Just in time for the season of peace and goodwill, Champagne producers are waging war in the United States. The U.S. arm of the Champagne Bureau, which represents growers and producers of the famed bubbly region, has taken out ads in major publications, such as The New Yorker and Food & Wine, as well as billboards in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with a campaign aimed at the fake "champagnes" produced south of the border. "Maine lobster from Kansas?" the ad reads. "Of course not. Champagne only comes from Champagne, France."
The implied target is a U.S. federal loophole granting an exception to producers that had been misusing the place name – such as André Champagne Cellars – in spite of a 2006 congressional act banning new entrants into the forged-froth marketplace. For the record, you can still find such products as B.C.-grown Andrés Baby Canadian Champagne in Canada, but this country is party to an agreement that will show the baby the door by year-end 2013.
It's hard to see much threat from those brands, most of which cost less than $10 and bear as close a resemblance to bona fide Champagne as a shopping cart does to a Mercedes S600. The serious competition, as my comparative scores below suggest, comes from quality sparkling wines that need not traffic in brand confusion to give Champagne a run for its money. They may not be Maine lobster, but, note to the Champagne Bureau, Atlantic Canada's lobster is equally good.
Dom Pérignon Champagne 2003 (France)
Score: 95 Price: $219.95
Yes, the finest bubblies are indeed made in Champagne, and here's proof. The warm 2003 season helped to yield a seductively smooth Dom, the iconic brand named after the Benedictine monk. Think lemon pie and yeasty bread dough laced with a pronounced mineral-like flavour that lingers well into the long finish. The only harsh note is the price. $213.49 in B.C., $187.64 in Sask., $227.58 in Man., $231 in Que., $199.98 in N.B., $210.79 in N.S., $243.91 in Nfld., $199.99 in PEI.
A.R. Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagne (France)
Score: 92 Price: $47.95
In a region known for big, familiar brands that buy most of their grapes from independent growers, family-run Lenoble is a veteran in the rising community of Champagne grower-vintners. This superb grand cru effort is sourced from the top rung in the vineyard hierarchy. Baked apple and bread dough lead the charge in this full-flavoured, mature and complex wine. For Champagne, it's a steal.
Blue Mountain Brut (British Columbia)
Score: 92 Price: $27.95
There is more than a whisper of Champagne finesse to Blue Mountain's sparkling wines. One reason has to do with Raphaël Brisbois, the former winemaker at famed French house Piper-Heidsieck, brought on board in the early days to help craft the wines. Back then, you pretty much had to be on an exclusive mailing list to find this superlative B.C. bubbly. Now, it's available in Ontario as well as in stores in the West. It shows tart green apple, light toastiness and great depth of flavour, with high-tension acidity. $23.90 in B.C., bluemountainwinery.com.
Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Blanc de Blanc 2007 (Niagara)
Score: 91 Price: $44.95
A vintage-dated addition to the popular Cuvée Catharine line, this was aged in bottle for 54 months on its lees (spent yeast cells). You can taste the creamy, slightly nutty quality produced by that extended time in cellar, which underpins a sweet core reminiscent of peach-and-apple pie. henryofpelham.com.
Tarlant Rosé Brut Champagne (France)
Score: 91 Price: $49.95
Another family-owned independent, Tarlant is distinguished for exceedingly dry wines. This displays an alluring salmon-pink hue and delivers an uncanny flavour of strawberry lifted by tight acidity and traces of yeast and mineral.
Dufouleur Père & Fils Brut Crémant de Bourgogne 2008 (France)
Score: 90 Price: $17.95
Crémant is the French designation for the best bubblies outside Champagne. I like the complex profile in this irresistibly priced gem from Burgundy. It offers up hints of apple, sweet berries and melon, with subtle dough and mineral accents in a lively, juicy package.
Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava (Spain)
Score: 87 Price: $13.95
The global bargain in the familiar matte-black bottle is unfairly overlooked, I think, by today's fashion-conscious prosecco crowd. Fact is, it's made like Champagne (unlike the vast majority of proseccos) and slays most of its $15 Italian counterparts. It's chalky and crisp, but with a sweet core of lemon and well balanced, with pinpoint-fine bubbles. On sale for $12.95 in Ontario until Jan. 6. $14.99 in B.C., $15.79 in Sask., $14.29 in Man., $14.25 in Que., $15.99 in N.B., $15.99 in N.S., $15.99 in Nfld., $14.98 in PEI.