California bubbly can’t be called Champagne, because Champagne is a geographic designation — it’s a region in northeast France. But most sparkling wine in California is made in the “Champagne method,” known across the pond as the méthode Champenoise.
What makes the Champagne method (also sometimes called the “traditional method”) different from other methods of making fizzy wine? Essentially, this process is characterized by a secondary fermentation that occurs in the bottle. A wine is bottled after its primary fermentation, and then, over the course of several years, a series of complicated events — including little yeast additions, extensive aging, very careful rotations of the bottles, and a final addition of sugary wine — is inflicted on each bottle individually. The result tends to be a rich variety of flavors and an extremely fine bead of carbonation, more precise and bracing than any other type of sparkling wine.
There are other ways to make bubbly. The Charmat method, used in Prosecco, involves a secondary fermentation in tank, rather than in the bottle. The ancestral method, used for pétillant naturel, is achieved simply by bottling the wine mid-fermentation, to trap carbon dioxide inside the bottle. Neither of these represents a major category of California wine, though funky, cloudy pét-nats have lately become an object of wine-geek obsession.
California Champagne-method sparklers tend to use traditional Champagne grapes, too: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A third grape, Pinot Meunier, is often used in Champagne but is less common in California. And some trivia: Schramsberg does have a little bit of an obscure white grape called Flora, a cross of Gewurztraminer and Semillon, that they use in their sparkling wine.
Due to its production costs and its up-market prestige — as the beverage of fancy celebrations — Champagne-method bubbly, from here and abroad, rarely comes cheap.
Our sparkling wine tradition is indebted to Champagne not only stylistically, but also economically. Many of the major California sparkling houses were founded by famous French companies: Domaine Carneros, by Taittinger; Domaine Chandon, by Moët & Chandon; Mumm Napa, by G.H. Mumm; Roederer Estate, by Louis Roederer; Piper Sonoma, by Piper-Heidsieck.
Beyond the French-owned wineries in California, there are several founded by our own native sons — for example, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J and Scharffenberger — that have been making wine in the method Champenoise for decades.
The total roster of California sparkling producers is pretty small relative to the enormity of the California wine industry, largely because the knowledge, equipment and capital required for Champagne-method wine production is, to put it lightly, insane. Those barriers have historically kept many smaller producers from investing in sparkling wine production, though there is a growing chorus of new, small-scale, Champagne-method bubbly producers, including Lichen, Caraccioli and Ultramarine.
Major California regions:
Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Marin County, Anderson Valley