French Champagne makes inroads in Sonoma County
At the release party for Sebastopol-based Claypool Cellars’ new Pachyderm wine this past December, guests were encouraged to wear powdered wigs and corsets, à la the Marie Antoinette and French king Louis XVI era.
As Jordan Winery gears up to debut its new Jordan Cuvée by AR Lenoble in May, the team is touting French winemaker Antoine Malassagne as much as its own Healdsburg winemaker, Rob Davis.
These are interesting marketing tactics, considering that both wineries are located in Sonoma County. But for both, their new wines are Champagne, as in the authentic bubblies, produced in France and exported for distribution here.
Over the past year, sparkling Gallic grapes have increased their presence in the heart of local Wine Country. Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery released a new French label this past summer, called La Victoire, and produced at Chateau de Bligny in Champagne.
And the tasting notes for Los Carneros-based Vivier Wines’ new Champagne release wax poetic about its “Mirabelle plum” character, referring to a fruit that comes from the Alsace Lorraine region near the border of France.
It’s all part of the race to meet increasing demand from consumers for sparkling wines. Sparkling imports to the U.S. increased 41 percent by volume from 2010 to 2015, according to the Wine Institute. California sparklings are on the rise, too, with U.S. consumption increasing 17 percent over the same time period.
Overall, sparkling wines were the biggest boom wine segment in 2015, according to Chicago-based Euromonitor International. Chalk it up to more millennials and baby boomers popping the corks for everyday sipping, instead of just more traditional events like New Year’s.
“Two of the fastest-growing segments in the wine category are sparkling wine and Pinot Noir,” said Roger Nabedian, senior vice president and general manager of Gallo’s Premium Wine Division. His company purchased Healdsburg’s J Vineyards in the spring of 2015, and reopened a greatly expanded luxury Bubble Lounge there this past November, in part to meet customer’s burgeoning demand for the fizzy quaffs. “We will be working hard to take advantage of that opportunity.”
J produces California sparkling, but there’s little doubt that the name Champagne has a certain caché.
“I make California wines, but my style is closer to the style of wines produced in France,” said Vivier Wines’ owner Stéphane Vivier. “That’s normal, since that’s where I was brought up and trained. Many of our customers are Francophiles, and yes, they appreciate a Champagne. For others, Champagne still offers more choice, overall quality and name recognition.”
The distinction between sparkling and Champagne can be confusing, particularly to people who typically reserve bubblies for special occasions. Champagne proper comes exclusively from the Champagne region of France and must be produced using the méthode champenoise; the name is actually trademarked by the European regulation known as Protected Designation of Origin.
Yet “California Champagne” can be found on many store shelves, for brands like top-selling Korbel of Guerneville. That’s because America grandfathered in the Champagne term about a decade ago, allowing U.S. producers to use the name if it had been on their pre-2006 labels.
“The Champenois terroir creates something which will always be different from what will come from American terroir,” said Vivier. “Even beyond that, there is a magic, an expertise and a history there which has not developed yet in the U.S. In the 200 years since ‘modern’ Champagne was first created, the region has lived through two world wars, phylloxera, a depression. Living through the hard times doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, but I do think hard times tend to focus a region inward, and stress test what works. As a Burgundian, I respect that.”