Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Paso Robles besides the Rhône

A young wine region such as Paso Robles allows opportunities to experiment, as imaginative winemakers explore the different possibilities the area affords. There are over 40 grape varieties grown, including Zinfandel and Spanish and Italian varieties, besides the Rhône blends Paso excels at. There is also a major brewery which makes an eclectic range of beers, as well as a distiller and a producer of Port-style wines. It all makes for a fascinating region to explore, not just for wine and drink but for food too, as there are some excellent restaurants.


Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the few Paso Robles wineries were mainly producing Zinfandel. From the blisteringly hot days, the wines were big and robust, the wines of cowboys and outlaws. The grape has now largely been uprooted by Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Grenache, but wineries are still making some Zinfandel with mixed results.

The Lone Madrone Bailey Ranch Zinfandel 2011 ($37) is a superb example of Zinfandel at its most expressive. From a dry-farmed vineyard and head-trained vines, this is a proper, perfumed Zin: violets and roses, blueberries and damsons, oak and vanilla. Likewise on the palate, with a savoury, peppery kick to the finish, with juicy fruits and high acidity, with some dried fruits coming through as well. Lone Madrone also produce another powerful wine with some Zinfandel in the blend. The Will ($45; 47% Grenache, 33% Petite Sirah, 20% Zinfandel) has an upfront fruity nose of raspberries, cherries, and blackberries; the palate is more interesting, with pepper and liquorice, vanilla and oak, gripping tannins, and a fresh, high acidity.

Pomar Junction also produce an expressive, serious Zinfandel (Zinfandel Reserve 2011, $54), with ripe fruits on the nose overladen with perfume; on the palate, it's a toasty, oaky, meaty wine, with a subtly spicy finish. Less successful is the J. Lohr Gesture Zinfandel 2011 ($25), which is too much like strawberry jam. Although the oak balances the jamminess on the palate, this is too much of an old-fashioned Zinfandel where it's all about the fruits and too little about the structure of the wine. The Eberle Zinfandel 2011 ($28) is better; still too fruity, it does have a cocoa, black pepper backbone to it.

Spanish varieties

The Spanish name of Paso Robles suggests a town with a heavily Hispanic influence. Only one winery, though, specialises in Spanish varieties, as well as a few Portuguese. These wines were good enough to suggest that more wineries should follow the example of Bodegas Paso Robles. I tasted two whites, Galicia 2013 ($25; 100% Albariño) and Garnacha Blanca 2013 ($27), the latter having appealing citrus fruits and an almond, almost bready finish. Many of the reds are Tempranillo based, though winemaker Dorothy Schuler is not afraid to experiment with lesser known varieties such as Graciano. The signature red is ¡Viva Yo! 2010 ($29; 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon), an earthy, gamey wine with an engaging mixture of red and black fruits, and a savoury, spicy mouth. The Iberia 2005 ($45; 33% Tempranillo, 31% Touriga Nacional, 25% Graciano, 11% Tinto Cão) is a mature blend of Spanish and Portuguese grapes, with a smoky, leathery character to add to the plums and blackberries. My favourite wine was the Vaca Negra 2009 ($33; 43% Mourvèdre, 36% Tempranillo, 21% Garnacha). This combined all the best of Paso Robles - Rhône grapes, albeit with a Spanish influence, and imaginative blending.

Italian varieties

I am yet to be convinced that the great Italian varieties Sangiovese and Nebbiolo work out of their Tuscan and Piemonte homelands, but one wine I tasted disproved that theory. The Eberle Sangiovese 2011 ($24) is a good wine, with red fruits, oak, and liquorice, but a little simple. The Lone Madrone Bollo 2007 ($60) is something else though, and one I would love to taste alongside a Barolo or Barbaresco. It has a very floral nose of violets, roses, and irises, with strawberries and cherries: with its garnet colour and inviting perfumes, this is very Nebbiolo. The palate delivers too, with big, heavy, powerful tannins washed with high acidity. For a wine from 2007, it's still going strong. This is a big wine that still has delicate red fruits; complex, maturing, but lively.

view from Lone Madrone


For such a hot, barren, wild area, one would expect a healthy supply of beer to whet away the still days. Lone Madrone make cider, a tradition which has sadly been usurped throughout California by winemaking. I only got to taste one, the Bristols Original Cider ($9, 7.5%), which was an intense farm cider, with bitter apples and a juicy acidity. Nine ciders are made in total.

The main brewery of Paso Robles is Firestone Walker, who make a series of imaginative, and slightly difficult, beers. They made their name with the Double DBA (12%), an intense dark beer with coffee, caramel, toffee, and dark chocolate, which has the overall feel of vanilla ice cream and the dried fruits of a Pedro Ximenez sherry. Two complex saisons are made; the Opal (7.5%) has a slight sourness to it, with a gentle farmyard, countryside nose, with sour apples and pears and cinnamon. The LIL Opal (5.5%) is a proper stinky beer, with oranges, tangerines, and marmalade adding to the brett and mushrooms. Despite all those strange flavours, it's extremely refreshing on the palate, with high acidity and a lightly oaky spiciness. Two beers only available at the brewery are the Hefeweizen (4.7%), an outstanding wheat beer which has won awards in Germany, and the Stickee Monkee 2014 (13.4%), a one-off beer that's been aged in Bourbon barrels and had brown sugar added to it. It has sweet whiskey flavours of oak, coconut, and leather, as well as molasses from the brown sugar (I would have guessed it had been aged in rum barrels). The high alcohol and sweetness are balanced by the spicy flavours of pepper and anise. Not a beer to drink a lot of, but much to appreciate.


Many of the wineries I've visited throughout California are keen to stress their sustainable practices. Villicana Winery take this concept a step further by reusing the left-over juice from pressing to make grape-based spirits, under the Re:Find label. There is a vodka, which has a nice citrus, spicy character, a cucumber vodka, and a gin, made with seven different botanicals. Not being a huge vodka fan, it was the gin I found most interesting with lots of citrus aromas from the coriander, lemon and orange peel botanicals, and delicate floral aromas from the lavender and orris root, finished off with a bit of spice from the grains of paradise.

Visiting Re:Find was a reminder of the US's bureaucratic laws towards alcohol, distant off-shoots of Prohibition days. In California, only grape-based products can be sold on-site; all other products must be sold through a third party. Therefore, the distillery could only sell the two vodkas and the gin in bottles labelled as "brandy" - legally so, as they are grape-based. In sites elsewhere in California, the bottles are labelled vodka and gin - which is what they actually are.

"Portuguese Style Dessert Wines"

Violeta 2006
The road up to PasoPort is a steep dirt track lined with the labels from the winery's bottles, all of which feature distractingly glamorous portraits of 1920s women. Opened only in 2008, the winery is still a ramshackle affair, but the wines are interesting and beautifully packaged. There's a pot still on site which is used to make the base spirit for fortification, and they hope to start producing liqueurs and grappa. A mixture of Portuguese and international grapes are sourced to make port-style wines; in the tasting room, the term "port" was used quite liberally, but the wines are labelled "Portuguese style dessert wines." One is made from Zinfandel ($35), but it's the more traditional Violeta (2006 $40, 2009 $36), made from the Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, and Souzão, that worked the best. Violets on the nose, with blueberries and blackberries; deep, rich fruits on the palate, with chocolate, cocoa, and black pepper.

places to eat

Paso Robles is a small town, but there are plenty of good places to eat. For lunch, Bistro Laurent is perfect: a small patio that catches the afternoon breezes serving delicious salads and a light onion soup. In the evening, La Cosecha has seriously good food, with a relaxed, lively atmosphere. Buona Tavola is a laid-back Italian restaurant with fresh pasta dishes. When you're done eating, Pine Street Saloon is a great place for a beer and live music.

All in all, Paso is a wonderful area to visit: an up-and-coming wine region still discovering itself and willing to experiment, with plenty of other drinks to try when you've had enough wine. Everyone is friendly and helpful, and at the end of the day there's good food to be found. If you ever make a road trip along the California coast, Paso Robles is a must stop.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Napa Earthquake

Fast asleep at 3 in the morning, vaguely conscious of a dream in my head. Slowly the dream becomes more vivid, until the sense of being in a violently shaking room becomes too real to stay sleeping. I half-wake and realise that I actually am in a room that’s violently shaking. I stay still for a few moments when I am brought fully awake by a piercing scream from my girlfriend lying next to me. I grab hold of her and tell her it’s OK, though I wonder if I am holding her or she me.

The house continues to shake, feeling as if a giant hand has grabbed the building and is toying with it. It’s perhaps the silence that’s eeriest: there’s no sound of rumbling or the earth breaking apart, just constant, uncalm vibration.

That silence is broken by a smash upstairs, but as the house continues to rock that's all we hear. After a while - it feels neverending, but it's probably less than a minute - the rocking stops and we hold each other until we’re sure everything is calm again. Voices emerge from our flatmates upstairs; we get up to join them and share some whiskey. The house is unscathed - it stands on bedrock, meaning that the foundations are on solid rock that moved from side to side during the earthquake without any danger of splitting. There’s just one plate broken on the kitchen floor.

We go back to bed, knocked out by the whiskey (never has Jameson’s tasted so good), thinking that for all the violence of the earthquake it hasn’t done too much damage. We’d got off lucky, though. Waking the next morning, the internet showed us pictures of wrecked buildings, homes and shops a complete mess, and cracked roads (though it’s hard to tell on the Napa highways, they’re full of potholes anyway). My girlfriend’s former landlady had lost an entire outhouse and her home had become a rubbish dump – not a sight for a seventy-five-year-old woman to face. For many, it's the inconvenience the earthquake has caused and the cost and time it will take to clean up after it rather than any long-term damage.

The next day, the centre of the city was calm, residents and tourists walking around inspecting the damage. There's a sense of shock, but also relief that the damage hasn't been far greater. Most of the bars and restaurants are closed, some with boarded-up windows, others cleaning up the broken bottles. Only one street has sustained serious damage - Brown Street, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. Wine bar Carpe Diem is worst affected, the turreted roof caving in on the building.

Carpe Diem wine bar

Brown and 3rd

This was my first ever earthquake; as exciting as it was to experience, it was quite terrifying. The worst is the feeling of complete helplessness, for there is literally nothing you can do apart from hold on to the person next to you. You're at the mercy of nature and the land, if it wants to take you it will. This was the biggest earthquake in California since 1989; luckily, and thankfully, the damage wasn't too bad and everything will get back to normal fairly quickly. The last few weeks visiting Napa, I've been told over and over how Napa Valley has more soils than the whole of France because of the perpetually shifting land: this was living proof of that.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Paso Robles: All about the Rhône

The name may be Spanish, but the flavour of Paso Robles is very much French. I was in the centre of this sleepy, relaxed, and very friendly town having lunch before visiting wineries and a sudden wave of nostalgia for the south of France came over me: the sun, the breeze, the food, the air all reminded me vividly of the villages of Rhône and Provence. As I learnt exploring the area's wineries, I wasn't the first person to make this discovery: Paso Robles is producing wines straight out of those two wonderful French wine regions.

The full name of Paso Robles is El Paso de Robles, "the pass of the oaks." Once known for its hot springs and almond trees, Paso is now an emerging wine region, with over 200 wineries. Vines have been planted since the end of the eighteenth century, but it is only in the last twenty years that the region has grown and come to prominence: in the early 1990s, there were just twenty wineries. Zinfandel was the grape most associated with Paso Robles, but now it's Rhône blends, both red and white, that are really making the name of the region.


Paso Robles is on the California coast, three hours south of San Francisco. It's wild territory; many of the vineyards are on rolling, sun-soaked hills miles away from anywhere. The days are baking hot, although, as with the other coastal Californian regions, fog rolls over in the mornings. The nights are cool too: while temperatures in the summer reach as high as 40ºC, they can fall to 15ºC once the sun sets.


The best wines in Paso Robles without doubt come from the grapes of the south of France: Roussanne and Grenache Blanc are the base for the best whites, producing nutty, aromatic, creamy wines, with Mourvèdre, an underappreciated grape that shines in Provence, the standout black grape, backed up by Grenache and Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted, but I don't see the area as ideal for any of the Bordeaux grapes. Zinfandel is still grown; the wines I tasted were mixed. Spanish and Italian grapes are experimented with: I tasted one outstanding Nebbiolo and some interesting Tempranillo-based wines.


Tablas Creek

The modern story of Paso Robles begins with Tablas Creek, the region's standout winery. Over forty years ago, Robert Haas, a New York wine importer, brought the wines of Château de Beaucastel into the US, forming a strong relationship with the family at the same time. Together, they formed the dream of establishing an American equivalent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer. After many years of searching for the perfect spot, in 1989 they bought land a few miles west of Paso Robles, in 500m high hills not far from the Pacific Ocean, where the soils and climate matched those of the southern Rhône. Such was their dedication to replicating the French wines, they imported cuttings from Beaucastel's vineyards, which spent three years in quarantine at Cornell in New York before being grafted on to vines in Paso Robles. The first vintage was 1997, since when Tablas Creek has led the way for Paso Robles becoming a region for the Rhône varieties.

The flagship wines are the Esprit de Tablas red and white, which until 2011 were called Esprit de Beaucastel. The white is one of my favourites, a stunning example of the great whites that can be made from the Rhône varieties. 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache, and 10% Picpoul, the 2011 I tasted has a nutty, honied, creamy, round nose, with bitter grapefruit and apple on the palate, with a long, rich, full finish. I also bought a bottle of the 2006, which I can't wait to taste. Its red sibling is 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 4% Counoise: the wines of Paso Robles are at their best as blends rather than single varietals. The wine has rich, ripe black fruits - blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums - with a smoky, toasty nose; the acidity is high and fresh, with structured tannins and an oaky, peppery finish. It is easy to see this wine developing leather and game characters, and the 2010 I also tasted already had those qualities, as well as being a touch smokier and earthier, but with a gentle, subtle tannic finish.

Both these wines cost $55; Tablas Creek also produce two more affordable Rhône blends under the Côte de Tablas name. The Blanc 2012 ($27; 34% Viognier, 30% Grenache, 30% Marsanne, 6% Roussanne) is fruity and aromatic, with peach, pear, and apricot, while the Rouge ($35; 60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvèdre) has lots of red fruits, with a dry, slightly smoky finish. The range of Tablas Creek wines is excellent, but it's the white blends that really earn the winery's reputation.

other Rhône blends

Tablas Creek produce plenty of single varietal wines - of particular interest was the Grenache Blanc 2012 ($27), a complex yet refreshing wine with hay and fennel, as well as apples and almonds - but it's their blends which really shine. It's the same in the rest of Paso Robles.

Halter Ranch
Next door to Tablas Creek is Halter Ranch, a winery which owns 281 acres of land but still only produces 12,000 cases a year. The old Victorian house on the estate was the location for the 1990 film Arachnophobia; it's now undergoing quite a change, with a new winemaker from nearby Justin, which has been taken over by a multinational, and plans to expand production to 40,000 cases by 2017-19. The wines do feel that they are in transition, but with lots of potential. The 2013 Côtes de Paso Blanc ($28; 75% Grenache, 20% Picpoul, 3% Roussanne, 2% Viognier) is barrel fermented with four months on its lees, giving it a nutty, yeasty character, but with fresh crisp citrus fruits.

Along the road back to Paso is Lone Madrone, owned by Neil Collins from Bristol who has been Tablas Creek's winemaker since the outset. He too produces two superb Rhône blends: the 2011 Points West White ($35; 50% Roussanne, 26% Picpoul, 20% Viognier, 10% Marsanne) is aged in mainly neutral oak but with 10% new Russian oak and has a beautiful creamy, rich vanilla texture, with pear, peach, and banana; on the palate, the refreshing acidity stops the wine from being too heavy. The 2010 Points West Red ($35; 32% Mourvèdre, 28% Counoise, 20% Grenache, 20% Syrah) has blackberries, blueberries, cherries with a long earthy, smoky finish and light spices.

The biggest producer in Paso Robles is J. Lohr; he set the winery up in 1974 and it now produces 1.6m cases a year. Although they're still family owned, this is such a huge enterprise that production is split in two: the white grapes are grown in San José and the black in Paso. Nevertheless, the wines I tasted, which were fairly small production, all had character without being overly complex. The 2013 Gesture Roussanne Viognier Grenache ($35) has a delicate floral nuttiness, with bananas and pineapples, with a dry, mineral finish to round off the wine's creamy texture. The 2012 Gesture GSM ($30) is mainly Grenache, but the Syrah and Mourvèdre give it a smoky black fruit backbone. As with the white, the flavours are upfront and friendly, with a good structure, but lacking an involving complexity.

Nearby is Eberle, another well-known winery that was at the forefront of the development of Paso Robles as a wine region. Set up by former footballer Gary Eberle in the 1980s, the wines offer extremely good value, as do many of the region. The Côtes-du-Rôbles white and red are two more good examples of Rhône blends. The white ($24; 57% Grenache, 39% Roussanne, 4% Viognier) has peach, apricot, and honeysuckle on the nose, with a creamy, textured palate finished with a grainy, dry, nutty feel. The red ($22; 45% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 23% Mourvèdre, 11% Durif) offers strawberries and blackberries on the nose, with smoky oak and vanilla. There's a good structure to the wine, with black fruits, oak, and spices.  

Pomar Junction, further south than the other wineries beyond the town of Templeton, is a relatively new winery whose first vintage was in 2008. The land was bought by a family of vineyard managers in 2001, and this is their first foray into winemaking - and a successful one at that, as their wines have won plenty of awards. The Côtes de Pomar 2013 ($34; 40% Roussanne, 40% Grenache, 20% Viognier) is a rich, complex, spicy wine with pineapple, cinnamon, and white pepper. As the name of the winery suggests, there is a strong railway theme to the winery - there is an engine and carriage on site - and each of the wines either has an associated name or image. The Crossing GSM 2011 ($45; 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 30% Syrah) has a perfumed nose of red flowers and sage, with developing flavours of cedar, smoke, and toast; blackberries, plums, and currants on the palate, with a dry, oaky, spicy finish.

All of these wineries produce interesting single varietal wines too, but it's the blends that fully express the nature of Paso Robles. This emphasises the European sensibility of the area, with its concentration on blends and soils, but it also underlines the development of American wine away from single varietal wines towards more complex blends and an appreciation of terroir. Rhône grapes are the most successful of the region, but by no means the only ones planted. In my next blog, I'll be looking at the non-Rhône side of Paso: Zinfandel, Spanish and Italian grape varieties, as well as beer and spirits.

Monday, 18 August 2014

California Sparkling Wine II: Iron Horse and J Vineyards

Part two of my visits to Californian sparkling wineries; unlike Mumm and Gloria Ferrer, the two wineries here are wholly American, yet using the traditional method of production, as in Champagne.

Iron Horse

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.

J Vineyards

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 Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley, she set up J Vineyards, which has gone from producing 6,000 cases from its foundation in 1986 to 100,000 today. 25% 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 grapes mainly come from ten estate vineyards, all owned by the winery, and almost all in the Russian River Valley AVA.

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.


There 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.

Friday, 15 August 2014

California Sparkling Wine I: Schramsberg, Mumm, and Gloria Ferrer

"I'm trying to find something similar to Prosecco," I overheard a customer explaining at Iron Horse, a premium producer of sparkling wine. Everybody loves bubbles in their wine, but it's surprising how few know the difference between styles of sparkling wines and how varied they are.

Prosecco, it turns out, is as ubiquitous in the US as it is in the UK, and why not? It's cheap, simple, and fun. What it most emphatically not is Champagne. The latter, and any wine made in the same style, has a complexity and flavour derived from years ageing in the bottle on its lees (dead yeast cells that form during the second fermentation when the bubbles are formed). This is the style that top producers around the world, including England, Franciacorta, and California, attempt to emulate. I've visited five different sparkling wine producers in California to see how they match up to the original Champagne. Here are the first three, including the state's oldest sparkling winery and two off-shoots from large European producers.

when is sparkling wine not Champagne?

this is not Champagne
The term Champagne is often used as a catch-all for any sparkling wine, but it can only be used to describe wine from the Champagne region in north-eastern France. Under EU law, the words "Champagne" or "méthode Champenoise" cannot be put on a bottle unless they are from that area. For many years, the Champagne industry have also been trying to outlaw the term "méthode traditionelle," but with no success.

These rules exist as a guarantee of style and (hopefully) quality. When a consumer sees Champagne on a bottle, they should know where it's from and what it's going to taste like. Despite an agreement between the EU and the US in 2006, some Californian producers continue to put the word "Champagne" on the bottle - not only does this shamelessly trade on the success and quality of Champagne, the wine is not likely to be any good.


Schramsberg is the most historic sparkling wine producer in California. The winery dates back to 1861, when a German immigrant, Jacob Schram, bought 120 acres on top of a hill between St Helena and Calistoga. This was only the second winery in Napa and was successful enough to be at one point making eighteen different wines. Upon his death and the onset of Prohibition, the winery fell into disuse, to be rescued by Jack and Jamie Davies in the 1960s. The success of the project was almost instant: the 1969 Blanc de Blancs was served on Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

The settings of the winery are stunning, a long, winding drive leading up to a tranquil set of hilltop buildings. What's even more impressive are the underground caves. The winery is located in one of the hottest spots of the region where Jacob Schram found it impossible to store wine properly, so he had his workers dig a series of underground caves in the hillside. In 1982, the Davies extended these caves further, so that they are now able to store 1.3m bottles. These cool caves wind through the hill, with bottles and bottles stacked up to the earthy ceilings which have weeds and plants growing downwards out of them.

The wines are all made using the traditional method, imitating the Champagne producers to the point that all the wines apart from the Blanc de Blancs are hand-riddled. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are sourced from the cool regions of Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley - Bordeaux grapes more suitable to the local hot conditions are planted around the estate for increasing production of red wine. The 2011 Blanc de Blancs, of which 20,000 cases a year are produced, is great value at $38, bready, with stone and tropical fruits, green apples, and a crisp, fresh, young palate. The J Schram 2006 ($110) is their tribute to the founding father, stored in extra fat bottles which take longer to riddle. It's yeasty and toasty, with red apples and citrus fruits, with an elegant depth and length from the mainly Chardonnay content. The 2010 Rosé ($50) is full of vibrant red fruits - strawberry, cranberry, redcurrant, raspberry - toasty, and with some tannins. The fullest bodied and yeastiest of the four wines I tried was the 2005 Reserve ($110), which is 74% Pinot Noir and has been aged for seven years. A mature wine with bread and brioche, nuts and mushrooms, caramel and butterscotch.

Mumm of Napa

In the 1980s, the Champagne house G. H. Mumm sent their winemaker Guy Devaux over to the US to find the ideal site for sparkling wine production. Perhaps surprisingly, he decided to base the winery in Rutherford, right in the centre of the hot Napa Valley, but it was a commercially very successful decision. The grapes are all sourced from 115 acres of vineyards and forty other growers in the cooler Carneros region of Napa and Sonoma, but the winery is located right in the middle of the tourist trail; when I visited on Monday lunchtime, the attractive outside terrace was already very busy.

steel fermentation tanks, with blending tank behind
The industrial nature of Mumm is highly impressive. 340,000 cases of wine are produced annually, by far the highest amount of any Napa winery I’ve visted. Mumm use the traditional method, but it’s all as high-tech as can be. There are 130 large stainless steel tanks for the first fermentation, after which the wines are pumped into a mammoth, 750,000L blending tank – our guide told us that if you drank a case a day it would take 72 years to finish all the wine the tank can fill. The wines are aged on their lees, but, rather than in underground caves as at Schramsberg, in large wooden crates in rooms that can hold up to a million bottles. As with most modern Champagne houses, the bottles are not hand-riddled but turned for seven days on a gyropallette. There’s even a machine called Bob, who puts and takes bottles in and out of the wooden crates, able to hold thirty-six bottles at once.

Two equally effective ways of storing and ageing wine: Mumm to the left, Schramsberg to the right

All this industrial mechanism may make the wines seem characterless, but the three I tasted all had a distinct personality. The Brut Prestige ($22), Mumm’s biggest selling wine, is aged for 18 months and has a delicate breadiness, high acidity, and light aromas of crisp apples. This is a good introductory wine: its flavours are immediate enough to appeal to the casual drinker, but just complex enough to satisfy the more experienced sparkling wine drinker. It sells at a very good price too. Unusually, there is a little Pinot Gris in the wine, as well as the three Champagne grapes. The Brut Prestige Extended Tirage ($32) is the same wine, but aged for twice as long. It’s still delicate, but breadier, with lightly bruised apples. For that length of ageing, I’d expect some more complexity. The final wine was the Demi-Sec ($32), which has 35g/L of residual sugar. At first the sweetness dominates, but there’s a nice breadiness to it, with a long spicy finish – this would be a great wine to have with Asian food.

There are a series of other wines, including a rosé and two sparkling reds, one solely from Pinot Noir and a sweeter one with 3% Syrah. They also make a wine in collaboration with Carlos Santana and another for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. This is one serious, high-profile operation.

Gloria Ferrer

Enter another sparkling wine giant, this time the world's largest producer of sparkling wine, Freixenet from Catalunya. Cava, meaning cellar, is the protected Spanish term for sparkling wine. Nominally made in the same way as Champagne and mainly produced in Penedès just on the coast outside Barcelona, Cava is inexpensive, rubbery, and vaguely off-putting.

Freixenet's California offshoot is quite different, however. Pedro Ferrer, who converted Freixenet into a sparkling wine concern at the beginning of the twentieth century, came to the United States to look for land to plant grapes for sparkling wine production in the 1930s, but was forced to return to Spain for the Civil War, in which he died. His youngest son and successor José fulfilled his father's dream in the 1980s, settling on Carneros in Sonoma. The winery is named after his wife, still living in Barcelona.

It was quite a far-sighted move. Carneros, despite the hot days, has cool mornings and nights and is ideal for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two major Champagne grapes. Equally foresighted was to abandon the traditional, obscure Cava grapes of Xarello, Parellada, and Macabeo (which Freixenet have until recently stuck to in Spain) in favour of the Champagne grapes. Hence, the wines of Gloria Ferrer have more in common with those of Champagne than those of Catalunya.

Gloria Ferrer's production room; "Roberto" is at the front; at Mumm he is called "Bob"

The winery is quite different from the clean efficiency of Mumm, though; Ferrer's winery is, or seems, haphazard and small (the wines are aged elsewhere), with none of the impressive vastness of production of Mumm's. It wasn't helped by the tour guide describing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as "light Rhône grapes, like Sangiovese," or admitting she didn't know what the winery's Chardonnay tasted like because she didn't like white wine. A bitchy comment on my part, yes, but the tasting rooms and winery tours of California are all about selling the wine to the eager consumer.
I tasted three wines. The Blanc de Noirs NV ($22) is a misnomer: it was 92% Pinot Noir, with 8% Chardonnay. It had also received 12 hours skin contact, giving the wine a light golden colour. It is a very well priced wine: crisp red apples, with a nice acidity, light sweetness and toastiness, and a lingering cinnamon finish. The 2010 Blanc de Blancs ($40) is 100% Chardonnay and a winery exclusive. A much paler colour, with oranges and apple blossom, but quite simple. The 2006 Royal Cuvée Brut ($37) has been aged on its lees for six years, with lightly complex aromas of brioche, apples, and cinnamon, more so on the nose than on the palate.

In the next blog, I'll be looking at two other California sparkling wine producers, Iron Horse and J Vineyards, and posting my summary of Californian bubbles.

beautiful views from the Gloria Ferrer terrace