Don't say champagne!
Following the bubbly trail, from Gloria Ferrer to Robert Hunter (From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)
Tiny Bubbles in the wine Make me happy, make me feel fine
Lift a slender flute to the new couple, offer a pithy bon mot. Rouse the crowd with hearty Salut! But don't dare ask that server for more "champagne." If you're in Wine Country and the bubbles in your glass aren't certifiably French, you're risking the wrath of a nation and the long arm of the law.
And yet, bubbles are alive and well in the Sonoma Valley, where eight Valley wineries produce sparkling wine for their labels. Even though all are made using the méthode champenoise, they are-unequivocally-not to be confused with champagne. That designation, protected by the 1891 Treaty of Madrid, is reserved exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France. In fact, even use of the term Méthode champenoise was verboten prior to a 1994 European Union court decision. Ooh-la-la, mes petits enfants.
For centuries sparkling wines of all stripes have evoked festivity and romance. And with the exception of, perhaps, southern France, there's no better place to enjoy the good life associated with these bubbles than on a leisurely drive through the Sonoma Wine Country.
Today's effervescents are descendants of the world's oldest recorded sparkling wine: Blanquette de Limou. Invented in 1531 by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of St. Hilaire near Carcassonne, that first bubbly transformed when allowed a second fermentation following the addition of sugar. Legend, of course, incorrectly attributes the creation of sparkling wine to Dom Pérignon, but it was actually an English scientist by the name of Christopher Merret who documented the chemistry. Six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers, and almost 40 years before it was claimed he invented champagne.
Though Pérignon didn't invent it, he is credited with making many advances in its production. The early prototype, called "devil's wine" (le vin du diable), was much unloved because of its unfortunate habit of exploding its containments. Without warning bottles shattered, corks launched themselves like missiles, unbidden. So dangerous was the chemistry, in fact, that in the early 18th century cellar workers had to wear heavy iron masks resembling those worn by baseball catchers to prevent injury from bursting bottles. Worse yet, the disturbance caused by one bottle's disintegration was known to cause cellarwide chain reactions. It was not uncommon in those earliest days to lose up to 90 percent of a cellar's stores. Originally charged with getting rid of the bubbles or otherwise solving this expensive problem, Perignon developed a wire collar (muselet) to hold the cork in place. Something similar is still in use today.
Typically sparkling wine is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. The traditional méthode champenoise includes a primary fermentation in a tank for several months and a second fermentation in the bottle. The second fermentation is augmented by adding several grams of yeast and rock sugar, with each producer having its own nuanced (and proprietary) formulation. The bottle is crown-capped and aged from two to eight years. After this, it is manipulated in a process called remuage (riddling) so that the lees settle in the neck. The bottle is then turned and the neck frozen with a nitrogen solution. When the cap is removed, pressure forces out the ice containing the lees. A sugary syrup (le dosage) is then added, and the bottle is quickly corked and put down for a few additional months.
The first sparkling wine house in Sonoma's Carneros region, Gloria Ferrer, was established in 1986. In 1982, when the Ferrer family visited Carneros' western hills, they felt they had stumbled across the ideal climate for pinot noir and chardonnay-the perfect terroir for brilliant sparkling wines. Convinced that the warm days, cool nights, predictable winds, summer fog and a long growing season would coax grapes to maturity slowly and consistently, the family-sparkling wine producers since the 1500s and owners of the dynasty La Freixeneda-went all in. Their grapes are hand-harvested, carried to the winery in small bins and gently pressed in whole clusters using membrane presses. Just as they were in the Old World. And, in keeping with that ancient tradition, Gloria Ferrer is one of only two sparkling winemakers continuing to turn the bottles (the riddling) by hand; everyone else uses machines.
The Ferrers know a thing or two about bubbles, having earned more than 125 gold medals in the last five years alone. Gloria Ferrer produces seven different sparkling wines-all available for tasting at the winery-from 335 acres of estate vineyards. Visitors are greeted with warm Spanish hospitality, encouraged to take an informative tour and relax over a glass of bubbly on the vista terrace, with its panoramic views of Carneros. Be sure to taste both the Carneros Cuvée and the Carneros Pinot Noir Rosé. The Cuvèe reset my champagne (oops) meter by raising the standard a notch higher, and the rosé widened my bubbly boundaries.
Just over the hill, a few minutes' drive up the Valley, you'll find Schug Carneros Estate Winery where, by appointment, you can taste their unique Rouge de Noirs, made in the German tradition of winemaster Walter Schug's father. Handcrafted at the winery, it is similar to a Blanc de Noirs but made exclusively from pinot noir grapes, boasting a brilliant red color rarely found in a sparkling wine. While sold at a couple of local outlets, the 600-case annual production is available primarily for purchase at the winery.
The Robert Hunter Winery is small and charming and produces a lovely Brut de Noirs: 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay. Located on one of Sonoma's most historic properties, it was originally operated as a horse-breeding ranch. Purchased by sugar baron Adolph Spreckels in 1908, a portion was eventually sold off to five-star Air Force General and WWII hero Hap Arnold. Now owned and operated by retired banker Robert Hunter and his green-thumbed wife, Ann, it consists of 85 acres, 42 of which are planted with vines. Initial fermentation of their sparkling wines is done on-site before the wine is transported to a nearby facility to ferment. The property includes a unique Thomas Church garden comprised of unusual and rare plants. With an appointment, visitors are invited to tour the garden with flute of bubbles in hand. The wine is sold at the property and through the Web site.
Valley of the Moon Winery, boasting two sparkling wines, is literally around the corner. Both are produced from grapes grown in the nearby Russian River Valley and produced off-site, available for tasting or purchase exclusively at the winery or through its Web site. The Lake Sonoma Russian River Brut is medium dry, crisp and delicate, with hints of raspberry, citrus, green apple and toast. Valley of the Moon Russian River Valley Sparkling Wine is a complex blend with aromas of honey and citrus and bright flavors of lemon and red apple. Its bubbles marry hints of pecan and brioche through a long finish.
Mayo Family Winery's lower lake facility makes an excellent sparkling wine from its Laurel Hill Estate grapes every three years. Both its 2003 and 2006 vintages were awarded gold medals at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair; the 2009 vintage is currently bottled and fermenting away. Production is limited to 750 cases and is available for tasting and purchase only at the winery.
Kenwood Vineyards is just ten minutes down the road. Located at the edge of Kenwood in its original 1906 building, the winery is warm, homey and welcoming. The Yulupa Cuvee Brut, made from a blend of Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, boasts a crisp medium-dry quality, capturing the essence of the fruit. Available for tasting and sale at the winery, and at select national hotels and resorts, the Cuvee Brut is an ideal libation.
Another sparkling wine worthy of note is Prosecco, often referred to as "Italian Champagne." VJB Vineyard's Proseco Millesimato, processed in the Italian village of Valdobbiadene, is made by the rulebook of méthode champenoise. And though recent changes in California law prevent on-site tasting, trust me: It's delicious. If you're a Bellini cocktail fan and have ever been to Harry's Bar in Venice to taste their famous version, you know that a good one can only be made with Prosecco.
Crowding the field further, Viansa Winery is scheduled to release its own Prosecco made from the Vernaccia grape, an Italian varietal grown on their estate. Look for that newcomer in summer 2011.
The moral of this long, sodden story? The ultimate point of this writer's exhaustive (hic!) research? You could go to France or Spain or Germany or Italy to find world-class bubbles, but why would you when a little meander through the Sonoma Valley will set you right? Cheers!
WHERE TO GO TO GET SOME BUBBLES
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards
23555 Highway 121
Open 10:00-5:00 daily
15655 Arnold Drive
By appointment only
9592 Sonoma Highway
Open daily 10:00-4:30
Mayo Family Winery
13101 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen 95442
Open daily 10:30-6:30
Schug Carneros Estate Winery
602 Bonneau Road
(707) 939-9363 Toll free: (800) 966-9365
Open daily 10:00-5:00 (sparkling wine tasting by appointment only)
Valley of the Moon Winery
777 Madrone Road
Glen Ellen 95442
(707) 939 4510
Open daily 10:00-4:30
Viansa Winery & Vineyards
25200 Arnold Drive
Open daily 10:00-5:00
VJB Vineyards & Cellars
9077 Sonoma Highway
Open daily 10:00-5:00 for still wine tasting and/or sparkling wine purchase
(From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)