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Now is the time for American sparkling wines

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From left: Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut NV; Schramsberg North Coast Blanc de Noirs Brut 2015; and Gruet American Sparkling Wine Brut NV. With sparklers available from all around the wine-producing world, why taste three from the US? The wines themselves answer this question.

New York

ALMOST every region in the world that produces still wine makes some form of sparkling wine as well. Given this bounty, why would consumers choose American sparkling wines?

One reader raised a similar point, wondering why, if sparkling wines from Europe are exempt from a recent 25 per cent tariff, I had offered a lineup of three American bottles as our Wine School subject over the last month.

My initial thought was, "Well, why not?" But that seemed a little flip. The query leads to a deeper question: What do these American sparkling wines offer, if anything, that distinguishes them from the myriad others available?

This column is intended to explore these sorts of questions. We try the wines, compare them to others that we have consumed, determine whether they appeal to our taste and then finally place them on a mental map of desirability.

And isn't that what we instinctually do anyway? You go to a movie, consider how you feel about it and debate it with friends and family. You compare the French fries at one restaurant with those of another.

Why should wine be different? Yet it often feels arcane and intimidating, as if an opinion can have no value unless one understands the intricacies of production, knows the soils in which the vines grow, can name the forest where the oak in the barrels was harvested. These elements absolutely help to understand wine. But they are by no means essential to judging whether you like a wine.

Evaluating a wine for yourself requires two essential tasks. First, you need to be able to turn off the outside voices full of oughts and shoulds. Second, you need to be able to put a wine in context. For that, you need to try lots of different bottles, which eventually helps with the first issue as well.

Common sense

With that in mind, my initial response to the reader's question seems less flip and more common sense. Why wouldn't you want to try these American sparkling wines? How can we make sense of them otherwise?

As I do each month, I suggested three bottles. The idea is for all of us to try the same wines. That's sometimes not possible, so I suggest some other possibilities as substitutes.

To clarify, these suggestions are not recommendations. That is, I'm not saying these are the best examples, or that you ought to like them. That's for you to decide for yourself.

Here were my suggestions: Gruet American Sparkling Wine Brut NV US$15; Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut NV US$22; Schramsberg North Coast Blanc de Noirs Brut 2015 US$35.

The notion was to try bottles at different prices. Two of these bottles, the Roederer Estate and the Schramsberg, come from California. Gruet is based in New Mexico, but actually used grapes from four states - New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington - in this inexpensive cuvée.

Many readers pointed out other possibilities, citing excellent sparkling wines from Oregon, New York, even Illinois and Michigan. Points taken, and may I add that I've had superb bottles from Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts as well?

These wines may be subjects for us in the future, though some of the wines suggested are not easy to find outside of their production areas. But their existence bears out my earlier point: Wherever you find still wine produced, you are likely to find sparkling wine as well.

If you compare the sparkling wines from historic wine-producing areas, however, you will see an important difference. Wines like cava from Spain, sekt from Germany, the crémants from France, Prosecco and Lambrusco from Italy - all of these are traditionally made from local grapes rather than from the dominant trio of Champagne grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier.

In the United States, a country without longstanding viticultural traditions, sparkling wine producers in the 20th century made the entrepreneurial decision to take Champagne as their model.

The more ambitious ones used the Champagne grapes and made their wine by the same method as Champagne. That is, they fermented the grapes into still wine, then refermented the wine by bottling it with yeast and a sweet solution. The carbon dioxide produced by this second fermentation, with no escape, carbonates the wine.

Less ambitious sparkling wine producers took the Champagne model as a marketing idea. They often substituted easier grapes to grow and cheaper production methods, but they called their wines Champagne.

Sparkling wines

A 2005 agreement between the United States and the European Union prohibits producers outside the Champagne region of France from calling their sparkling wines Champagne. But it grandfathered in a few longtime producers like Korbel, which continues to use the jarring term "California Champagne."

Nowadays, as other forms of sparkling wine have become popular, particularly pétillant naturel, more American producers have broadened their repertory, and are now using many different grapes. But the most focused sparkling wine producers, including the three I suggested, still cling to the Champagne model.

One of them, Roederer Estate, as you might guess, is a sibling of Louis Roederer, a superb Champagne house. Another, Gruet, was founded in 1984 by émigrés from Champagne who envisioned the high desert region of New Mexico as a great place for making sparkling wines.

The third, Schramsberg, was founded by Californians in 1965 with no connection to Champagne except a determination to make world-class Champagne-style sparklers, which nobody in California was doing back then. NYTIMES