boutique sparkling, although not included in this tasting. The Trader Joe’s has a fruity hint of dried raspberries, a hint of yeastiness and a detectable dosage of sugar. One taster called it the “gingerbread of Champagnes”; another said it tasted “like New Year’s Eve Champagne.” Drink up; it doesn’t keep its charm the next day. ★★★1/2

Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs 2006 ($28)

The aroma reminded us of butter cookies, animal crackers and lemon chiffon; the mousse is well-constructed and fine, the flavors, lemony-apple—or kombucha. Yet there’s enough steely austerity that it’s anything but cloying on the finish. As usual, the Gloria Blanc de Blancs is sure to please a crowd. ★★★★1/2

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige NV ($22)

Yeasty, lemon-cream-pie and lime aromas, with mouth-filling, but aggressive, scoury bubbles; a hint of wine-soaked oak. This was the first on the list, so to avoid bias it was reinserted later in the tasting. Surprisingly, many scored it lower on the second go-around, although several increased their scores and compliments: “Tastes like Champagne should taste.” ★★★1/2

Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut 2006 ($33)

Among the most dynamic bottles of this lineup, the Iron Horse has lively top-palate bubble action, while thirst-quenching acidity dives deep down on the back end. The austere flavors are hard to pin down, but it sports classic, vintage aromas of autolyzed yeast or, as one Bohemian put it, “monkey fizz.” ★★★★

J Vineyards Late Disgorged Vintage Brut 2001 ($90)

Something of a surprise in contrast to what I remember of previous vintages that I made a staple of holiday entertaining last year, this lean, assertive brut has an integrated, nutty, creamy aroma with overtones of lemony custard and a vibrant core of very bright acidity. An excellent brut that could go up against champagne-from-Champagne champagne; but be advised that the searing acidity was too much for some, one taster going so far as to describe it as “sour and cruel.” ★★★★

Domaine Carneros Brut Cuvée 2007 ($26)

Fine bubbles, lively and gentle, aromas of lemon custard and cider, with a hint of fresh-baked sourdough and sweet, glazed almonds on the dry, firm finish. In general, it didn’t leave much of an impression one way or the other on the group, except for inspiring several non sequiturs: “hand-walled Stilton cave” and “liquid mummy.” On a second tasting, I liked this quite a bit. ★★★★

Korbel Natural NV ($13.99)

“Natural,” in this case, refers not to the wine’s organic provenance, but to a dry style of brut. It’s a misnomer, anyway, as this bronze-hued, full-bodied sparkling has a healthy dosage. Apples and apple brandy showed up in most tasters’ notes—apple bottom jeans in another’s; Belgian beer, in mine. The aroma is fruity, a little herbal and hoppy, and the finish nicely balanced. Unusual among the California Champagne giant’s offerings, this Korbel is grown locally, and has been served at presidential inaugurations for the past thirty years ★★★

Gloria Ferrer Brut NV ($20)

A pale yellow hue, with faint strawberry scent and essential bubbly “brutiness.” One taster cryptically noted, “Fuzzy, like a petulant kitten.” This brut has no defect but for its fresh simplicity and anonymity; it’s got a zippy core of pink grapefruit, a clean and roiling mousse, so save this one for midnight on New Year’s Eve, when everyone who’s drunk already needs something to zap their palate awake, and anyone who drinks only a little will find that a half bottle still has adequate effervescence for Sunday-morning mimosas. ★★★