The Californication of Champagne

The Californication of Champagne

Recently I stumbled upon a 2002 Decanter story titled ‘Bubbly going flat’, which reported on Codorniu’s conversion of its Napa Valley sparkling wine program to a still-wine brand called Artesa. French-owned bubbly houses Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros had just begun making more profitable table wines from Napa Valley grapes, and Chandon had launched Riche, a sweetish non-vintage sparkler it hoped would appeal to the typical American palate.

Now it seems that California fizz has sorted itself out, with the strong producers surviving despite a reluctance in the US to consider bubbly – and that’s including Champagne – as anything other than a celebratory beverage. Sparkling wine sales have grown by about 3% each year, wines are improving, and critics’ scores are up.

California bubbly may still be a niche product, yet some fine wines are being made. Mumm Napa Valley’s DVX gets more layered and complex by the year. Domaine Carneros’ Le Rêve and Domaine Chandon’s Etoile are graceful and nuanced. From Anderson Valley, Roederer Estate’s brut is racy and minerally, while its prestige cuvée, L’Ermitage, makes a Champagne-like statement with its depth and yeastiness. Gloria Ferrer’s Royal Brut from Sonoma offers tremendous complexity at a very fair price ($28); the J Wine Co Brut Rosé is jazzy and juicy, yet remarkably dry.

Champagne wasn’t built in a day, and California’s producers have had a steep learning curve. Since Moët & Chandon’s Domaine Chandon opened in the late 1970s, the Champenois have guided their US counterparts, but now one California-bred brand has become the tutor in how to make bubbly in the state.

In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies bought the Jacob Schram property in northern Napa Valley, named it Schramsberg and set out to make the closest thing to Champagne that they could. Despite using grapes grown in one of the hottest parts of the valley, Calistoga, they created stylish méthode champenoise wines that have found their way to White House functions every year since 1972.

Jack died in 1998 and Jamie became California’s bubbly grande dame; by the time she turned things over to son Hugh in 2005, the wines were incredibly good, showing an intricate balance of California fruit forwardness and French finesse and complexity. Recognising that the only way to make such wines was to look to cool climates, the Davies began sourcing grapes from outside Napa. It’s a rare winery that willingly abandons ‘Napa Valley’ on its labels, but Schramsberg did it, and the wines are better for it.

Hugh Davies and winemaker Craig Roemer buy grapes from 83 different blocks, in 67 vineyards, in the chilliest parts of Napa (Carneros), Mendocino (Anderson Valley), Sonoma (Sonoma Coast) and Marin. The result: intense, crisp flavours, minerality and mouthwatering acidity.

A quarter of the juice is fermented in oak (the J Schram and Schramsberg Reserve have 40% barrel fermentation), which lends creaminess, texture and a slightly oxidised character to the wines. Reserve lots are aged for up to six years before blending, and bottles are stored in caves for two to seven years; every one of them riddled by hand. All wines are vintage-dated, rare in California fizz.

Schramsberg’s 1998 J Schram Rosé ($120) and 1999 J Schram Brut ($90) – are Chardonnay-dominant, pure and refined. The 2000 Schramsberg Reserve ($80) is 69% Pinot Noir, full-bodied and capable of ageing gracefully, as a recent tasting of vintages back to 1987 showed.

Even the ‘basic’ Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs, $34, are vintage-dated, impeccably made, bright and refreshing on release and acquiring the Schramsberg signature baked-fruit character with age.

That Schramsberg and its sparkling wine mates continue to produce still wine (Schramsberg’s 2003 J Davies Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, only its third vintage, is outstanding) may have raised eyebrows in 2002, but makes sense today. It’s forced them to pay more attention to viticulture and allowed for replanting of a variety of clones and rootstocks. Grapes that may have fallen to the ground in a late-season green harvest may become Blanc de Noirs. A winery’s highly rated Pinot Noir brings attention to its fizz otherwise ignored by those set in their still-wine ways.

And California fizz makers make both styles because they can – one thing they have over the Champenoise.

What Linda’s Been Drinking This Month

CALIFORNIA PINOT GRIS

Spring is the ideal time to drink both bubbly and Alsatian-style Pinot Gris. From California, look past the anaemic and ubiquitous Pinot Grigios to more intriguing wines from cool growing regions, like the MacMurray Ranch 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris ($20, US markets), exotically spicy and a mouthful of clean white peach and lemon fruit, with good weight and acidity; and the Navarro Vineyards 2005 Anderson Valley Pinot Gris ($18, US markets), flinty and firm, yet with enough green apple and citrus to please those who like fruity wines.

Written by Linda Murphy