Bubbly sparkles as a dinner guest


Can you think of a single sound that evokes celebration more than the pop of a champagne cork? I can't. But despite its ever-present role at the toast, bubbly has a much larger role in the wine world. With its high acidity and refreshing carbonation, it's a natural match for all kinds of foods, from spicy to rich.

However, it's worth repeating that it's only champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Winemakers there, being savvy about both good wine and marketing, have made it illegal for anyone in Europe to call sparkling wine that is from somewhere else champagne.

This hasn't stopped some less-than-stellar American producers from calling their product 'champagne,' but most quality winemakers outside of Champagne call their product simple 'sparkling wine.' Occasionally you'll see the term mŽthode champenoise on a bottle, which refers to the technique developed in the 17th century by French monks and later refined by the French Champagne houses (brands), most notably Veuve Clicquot and Mo‘t et Chandon.

The cooler climate of the Willamette Valley makes it well-suited to grapes that traditionally form the core of sparkling wine: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Because they are naturally high in acidity and tend to ripen more slowly, these grapes produce balanced and rich wines. However, because the sparkling wine process is inherently expensive and space-intensive, there are still only a handful of producers who have dedicated themselves to the task. Here are a few readily available favorites.

Argyle is one of the Willamette Valley's most established wineries and one of the first to explore the area's potential for producing high-quality sparkling wines. They make a number of excellent sparkling wines, with their least expensive, the Willamette Valley Brut ($20), the most widely available.

The current vintage, 1998, is an excellent example of the quality sparkling wine that Oregon can produce in a reasonable price range. A lighter-bodied wine, it's a pale straw color in the glass and has tons of citrus aromas, especially lemon zest. This one's a perfect hot weather drink, as well as a great complement to a number of foods, from shellfish and seafood to heartier, sauce-based dishes.

Domaine Meriwether is a newer producer on the Oregon scene, and its first sparkling release, the Captain Wm. Clark CuvŽe ($25), is an engaging wine. The nose is laced with aromas of biscuit and lemon, as well as pleasant applelike elements. It's a medium-bodied wine, creamy on the palate and rich with yeasty flavors. There's an ever-so-slight sweetness to it, not at all unwelcome, that keeps it bright and appealing. I kept noticing the fine bubbles Ñ a testament to the producer's attention to the product Ñ that make drinking this sparkler a real pleasure.

A more full-bodied, muscular wine, the 1998 Brut from St. Innocent ($25), is delicious and well worth tracking down. Made with a high percentage of pinot noir (60 percent) to chardonnay (40 percent), it has a pronounced weight, especially when tasted next to the other wines in this selection. With its distinct aromas of yeast and ripe pears, this wine is not shy about its personality. Rich and round in the mouth, with complex layers of toast and fruit, it's a great pair for anything in a cream sauce.

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