The setting of Iron House is as spectacular as Schramsberg, but in a more laid-back, friendly way. The winery sits at the top of a long, single-car road full of potholes, with spectacular views over the Russian River Valley. There's a bar where you can taste flights of wine, with very much a beach feel, though with views of waves of vines. Iron Horse's first vintage was 1980; like Schramsberg, it was begun by an ambitious couple who fell in love with the land and, likewise, they have established the winery as one of California's best - one of their wines was served at the 1987 summit between Gorbachev and Reagan.
The wines are also made using the traditional method, with at least three years' ageing. The 2009 Ocean Reserve Extra Brut ($45) is a Blanc de Blancs, with apples, lime, and toast on the nose, green apples on the palate with high acidity, a little sweetness, and a bit of a tart finish. The 2010 Wedding Cuvée ($42) is a rosé originally made for the owners' daughter's wedding, a salmon-coloured wine with a light yeasty toastiness on the nose with redcurrants, red apples, and strawberries; on the palate, there's a bready mousse with red berries and rose petals. Again, the wine is a bit tart on the finish, with the acidity and sweetness not quite balanced. There was no sugar in the dosage of the 2009 Brut X ($50) and it could have done with some sweetness to counter the acidity, but it has autolytic complexity with lightly bruised red apples. The 2009 Classic Vintage Brut ($40) is to all extents and purposes the same wine (apart from the Ocean Reserve all the wines were 74% Pinot Noir), but with residual sugar levels of 7g/L. This is a wine that feels it could mature nicely: toasty red apples on the nose, the slight sweetness balancing the acidity, with a dry bready finish which finishes with spices. The 2009 Russian Cuvée ($40) is named for being served at the 1987 Russian summit and has 11g/L of residual sugar. Bruised red apples and toast on the nose, with a surprisingly dry finish with red apples and lemons.
Iron Horse also produce a series of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, which I did not taste.
Yet another example of the pioneering Californian spirit: founder Judy Jordan was travelling through France in the 1980s and fell in love with Champagne. She came back determined to make sparkling wine of the same quality and style and, with a little help from her father who owns Rodney Strong next door, she set up J Vineyards, which has gone from producing 6,000 cases from its foundation in 1986 to 145,000 today. 70% of production is sparkling wine, with still wines from Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir being made since 1994; also planted, somewhat surprisingly, is Pinotage. The wines come from fourteen different vineyards, all owned by the winery, seven of which are Pinot Noir, four Chardonnay, and three Pinot Gris, and all in the various Sonoma AVAs.
Once again, the wines were all of high quality. The Rosé Brut NV ($38) is a delicate, but complex wine; a light salmon-orange colour, with a floral nose of rose petals and orange blossom, and pomegranates and redcurrants. Off-dry with subtle autolytic flavours of brioche and scone, finished off with redcurrants and cinnamon. Cuvée 20 ($28), made to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary and now their most popular wine, is very pleasing: sour apples, citrus fruits, and a lightly bready, spicy finish. 2007 J Vintage Brut ($48) has spent five years on its lees and is predominantly from Chardonnay. It shows lovely autolytic, bready, biscuity notes, with green apples and a nutty, dry finish. The most unusual of the wines is the J Bin 1008 NV ($48), which comes from two different riddling bins (each of which holds 504 bottles) and has an eaux-de-vie dosage. With four years on its lees, there are complex autolytic notes of apple strudel and pastry, with a yeasty finish. Despite this complexity and structure, the wine is immediate and fun. The most complex, and also the driest, of the wines I tasted was the J Cuvée XB NV ($45), particularly on the nose: crème brûlée, baked apples, and toast, with dried fruits that make the wine smell sweeter than it is. On the palate, the flavours are a bit simpler and not as engaging, which I felt came from the dryness of the wine, which meant that the high acidity dominated; still toasty and honied though.
My visit ended with a most unusual wine: Ratafia ($45), a sweet wine made from a combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Meunier, and Vioginer, and fortified with eaux-de-vie from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel from the Germain-Robin distillery. Almost like a rich, sweet sherry, but without the long ageing, with hazelnuts and chestnuts, and a toasty, oaky, spicy palate. Nothing to do with sparkling wine, but another example of the willingness of Californian winemakers to experiment.
conclusionsThere are a couple of wineries which I did not get to visit: Domaine Carneros, who are owned by Taittinger (and which I did visit back way back in 2001), and Korbel, a mass-market producer who still insist on labelling their wines as Champagne. Of those I did visit, the wines were all of a consistently high standard. All are modelled on Champagne, in the grapes and production methods used, but they are all also willing to experiment and do their own thing: continuing to use hand-riddling, adding Pinot Gris to the mix, making still wines, all to maintain their own identity and not just be Champagne imitators. Given that the history of sparkling wine in California is still very young, the consistency and quality is extremely impressive.
Although all the wineries I visited are consciously indebted to Champagne, all of them are committed to making their wines Californian and not some pale imitation. In this, it was the American wineries I found most successful and interesting: Schramsberg expressing the long history of Napa Valley in its caves and wines, the secluded beach house feel of Iron Horse, and the start from scratch ambition of J Vineyards. Although these wines arguably lack the lasting complexity of the best Champagne, they are gradually moving towards their own individual, more confident styles of sparkling wine that before too long we may be able to describe as uniquely Californian.