Recently I was invited to give my 5 top Oregon sparkling wine picks for Portland Monthly’s Top 50 wines of Oregon issue coming out soon. While I can’t reveal my picks, I can write about the process, which was in some ways more compelling than the results.
Whenever I taste sparkling wine, whether its from Oregon or somewhere else in the world outside of Champagne, the inevitable question that comes up is, “is this wine as good or better than Champagne?” The question becomes even more pressing when the wine is expensive. This question is not unique to Champagne, California Cab, Oregon Pinot, and many others have all been compared to the original, Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. However, in those in most cases question has been answered, yes there are examples of those wines that are as good if not better than the original.
Champagne is different, for whatever reason, there has yet to be a region or winery that consistently produces wines as good as Champagne. Tasting through the Oregon selections as well as top producers in Italy, Spain, Austria, and other areas it is apparent that other areas are making incredible progress and will soon consistently produce wines as good as Champagne.
That being said, I wonder if this is the right question to ask at all. As I tasted through the Oregon wines, and previously when I’ve tasted top tier Cava, Franciacorta, and more the question I start to ask is, “is this wine the pinnacle of what the region and winery is capable of producing?” “Does it show terrior?” “Is it compelling and thought provoking?” “Is it delicious and do I want another sip?”
These are the questions that I find more interesting when I taste these wines. I did find many of the wines were delicious and made me want more. This post was inspired by the wines, so they are indeed thought provoking. Finally, as I tasted the Oregon sparkling, I found that many of them do express terrior and a certain set of flavors – across the line I found these wines all had a honey tone, all had more weight than most Champagne, most of them showed distinct pear notes, and finally and a bit unfortunately most of them had a slight chemical note. This isn’t all bad, Cava has a distinct rubber/smoke aroma, even in the best examples. This is excepted and in some cases celebrated. It makes Cava distinct from Champagne, allowing the region to establish its own identity. Prosecco has also found its own path due to its strengths, as well as its weaknesses.
I think it is important to examine Champagne here as well. Often we talk about Champagne as a unified region that only produces top quality wine. I’ve had plenty of sub par Champagne. I would easily say that the top Oregon sparklers are better than the industrially produced crap Champagne, it is also better than low grade grower Champagne. Oregon bubbles are often more enjoyable than the experiments of the young turks of Champagne. However, when the top tier of Oregon is compared to the top tier of Champagne, the difference is clear and Champagne is still better.
That said, Oregon sparkling is obviously not Champagne. Its Oregon sparkling wine. Its impressive in many ways regardless of Champagne. Not least of which is that it sells out! I would suggest enjoying the wine you have in front of you rather than wishing for something, “better”, unless of course the wine in front of you is wretched.