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Why a sparkling wine was this year’s North Coast Wine Challenge winner

Of the nearly 1,200 entries in the ninth annual North Coast Wine Challenge, the Sonoma-Cutrer 2014 Grand Cuvée, Russian River Valley snagged the top award, the Best of the Best, based on two days of judging at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Daryl Groom, the chief wine judge and organizer of the competition, pointed to six attributes that made a sparkling wine the top winner for the first time in the contest’s history.

  • “First of all, I think it deserved to win,” he said. “It’s a fantastic example of Californian sparkling wine. It’s a classic sparkling style.”
  • Classic sparkling wines are made from pinot and chardonnay, so it takes masters of those varieties to get the base wine right. “At Sonoma-Cutrer, they do more chardonnay and pinot, more than anyone else,” Groom said. “So it wasn’t a surprise that they could pull off a really fantastic wine out of those two varietals.”
  • Also, this sparkler was a late disgorge, meaning it was aged on the lees (leftover yeast) for a long time, for more than five years in this case. “That’s what makes it a standout sparkling wine,” Groom said. “It was on the lees for a long time to develop that real yeasty character.”
  • Many of the judges have participated in the contest since it started, and they may have felt it was time for a change, Groom said. “We tell judges to absolutely pick the best wine,” he said. “But they always vote for pinot and a chardonnay, and maybe it was time for it (a sparkling wine) to win.”
  • In the initial round of voting for sparkling wines, the Sonoma-Cutrer sparkler was the clear winner, with 13 votes, while the other two sparklers received nine and five votes. “That wine was a slam-dunk winner from the other two wines, whereas the voting was close in the other categories,” he said. “So it stood out.”
  • Finally, the competition’s top pick may simply reflect current consumer trends. Wine judge Bill Hayes from Bev Mo! reported that his company has seen a huge uptick in interest in sparkling wine. “It was a bit of a shock, but it seems to mirror what the consumers are having an interest in,” Groom said.

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