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Real Champs

Is it just sparkling wine, or is it—ooh-la-la—Champagne?

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'Let them drink Champagne." Is that what some North Bay wineries are saying by importing French bubbly? Is there no more locally made sparkling wine on hand?

Before we storm the battlements and lob magnums of Sonoma Coast Blanc de Noirs at this elitist coterie, let's back up and explain what we talk about when we talk about Champagne. While better quality California sparkling wine is made in the traditional Champagne method, "Champagne" is legally defined as coming from a specific region of France. Guess the name of that region—you got it, frère. Confusingly, a new trend finds local wineries importing and selling actual Champagne. We asked a few for samples—and their excuses.

AR Lenoble Jordan Cuvée Brut Champagne ($49) This Bordeaux-inspired California chateau is also the birthplace of local sparkling wine house J Vineyards. But when Judy Jordan decided to sell J, the folks at Jordan huddled to discuss their options. While on vacation in France, winemaker Rob Davis dropped in on an old friend who had worked a harvest at Jordan back in 1980, and now runs a Paris wine bar. Davis asked if he knew any small, quality-driven Champagne houses that would make a good fit with Jordan. "There's only one person you need to see," the friend replied, and he called up AR Lenoble.

This bubbly, tinted just the slightest cream-rose hue, was the overall favorite of Bohemian tasters for its classic brut aroma and texture. It's hard to pin down to specific aromas and flavors, but it's a slice of nectarine, toasty apple and white raspberry or two this side of austere. Not zippy on the finish, it's elegantly balanced. ★★★★★

Buena Vista La Victoire Champagne ($50) What gives, after Jean-Charles Boisset expensively retrofitted the historic 1864 Champagne cellar at Buena Vista? Boisset calls this wine an "ambassador of the Franco-American relationship" in honor of Arpad Haraszthy's efforts to make California's first traditional method sparkling after interning in Épernay.

Let the roiling, gold-green tinted bubbles settle before tilting the glass noseward to find classic brut aromas of dry straw and slightly musty lees. My favorite for its contrasting lemony zip on the finish, this wine can be bought retail; a $75 version is offered at the tasting room. ★★★★

Claypool Cellars Pachyderm Champagne ($55) Leading the trend for the boutiques, this Sebastopol outfit has access to lots of great Pinot Noir, but the demand for those grapes prices them above reason for sparkling wine, I'm told. This 200-case lot is made for Claypool by a small family operation. The Pachyderm has an appealing nose of fresh scone and brightens the palate with pink grapefruit citrus, sweetening the finish with ripe pear fruit. A softer style, this would go great with cake. ★★★½

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