Over a weeklong period last month, we tasted more than two dozen dry sparkling wines -- all made through the "methode champenoise."
They ranged in price from about $8 to almost $45. Within the categories, they are listed here by region of origin, from some impressive bests to some ignominious worsts.
Veuve Clicquot Brut ($27) isn't the most robust Champagne, but it's close. What stands out, however, is its delicate mix of power and elegance. This is an extraordinarily stylish wine that is at its best when served with food. After a few years when the nonvintage blend sagged, it seems to be back in top form.
* 1986 Roederer Blanc de Blancs ($42). Here is a Champagne from the delicate side, and it's a beauty. It's a fine-spun wine of exceptional balance, with a lacy interplay of yeasty and toasty nuances. A Champagne made for seductions.
* Bollinger Special Cuvee ($38). Fashions come, fashions go, but Bollinger remains constant, true to its vision of what Champagne should be. Bollinger isn't a demure, drawing-room Champagne. It's a full-throated wine of impeccable balance that clamors to join you at the dinner table. Its aromas are those of a bakery in full production. Its rich, toasty, yeasty flavors grip the palate and hang on for dear life.
* Roederer Vintage Brut ($37). This year's blend seemed a bit less evolved than past examples, as if it needed several months to settle down and lose some edges. Still, it's a fine, flavorful wine.
* Taittinger Brut La Francaise ($37). Taittinger's normal style is restrained and delicate, and this wine certainly fits the mold -- maybe too much. Up front, everything's fine, but the wine fades from the palate too quickly, leaving a severe impression. This wine, too, might need some time. It's still a distinctive, light-bodied style that many people will love.
* Piper Heidsieck Cuvee Brut ($26). In a vacuum, this would be a most admirable wine. It has a clean, fresh, fruity aroma and more fruit than most Champagnes. There are light nuances of bread and yeast. It's very friendly. But stacked up against its peers, and even some $15 California sparkling wines, it is no better than average for its price. Lots of fun, though.
* 1985 G. H. Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut Millesime ($40). You can't say this bready, lemony wine isn't flavorful, but for a $40 Champagne it's incredibly coarse and earthy.
* G. H. Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut ($27). Which was worse? The musty, stale, insecticidal aroma or the harsh, bitter tastes? Either these were bad bottles or Mumm is giving mediocrity a bad name.
California sparkling wine
1989 Iron Horse Brut Rose ($27.49), 1989 Iron Horse Blanc de Noirs "Wedding Cuvee" ($23) and 1989 Iron Horse Brut ($24.49). These three exceptionally well-made wines from Sonoma County's Green Valley show that Iron Horse, already one of California's premier producers of sparkling wine, has jumped to an entirely new level. The wines are crisper and more Champagne-like than ever before, with elegance and penetrating flavor. My favorite was the brut rose, with its subtle hints of strawberry, but the other two are no more than a baby step behind. There's an electric, vibrant quality to these wines, and while the prices might seem high for California, they are a bargain compared with their Champagne equivalents.
* 1989 L'Hermitage Brut, Anderson Valley ($33). This just-released wine from Mendocino County is the luxury cuvee of Roederer Estate, the best of the California sparkling wine operations owned by Champagne houses. It's an auspicious debut, though I suspect the wine was still recovering from shipment. It's rich, long and full-bodied, and with some time it will likely improve. The mouth feel is excellent, and the flavors hit the palate with the force of waves breaking. One would hope that future cuvees are a trifle more elegant, though.
* 1989 Scharffenberger Blanc de Blancs, Mendocino County ($17). This bottle shouldn't even be reviewed, it was so abused. Through misadventure, it was frozen and then thawed, giving it every reason to show poorly. Still, the wine was full, rich and flavorful, with a well-delineated toastiness reminiscent of fine Champagne. If this gorgeous wine is from a damaged bottle, imagine how good an intact example must be.
* Domaine Carneros by Taittinger ($19). Taittinger's California operation seems to be improving each year. At first, this estate's wines seemed lemony and ordinary, but this year's version is a little sister of its elegant, ethereal Champagne counterpart. The difference is so small, this is a better value.
* Roederer Estate, Mendocino County ($18). Once again, Roederer Estate has produced a fine sparkling wine, though it seems a notch or two below its predecessors. It's more lemony and less toasty, as if the best part of the harvest went into Roederer's new L'Hermitage luxury blend. It wouldn't be the first time a fine reserve was created at the expense of the main wine. Still, it's one of the better sparkling wines in California.
* Codorniu Napa Brut ($12.49). This Spanish sparkling wine house is making a much cleaner, more elegant wine than it produces in Spain. It's a crisp, appley wine with a nice hint of mineral flavor at a very attractive price.
* Chandon Brut Reserve ($14). Domaine Chandon is the granddaddy of Franco-American sparkling wine ventures, and it still delivers good quality for the money -- much better than its parent, Moet & Chandon. This is a fruity, middle-of-the-road, medium-bodied sparkling wine with no rough edges. It isn't Dom Perignon, but it's smoother than some past Chandon blends.
* "Etoile" Napa Valley Brut Sparkling Wine ($25). This luxury cuvee from Domaine Chandon is a decent quaff, but it's no better than the Brut Reserve for $9 less. The fine, delicate flavors are obscured a bit by the cheap cotton-candy aromas.
* Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ($10). This fruity, rather acidic wine might be a good choice for a mindless summertime quaff, but its one-dimensional flavors hardly merit serious examination. At least it's clean-tasting, which is more than you can say for its French cousins.
Other sparkling wines
Pierre Sparr Brut Reserve Cremant d'Alsace ($15). The flavors are nothing like Champagne, but this wine is a success on its own terms. The flavors of pear and coconut resemble a fine Alsace pinot blanc, and the mouth-feel is creamy, without the acidic edge of true Champagne. This well-priced wine will win a lot of friends.
* Domaine Ste. Michelle Champagne Brut ($10). There's an interesting hint of cherry in the nose of this delightfully priced sparkling wine. When discounted, this medium-bodied, cleanly made wine is the best bargain on the market in sparkling wine.
* Paul Cheneau Blanc de Blancs Cava, Spain ($7.49). Paul Cheneau is still one of the world's most palatable sparkling wines for under $10, with none of the earthiness that mars so many Spanish sparkling wines.
* Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blanc, Columbia Valley ($10). This clean, crisp wine lacks the rounded personality of its brut counterpart, but it's still an excellent value.
* 1990 Mont-Marcal Cava Brut, Spain ($10). On the good side, this squeaky-clean wine is perhaps the least earthy, funky cava I've ever tasted. On the bad side, it's been all but stripped of flavor. All that's left is a high level of acidity.
* Charles de Fere Tradition Brut ($13). A bitter earthy edge obscures the cheap flavors. This French wannabe has little to recommend it.
* Charles de Fere Blanc de Blancs Brut ($9). The nose is ripe with cotton candy and marred with flat, bitter flavors.
* Miro Brut Cava ($11). Oxidized. The worst wine in the tasting. Maybe it's a fluke bottle, but how many other flukes are out there?