The Sweet Truth About California’s Bubbles
When purchasing or pairing sparkling wines, the key is knowing the amount of sugar in the bottle.
Most of us love sparkling wine. We look forward to those occasions when we drink it—the celebrations, the toasts, the smiling friends and family gathered around the festive table.
But there’s no reason to limit sparkling wine to just parties or weddings. Because of its effervescence, sparkling wine often pairs wonderfully with food.
What food, exactly, can be puzzling.
Although sparkling wine, including Champagne, is famous for its versatility, there are some classic pairings that make both wine and food taste better. Vintage Champagne and caviar is one example.
Yet, many people don’t think of precise food pairings with sparkling wine. They just pop the cork and hope the wine will go with the food.
There is a better way to make that determination—knowing the wine’s sweetness level.
Sparkling wine can vary enormously in residual sugar, depending on its dosage, a French term that refers to a small amount of grape juice and/or wine sweetened with cane sugar, added to the wine following its secondary fermentation in the bottle. The amount of sugar determines the wine’s sweetness.
“Dosage is the last touch of the winemaker as a finish to achieve the style of the house,” says Arnaud Weyrich, winemaker for Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley.
Some California bubblies, such as Iron Horse’s Chinese Cuvée, are quite dry (although sparklers with no dosage, called brut zero or brut nature, are rare). Others explore the sweeter side, like Bronco Wine Company’s new brand, Allure.
The following six California sparkling wines are currently available and arrayed in ascending order of sweetness, measured in grams of sugar per liter of wine. The selections vary in price, but all offer value, from everyday to luxe. And each is paired with the winemaker’s recommended dishes, so there’s no guessing required when enjoying these wines. Salud!
96 Iron Horse 2004 Chinese Cuvée (Russian River Valley).
abv: 13.5% Price: $98
This late-disgorged wine is Iron Horse’s third-driest bubbly (after its Brut X and Ocean Reserve). The blend, exactly 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, makes it a classic brut.
CEO Joy Sterling says, “Chinese cuisine is traditionally served with so many dishes at once, that silk, satin and acidity, with just a light sweetness, are perfect.”
Sterling says that as Iron Horse’s fruit becomes more expressive due to rigorous farming practices, all of the winery’s sparkling wines have been getting drier over the years.
For food pairings, she recommends “lobster, crab, scallops, snow peas, mushrooms, duck, oysters, dim sum—think Chinese takeout.”
93 Gloria Ferrer 2004 Late Disgorged Extra Brut Reserve Cuvée (Carneros).
abv: 12.9% Price: $45
This is Gloria Ferrer’s driest sparkling wine.
“A lighter dosage allows the purest expression of our Carneros vineyard location and terroir to come through,” says winemaker Steve Urberg.
Because the wine is so dry, its success surprised Urberg.
“I wasn’t expecting the tremendous positive response,” he says. “I was expecting it to be a niche product for other acid-loving folks like myself.”
With its blend of 67% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay, Urberg suggests drinking this bright, fruity wine with sushi or sashimi, oysters on the half shell with mignonette or pasta dishes with a creamy alfredo sauce.
91 Roederer Estate NV Brut (Anderson Valley). Editors’ Choice.
abv: 12% Price: $23
At this dosage level, this blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir gives a slight perception of sweetness. Weyrich explains that he seeks “a target of taste that yields the best possible balance, without bringing an overtly sweet taste.”
“Without the dosage, especially on a younger wine,” says Weyrich, “you don’t have that layered complexity to balance the dry, acidic feeling.”
Adjusting the dosage allows the winemaker to “expand the finish to find the sweet spot,” Weyrich says.
He likes this bubbly as an apéritif, but also with white fish like Dover sole, prepared with butter and a bit of garlic.
87 Francis Coppola 2011 Sofia Blanc de Blancs (Monterey County).
abv: 12% Price: $19
This bubbly is made using the Charmat method, in contrast to the méthode Champenoise. The Charmat method calls for the secondary fermentation to occur in steel tanks, rather than in the bottle itself.
“[Proprietor] Francis [Ford Coppola] wanted something in the Prosecco style that was not based on Chardonnay, so we came up with this cool blend and have stayed with it,” says Corey Beck, director of winemaking and general manager. The wine is comprised of Pinot Blanc, with a little Riesling and Muscat.
Beck says he loves this wine with oysters, “right out of the shell, summertime oysters. I can’t get enough. There’s just enough saltiness from the oysters and enough acidity with sweetness from the wine.”
88 Korbel NV Sec (California). Best Buy.
abv: 12% Price: $13
This wine is overtly off dry, and it’s a peculiarity of Champagne nomenclature that the word sec (dry) can refer to a wine that’s actually sweet.
“Historically, Champagnes were much sweeter than they are today, so back in its day, the sec was considered a dry wine,” says Paul Ahvenainen, Korbel’s director of winemaking.
Ahvenainen gives his Sec less acidity than the drier Brut. “If the acidity gets too high in a sweet wine,” he says, “it gives it a sweet-and-sour effect we try to avoid.”
The Finnish-born winemaker recommends pairing this wine with cheeses, berries or pâtés. “I think if you pair a sweet wine with sweet food, it can be a little too much,” he says.
87 Allure NV Bubbly Moscato (California).
abv: 10% Price: $15/375 ml
Bob Stashak, Allure’s winemaker, acknowledges the wine’s orange-candy sweetness, but, he says, “We’re not as sweet as some of the Moscatos out there.”
The sugar content is hefty, however, Stashak says, “When you add bubbles to anything, even at 7.6 grams residual sugar [per 100 ml], the wine has the attribute of being sweet without being sugary.”
Blended with 24% Symphony grape, the wine’s acidity makes it finish clean and appealing, despite the sweetness.
Stashak isn’t particularly fussy about what he drinks Allure with at home.
“My suggestion is just to put a bottle on the table and see how it works with everything,” he says. However, the wine’s honeyed sweetness suggests summertime beaches and backyard barbecues.