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How France influences California sparkling wines

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How to uncork a sparkler:

Contrary to common belief, the best way to open a bottle of bubbly is not to pop the cork. It’s better to slowly allow for the cork’s release, achieving an ideal “sigh” as the cork exits the bottle.

Here are the steps: Remove the foil covering the cork. Loosen the wire casing. Hold the cork, within the wire casing, in the palm of one hand. Twist the bottle while holding the cork and the wire casing. The cork will come out of its own accord.

The step by step process of methode champenoise

Most people are well aware that the term “Champagne” is traditionally reserved for bubbly from the Champagne region of France. Perhaps less well known is that the process of making Champagne, which dates back centuries, is widely used in the top sparkling wine houses across the globe.

1. Base wines and “cuvée”: The grapes are picked earlier to preserve acidity. Then they’re fermented into a dry wine. After that, various “base wines” are blended together into the final sparkling wine blend or what the French call a “cuvee.”

2. Tirage: Yeast and sugars are added to the final blend, and the wines are bottled and topped with crown caps.

3. Second fermentation: The yeast goes on an eating binge and devours the sugars. The byproduct of the binge is the release of bubbles (carbon dioxide). The yeast dies after the feast in a process called autolysis and it remains in the bottle.

4. Aging: To create great texture and complexity of flavors, champagnes are aged on their yeast particles or “lees.” Vintage champagne must be aged for a minimum of three years.

5. Riddling: To help the dead yeast cells collect in the neck of the bottles, they’re turned upside down and twisted on a regular basis.

6. Disgorging: To eliminate the sediment, the bottles are placed upside down into a freezing liquid. Then the crown cap are popped off to allow the frozen yeast particles to shoot out of the bottles

7. Dosage: To top off the bottles, a mixture of wine and sugar are added and then the bottles are corked, wired and labeled.

Francophiles will tell you that joie de vivre, French for “joy of living,” is synonymous with the free-flowing bubbles dancing in every bottle of top-rate sparkling wine. And with a little imagination, these joie de vivre bubbles will transport you across the pond. You’ll hear French, a language that resembles silk, and you’ll see the glamorous street lamps that line the Seine and the swanky restaurants where poodles are treated like honored guests.

It’s not surprising that a French sensibility has been imported to Northern California, as there are more than a handful of sparkling wine houses with ties to a parent company in France. And there are many others, like Schramsberg Vineyards, that are independently owned but still rely on the traditional French method of producing bubbly.

The question is, what are these quirky marriages –– these Franco-American matches that join both sides of the pond –– creating in California when it comes to house style?

Are they more Californian in nature? More French? Twins, or an entirely new creation?

To learn more about the house styles of these Old World-New World marriages, we first spoke to the winemakers of sparkling wine houses with direct ties to France –– Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Chandon and Mumm Napa.

We then talked to winemakers of four independently owned wineries that align themselves with the traditional French method of winemaking –– Schramsberg Vineyards, Benovia Winery, Flaunt and Iron Horse Vineyards.

Most people are well aware that the term “Champagne” is traditionally reserved for bubbly from the Champagne region of France. Perhaps less well known is that the process of making Champagne, which dates back centuries, is widely used in the top sparkling wine houses across the globe. It’s called “méthode Champenoise,” and its pivotal step is full of magic: when the bubbles are created during the second fermentation and all the action happens right in the bottle.

In the simplest terms, the yeast goes on an eating binge, devouring the sugar. The byproducts of that binge are those delightful bubbles — carbon dioxide and the yeast particles that impart rich toasty flavors during aging. (See our sidebar on méthode Champenoise for the step-by-step process.)

All the winemakers we spoke to use the traditional French method when crafting their sparklers. But they’re working with California grapes which can be riper than their French counterparts, although that’s not always the case. So how does this puzzle out in house style? In other words, when you uncork a California sparkler, can you detect a French accent in your glass?

Domaine Carneros

The 2012 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs ($115) –– elegant, delicate and well-balanced –– is the best example of this winery’s house style, according to Eileen Crane, founding winemaker and CEO of Domaine Carneros.

The Napa sparkling wine house, which opened its doors in 1989, is owned in part by Champagne giant Taittinger. Built in the style of an 18th-century French chateau, it has marble floors and is crowned with chandeliers. But from the beginning, the vision was to create a fine American sparkler rather than recreate Taittinger French champagne, Crane explained.

“Claude Taittinger, then head of Champagne Taittinger, used the analogy that if Picasso had tried to imitate Renoir’s style, you would never have heard of Picasso,” she said. “He said imitations are never as good as originals.”

How to uncork a sparkler:

Contrary to common belief, the best way to open a bottle of bubbly is not to pop the cork. It’s better to slowly allow for the cork’s release, achieving an ideal “sigh” as the cork exits the bottle.

Here are the steps: Remove the foil covering the cork. Loosen the wire casing. Hold the cork, within the wire casing, in the palm of one hand. Twist the bottle while holding the cork and the wire casing. The cork will come out of its own accord.

The step by step process of methode champenoise

Most people are well aware that the term “Champagne” is traditionally reserved for bubbly from the Champagne region of France. Perhaps less well known is that the process of making Champagne, which dates back centuries, is widely used in the top sparkling wine houses across the globe.

1. Base wines and “cuvée”: The grapes are picked earlier to preserve acidity. Then they’re fermented into a dry wine. After that, various “base wines” are blended together into the final sparkling wine blend or what the French call a “cuvee.”

2. Tirage: Yeast and sugars are added to the final blend, and the wines are bottled and topped with crown caps.

3. Second fermentation: The yeast goes on an eating binge and devours the sugars. The byproduct of the binge is the release of bubbles (carbon dioxide). The yeast dies after the feast in a process called autolysis and it remains in the bottle.

4. Aging: To create great texture and complexity of flavors, champagnes are aged on their yeast particles or “lees.” Vintage champagne must be aged for a minimum of three years.

5. Riddling: To help the dead yeast cells collect in the neck of the bottles, they’re turned upside down and twisted on a regular basis.

6. Disgorging: To eliminate the sediment, the bottles are placed upside down into a freezing liquid. Then the crown cap are popped off to allow the frozen yeast particles to shoot out of the bottles

7. Dosage: To top off the bottles, a mixture of wine and sugar are added and then the bottles are corked, wired and labeled.

Le Rêve, which means “the dream” in French, is aged seven years on the yeast. The house style, Crane said, is closer to Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress than the sleek Grace Kelly in the Taittinger poster.

“Both Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn are elegant, but like Domaine Carneros, Audrey Hepburn is just a bit more kicky,” she said.

Roederer Estate

The 2013 L’Ermitage Brut ($60) has the pedigree of Champagne, and it’s most representative of the winery’s house style, according to Arnaud Weyrich, vice president and winemaker.

Roederer Estate in Mendocino County’s Philo was founded in 1982, and its parent company is Champagne Louis Roederer based in Reims, France. The vision was to make sparkling wine in Champagne’s image by not only following the traditional process but also adhering to the philosophy of the parent company’s strict rules with blends and aging.

The L’Ermitage is aged five years on the yeast, and that time is paramount to creating the toasty and creamy taste, Weyrich said.

“Time is a luxury,” he said, “but it’s rewarding to get the aromatics you find in great French champagnes. ... The use of reserve wines from previous harvests held in French oak casks on average for four years is the link that unites the style from both sides of the pond.”

In the end, Weyrich said, the California sparkler has still managed to break free from tradition, partly because of differences in soils and climate.

“It’s more like another expression,” Weyrich explained, “like different musical instruments playing the same tune.”

Chandon

The nonvintage (NV) Étoile Brut ($50) best captures the house style of Chandon, according to estate director Susan Caudry.

The first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the United States, Chandon in Yountville in the Napa Valley was founded in 1973 by its parent company, Moet Hennessy.

While Étoile means “star” in French, the brut appears to have strayed from Moet Hennessy’s star cluster.

“Chandon uses traditional French techniques when making its wines, but the heart of its expressions come from the local terroir,” Caudry said. “It’s very important that the essence of California shines through each of our wines.”

Mumm Napa

The flagship nonvintage (NV) Brut Prestige ($24) is the best testament to Mumm Napa’s house style, according to winemaker Tami Lotz.

It’s in the California camp and unapologetically fruit forward, with a minimum of 18 months aging on the yeast. The Brut Prestige has aromas and flavors of bright citrus — red apple, with a hint of toast and gingerbread.

Founded in 1979 in Napa, Mumm Napa is a joint venture between Seagram’s and G.H. Mumm.

“We aim to craft wines with true Napa personality using French techniques,” Lotz said. “The philosophy is captured in our name, where ‘Mumm’ represents tradition and ‘Napa’ represents our New World style.”

Schramsberg Vineyards

The most popular in the lineup at Schramsberg Vineyards is the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($41), but vintner Hugh Davies hesitates to say it’s the winery’s signature sparkler.

“Not having a French parent, we’ve never really thought of having one specific house style,” he said. “I feel we make a range of styles rather than just one. … But the 2016 Blanc de Blancs is definitely weighted to California.”

The sparkler, aged on the yeast for two years, is fruit forward, vibrant and crisp.

Inspired by the French, founders Jack and Jamie Davies set out in 1965 to make the first commercial pinot noir- and chardonnay-based sparkling wines using méthode Champenoise in the United States. They traveled to Champagne many times to compare notes with top producers such as Louis Roederer, Bollinger and Pol Roger.

The blanc de blancs was the first sparkler the Napa Valley winery produced, and it gained international recognition in 1972 when then-President Richard Nixon served the wine at the historic “Toast to Peace” in Beijing, China.

Benovia

The 2015 Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine ($60) epitomizes our house style, explained Mike Sullivan, winemaker/co-owner of the Santa Rosa winery.

Half pinot noir and half chardonnay, the blend is aged for more than three years on the yeast. It’s rich and creamy with notes of apple, tart peach and brioche. This dry sparkler will appeal to those fond of crisp, elegant Champagne.

Sullivan added sparkling wine to his still wine portfolio because this fan of Champagne saw the potential for making “spectacular” sparkling wine from his vineyards. His first vintage was 2012, released in 2017 after five years of aging on the yeast.

“Our cool climate vineyards hold their acidity and express great minerality,” Sullivan said.

Flaunt

The Flaunt Sonoma County Brut ($48) is made in a crisp, elegant style that embodies the best of Champagne, according to vintner Dianna Novy of the Windsor winery.

“I work with vineyards in very cool regions so I can get very strong acids,” Novy said. “I think this is a key technique in France. I also prefer longer time in the bottle, with the wine aging at least three years.”

Novy’s first vintage was 2013, released in 2017 after four years of aging on the yeast.

At 21, the vintner worked in the Epicure department at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, and she was able to taste the most sought-after Champagnes, including Bollinger, Krug and Taittinger.

“I later traveled to Champagne to visit the wineries in person,” Novy said. “I got to taste the base wines from barrels and learned about the incredible process of making multi-vintage Champagne. ... My Sonoma County brut is a beautiful representation of a French-style Champagne.”

Iron Horse Vineyards

The 2015 Classic Vintage Brut ($45) best signifies the Iron Horse’s house style because it showcases California fruit, according to partner and CEO Joy Sterling. Aged on the yeast for 3½ years, the sparkler has flavors of red apple, mandarin orange and hazelnut.

“It sets off memory bells that say ‘Champagne’ because of its elegance and finesse, and yet the fruit is unmistakably California, Sonoma County, Green Valley and, most specifically, Iron Horse,” she said.

The doors of the Sonoma County winery officially opened in 1979, and founders Barry and Audrey Sterling said they were inspired to craft elegant sparklers to celebrate the joie de vivre they discovered while living in France during the 1960s. The couple even followed the culinary adventures of Julia Child, who at one point lived within walking distance of them.

As Barry put it, “All through Europe we enjoyed the antiquities, the mere fact that everything went back so far, but Paris was different. It was just a feeling that this was the way to live, a beautiful way to live.”

Sparklers nearby

Northern California’s Wine Country has a charm of its own. A fertile crossroads, it’s where growers and makers, foodies and wine lovers converge, smitten with the North Coast’s first-rate sparklers that rival French Champagne.

To make sure you taste the crème de la crème, check the back of the bottle for this wording: “méthode champenoise,” “traditional method” or “fermented in this bottle.”

Beyond that, choose a taste profile that suits you. Now that you’re acquainted with more than a half-dozen house styles, you might even want to choose several to develop an eclectic palate. This is sound advice, of course, for everyone with the exception of the Francophile, who will always choose a sparkler with a French accent.

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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