Sparkling Wine: The Spirit of Festivity

The French have been arguing for decades, without perceptible success, to persuade Americans to stop calling our sparkling wine "Champagne."

That honored name, they say, should be reserved for the fine, sparkling wines first made in the French region of the same name, the neighborhood around Rheims, not far east of Paris.

According to legend, a blind French monk named Dom Pierre Perignon had the first taste of Champagne, sometime around 1700, when he stumbled upon a cask in which an accidental fermentation had occurred, tasted the bubbly product and exclaimed, "I am drinking stars!"

It's a harmless tale, even if it probably isn't true (although the original Dom Perignon, whose name now adorns a pricey French product, probably did play a key role in the development of Champagne as we know it today).

Not only that, but it's a far more poetic turn of phrase than the epigram attributed to Cole Porter, who allegedly sipped Champagne and observed, "It tastes as though my foot's asleep."

Champagne (like other sparkling wines) tends to inspire flights of fancy. I've never been quite sure whether this effect is purely psychological -- it is, after all, a festive drink that invokes a celebratory mood - or perhaps comes about because they carbon dioxide bubbles somehow speed alcohol to the user's brain.

Be that as it may, sparkling wine is a popular drink, one of the few wine categories that showed increased sales in the United States amid a general decline in wine and spirits sales last year.

In one of the most interesting developments of recent years, a number of French Champagne makers - without for a minute relenting in their campaign to reserve the name for themselves - have opened wineries in California and started making sparkling wine.

Moet et Chandon (makers of the aforementioned Dom Perignon) came first, early in the 1970s, with a sleek, modern winery in Napa County near Yountville. The wine, Domaine Chandon, is one of the best California sparklers, and the winery - with its associated four-star restaurant - has become a must stop for Northern California wine-country tourists.

Piper-Heidsieck of France owns Piper Sonoma Cellars, makers of another excellent California sparkler.

Deutz, another French firm, now makes Maison Deutz in Santa Barbara County, Calif., another wine with excellent credentials; ditto for Domaine Mumm Cuvee Napa, wholly owned by a famous French house. The French aren't the only ones making sparkling wine, of course.

If your experience is limited to the $3 domestic brands that somebody picks up at the drugstore when there's call for an impromptu celebration, I'd suggest widening your horizons.

Although French Champagne can be expensive - most basic lines start below $20 and can run up to $100 for a couple of chic cuvees - quality California sparklers abound in the $10-to-$15 neighborhood.

Spanish sparkling wine is generally less and can be quite good, and the Italian Asti Spumantes, fizzy wines made from Muscat grapes, are refreshing if your taste runs to sweeter wine.

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