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Friday, September 9, 2011

Scharffenberger Makes Great Bubbly Affordable

Posted By on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 at 9:15 AM


The world would be a happier place if we all drank more bubbly. Wars would end, reality TV would show people being nice to their families, and it would never rain again, except when we want to frolic in it.

Drinking sparkling wine always puts me in a sparkly mood, and even more so when it's affordable. And this wine is just $16, which is about as low as you can expect to pay for bubbly made by the traditional Champagne method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Cheaper bubblies made through, essentially, carbonation have their place, but they can't reach this level of elegance.

Scharffenberger, based in Mendocino County, was founded in 1981 by serial food entrepreneur John Scharffenberger, who later moved on to found an eponymous chocolate company and now makes tofu as CEO of Oakland's Hodo Soy Beanery.

Today the brand is run by Oakland-based Maison Marques & Domaines, which knows fine Champagne because it imports Deutz and Louis Roederer and handles US distribution for Roederer's excellent Mendocino County offshoot.

The wine is made from Mendocino County grapes, 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir, aged an average of two years on the lees. Current production size is about 25,000 cases, so it's in that odd middle-ground of availability -- neither hard to find nor omnipresent.

Last year I sent Scharffenberger Brut NV to a few non-wine-aficionado friends for Christmas because it costs only $16. That's appealing for two reasons: 1) Because I don't want to spend too much on a wine for people who don't drink it often, and 2) Because people are intimidated by the idea of needing an occasion to open a sparkling wine and might leave a bottle in their refrigerator for years.

A $16 price tag on bubbly says, "Hey, the Giants won. Let's celebrate," or, "Hey, BART was on time today. Let's party!"

The thing about nonvintage wines is that you're never sure what batch you're getting, but the one I cracked last night was clearly from a new one. Last year, this wine was all cheery, sunny apple -- a great introduction to the pure fun of bubbly, not serious at all.

This year's batch is soooo different. It tastes like marshmallow, yeast, toast, apple gone past ripe. It lingers and changes in the mouth. It's thought-provoking for its price class. It's intelligent, and yet still a little coarse. I get the sense that the winemakers have done a great job of making this wine in a style that appeals to aficionados without having the quality of grapes to seamlessly pull it off. It's a debutante with smudged makeup. It's brooding and expressive.

In short, I loved it, even more than last year's. Last year tasted like California; this one would hold its own in a blind tasting with Champagne. It's aspirational. And I would write more but my bottle is completely empty, which is rare for me and is the highest stamp of approval I can give.

Scharffenberger Brut NV is available at K&L Wine Merchant, among other stores.

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W. Blake Gray


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