In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when wine tourists and members of the trade visited Domaine Chandon in Carneros, they were served tastes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as still wines. The pours were meant to form a bridge between still and sparkling wines, and give the visitors’ palates an introduction to the varieties that are classically blended for sparkling cuvées. Pinot Meunier is widely planted in Champagne but is not commonly seen elsewhere.
On a recent visit to Domaine Chandon, I joined Wayne Donaldson, vice president of winemaking and vineyards, for a tasting of two of their outstanding sparklers, 1999 Etoile Brut and 1999 Etoile Rosé, along with four of their 2002 still wines: Chardonnay, Ramal Road Reserve Pinot Noir, Lucy’s Block Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The sparkling wines were outstanding, of course. And the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were deliciously fruity and boasted distinctive character and depth. Not surprising, really. Why wouldn’t these Chardonnay and Pinot specialists make still wines as good as their sparklers? What did surprise me was the flavor, complexity and silkiness of the Pinot Meunier. It was more than delicious; it was memorable. Donaldson explained that the Pinot Meunier had gained a cult following based on those educational pours for the trade and tourists. Local restaurateurs began to ask for it and, finally, in 2000, their first nationally distributed vintage was released. It is a relatively small-production wine—4,000 cases will be produced this year from 50 acres of estate grapes.
Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves, also in Carneros, has been producing some of the finest sparklers in California since the Ferrer family (Freixenet) purchased Carneros land in 1982. In 1991, they started producing still wines, and today are releasing five Pinot Noirs, a Merlot, a Chardonnay and even a Syrah.
Altogether, the Domaine Chandon and Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noirs are among the finest being produced in California today. Carneros is a spectacular region for Pinot, and it is finally coming into its own thanks to these, and other, producers. For the most part, these are small-production wines, well worth seeking out.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir being the primary grapes in most sparklers, the diversification on the part of these wineries is natural. It certainly makes sense from a marketing perspective. Though sparkling wine sales in California showed a 5 percent increase in 2004, it’s still an uphill struggle to get Americans to drink bubbly at times other than year-end holiday gatherings and a choice few, personal celebrations. It’s a shame, because these wines are as complex and food-friendly as still wines, and add a certain festive spark that still wines can’t match. “Sparkling wine is so diverse,” said Donaldson. Many American wine enthusiasts, he said, “don’t realize the breadth and flavor profiles that exist within sparkling wines.”
The move to expand beyond sparkling wines makes sense for these wineries from every respect except harvest. Since grapes destined for sparkling wines are picked far earlier than those for still, the dual programs require what is virtually two harvests. “We have the longest harvest in the valley,” Donaldson told me. “From the first or second week of August all the way to late October, when we pick Cabernet Sauvignon on Mt. Veeder.”
But overall, Donaldson feels the still wine program benefits the sparkling, and vice versa. “There is a natural synergy in working with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, being the classic grapes that go into sparklers,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to taste fruit over a longer period of time. That practice, that experience, ultimately helps the wine in a tangible sense.” Bob Iantosca, vice president and winemaker for Gloria Ferrer, agrees that there are tangible benefits from both programs, especially as their vineyards have matured. “We’re able to pick and choose and select for the grapes that are most appropriate,” he said. By observing how particular vines are flourishing in a certain block, “we can better utilize it from a business standpoint and a winemaking standpoint. We’re able to take advantage of what the land is giving us, using the fruit for its highest and best use.”
With Mother’s and Father’s Days on the horizon, and graduation and wedding season not far behind, there are ample opportunities to toast the occasions with luscious California sparklers. And with the emerging still wines being offered by these superior winemakers, it all adds up to a win-win for wine enthusiasts.