15th Annual Varietal Seminar
The Secret Life of White Wine
[Page 2 of 6]
Everything that Sparkles
Happy to have sparkling wine begin the day, John introduced panel moderator Dawnine Dyer, Hugh Davies and Mark Pope. Dawnine’s yelp when she saw the sparkling wines to be poured set a festive tone for seminar. The methode champenoise sparklers were, from Napa Valley: Brut Rosé, Domaine Carneros; Etoile Brut 1999, Domaine Chandon; Cuvée M, Mumm Napa Valley; J Schram Brut 1999, Schramsberg Vineyards; and, from France: Michel Turgy Brut, Mesnil, Champagne.
Partner, Dyer Vineyards
Panel moderator, Dawnine Dyer’s own sparkling career spanned 25 years at Domaine Chandon, from 1975 until she retired in 2000. She now makes Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon on Diamond Mountain with her husband (and NVWL Association Board Member) Bill Dyer. Dawnine also consults, and is president of Napa Valley Vintners Association.
Dawnine pointed out that wines with bubbles also include cava and prosecco as well as champagne. Today, she observed, while we have traditions of champagnes from France, serving them at most of our important ents, it isn’t as though we know much about this kind of wine. People just like it--it is poured more than still wines at tastings. Hower, Dawnine firmly belies the more you know, the more you enjoy. Temperature, effervescence, subtle aromas brought to the senses by its bubbles; these are all part of tasting a sparkling wine (which, because of the bubble action, you don’t need to swirl to taste). Dawnine finds carbonation the important key to the balance of this kind of wine. As it goes flat, and C02 creates acids, its balance changes. The wine’s effervescence gives the texture. You must have that dancing, that firing on your taste buds to have the full effect of a sparkling wine. Lipstick kills the visuals, she says. You can see the bubbles disappear as oil from a lipstick’s smudge fans out from the glass’s edge.
Since the tradition of growing and making champagne is European, and the varieties of grapes in California used in sparkling wine are all from Europe, for Dawnine, paying attention to those traditions isn’t homage, it’s reality. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir predominate in sparkling wine production here. In France, Pinot Meunier is also widely grown for making champagne, but not here. Hugh Davies pointed out that there is no other market for Pinot Meunier here, the way there is for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
President and Winemaker, Schramsberg Vineyards
Hugh Davies was born at Schramsberg 40 years ago in 1965, the same year the Davies family re-established the winery. Today, besides working at Schramsberg, Hugh is also vice president of Napa Valley Vintners Association.
Schramsberg makes eight sparkling wines, six of which are vintage-dated, including J Schram Brut. When Hugh’s family moved to Schramsberg, Hugh said about 1,000 acres of Chardonnay were planted in all of California and about 250 in Napa Valley. Now, there are over 50,000 acres of Chardonnay in the state and 7,000 in the Valley. In 1965 the acreage exclusively for sparklers was very small. Today there are over 100 acres doted to Blanc de Blanc at Schramsberg itself. They made only 1000 or 1500 cases of vintage 1999 J Schram (Blanc de Blanc in style) and 15,000 to 20,000 cases of the vintage Blanc de Blanc. Hugh says it’s a tightrope match to do a single vineyard vintage, because the blending must be simple and austere. Vintage sparkling wine must be made 95% from fruit from that year. With non-vintage, if the components are not horizontal (from the same year but different vineyards) then they are vertical (from the current and earlier years). The winemaker still has the ability to infuse a little character, to “go to the spice rack” as Hugh describes it, to introduce a little more flavor, character. A quality vintage methode champenoise wine is defined by its aging and its vintage—how much sunshine on the fruit post-veraison there was, what the temperature variations were during the growing season. At Chandon, Dawnine elaborated, time in the bottle, in contact with yeast gives a toasty body structure and is critical to the delopment of its sparkling wine. She also mentioned she had started the Chandon Etoile Brut that was poured. Vintage methode champenoise wines are labeled with the bottling date. Hugh observed, with a sigh, that vintage methode champenoise winemakers are not part of the culture yet in the United States, as they are in France, where nearly ery champagne producer makes a vintage. Since its very beginning, Schramsberg has had vintage dated sparkling wines. Hugh does feel, hower, that there has been steady improvement overall in making vintage methode champenoise wines in America.
Hugh pointed out that weather patterns vary in California and the Napa Valley where lack of rain, different humidity and moisture differ from many French regions. Hower, locations for vineyards for sparkling wines are improving. Particularly important vineyards have been deloped in cooler regions, in areas with coastal fruit, such as South Napa—Carneros (which, in 1965 had zero grapes planted in Region I) and Monterey County.
Mark Pope, Proprietor,
The Bounty Hunter
Mark began his rare wine business with a mail order catalogue elen years ago. He now has a retail shop in Napa that John Skupny said Mark created from the perspective of a bon vivant. Mark said of what he stocks, “If it’s not great, we don’t sell it.”
Mark happily commented that California’s sparkling wines were not just for breakfast anymore; from his getting out over a million catalogues he can see that sparkling wine sales are going up. Mark quoted Winston Churchill on champagne, saying that when one was victorious one deserved it, and when one was defeated one should demand it. He also quoted the French as saying there were two occasions to drink it: happy and sad. Mark called California styles “exuberant, racy, fruit forward” and the French “yeasty, toasty.” And, he said of wines made in the methode champenoise, “I like to drink champagne because I’m breathing.”
Pointing to the Michel Turgy Brut from Mesnil in Champagne, Mark said there were 30 different vintage Blanc de Blancs and single vineyard Blanc de Blancs from there. Mesnil is home to Krug and Salon with an east-facing slope and village in a compact area with soils of white chalk and clay. Mesnil champagnes have a bouquet of green apple, white flowers, and baked apple. Hugh liked the analogy—‘as the wines age, the apple pie bakes.’
Dawnine and Hugh next gave an overview of making methode champenoise wines. Typically, wineries making methode champenoise wines pick first in the Valley, at 19-20 ˚Brix for Chardonnay. For Mumm Napa Valley, harvest had already begun; Chandon and Schram would begin to pick Monday after the seminar. Harvest always varies. In 1997 and 2004 it was July, in 1999 it was August. Harvests have en begun in October. The grapes are not fully ripe when they are picked; the fruit has less sugar and more acid--very different from Cabernet. The base wines (before they sparkle) will have 11 to 11 1/2% alcohol before bottling (still wine fruit picked at 24-25˚ Brix yields wines 13 to 15% alcohol). The base wines ferment in tanks or barrels. For some, there is malolactic fermentation, common in champagnes. Primary fermentation takes place over two to eight weeks. Assemblage, a blending of base wines, takes place in the spring when yeast is also added just before bottling, with a 2 1/2% sugar solution. The bottles are then stored in caves, cool and dark, where subtle oxidative characters---burnt, toasty—delop during this second fermentation. When the bottles come out of the cave they are riddled (expertly turned and shaken) to get the remains of the yeast into the necks. Once all the sediment is in the neck of the bottle, it is frozen and its bottle cap popped. Interior pressure shoots out the yeast plug. A liquor d’expedition is then added. This dosage in California makes up 2 to 3 percent of all the sugar in finished sparkling wine. The wine is then stoppered with a proper champagne cork and its contents left to marry. For J Schram the dosage is 50-50 sugar and wine; for the 2003 Chardonnay, 7 to 8ml into 750ml bottles plus 7 to 8 ml sugar. Some may en add a little red, said Dawnine, like Domaine Carneros. That quantity of fruit flavor it gives makes for a refreshing berage that Dawnine finds extraordinary. Mark commented that sparkling Rosés gave great varieties of tastes per dollar. Panelists then took questions: Among them were:
Q: What is the methodology for cava, prosecco etc.? Hugh answered that it is more a matter of grape varieties--very much like still wine. Cava uses the Xarello, Macabeo and Parallada varieties; Prosecco is made with Muscat grapes.
Q: Consistency is important in France. What about here? Dawnine says vintage champagne used to be a 10% exception to non-vintage champagnes, but disasters in Champagne are now far less common and blending is no longer necessary to overcome unen harvests. Now the blending is more of a tradition.
Q: What is the optimum fill for a glass? Dawnine says because of the stem of the glass, a shallow pour isn’t necessary. The wine will stay cool and there is plenty of space above for flavor, which allows for a more substantial pour--and isn’t that a wonderful thing?!