Monday, September 28, 2015

Happiness in My Glass--Sparkling Wines in Napa

It makes me happy.  Really happy.

As soon as I hear the hiss of the cork, I begin to smile.

As the liquid splashes into the beautiful, narrow flute and reaches up, up, up to the lip of the glass, my grin broadens. 

The bubbles rise from the bottom of the crystal and burst when they reach the top. 

I put my nose to the rim of the glass to inhale the aromas of the wine, and the bubbles rush into my nose.

Bubbly.  Sparkler.  Mèthode Champenoise.  Whatever others call it, I call it happiness…in a glass. 

Obviously the French region of Champagne is known for the most famous sparkling wines in the world.  And rightfully so.  These acidic wines aged on the lees and in the bottle, sometimes for years, are extra special to drink.  Known for strong citrus and yeasty aromas, these wines make any occasion special, but shouldn’t be reserved only for special events. 

Californians know this.

And they love their bubbles…all year round. 

Californians also make some amazing sparkling wines, many with deep influences from the French.  Grab a glass of bubbly and sip away the day while enjoying a virtual written tour of Napa’s sparkling producers.  Cheers!

At the end of a long, winding, and narrow road, Schramsberg rests where it has for over one hundred years.  First possessed by Jacob and Annie Schram, the original caves and Victorian style house still watch over the property, today owned by the Davies family.  Fifty years ago, Jack and Jamie Davies found a Napa property that enticed them.  Over the years they lovingly restored that beautiful Victorian and produced an American sparkling wine worthy of any French palate.  Today the winery is under the direction of Hugh Davies, Jack and Jamie’s youngest son, who was born the same year his parents purchased Schramsberg and who still lives in the property’s home with his family. 

The Davies Family home and Schramsberg caves.
Tours are quite limited due to the location of the winery, but the advanced reservation is so worth it.  Tastings take place deep in the caves amid the literally millions of bottles of aging sparkling Schramsberg wine.  The atmosphere, the wine, the tour…all are superb.

Tastings in the cave surrounding by millions of bottles of Schramsberg sparkling wines.
Wines of Note:
Querencia—A brut rosé with robust berry and tangy citrus flavors, this is a beautiful and supple wine that would pair with many flavorful foods, yet it is truly worthy of sipping on its own.  It is also an absolutely beautiful hue of pink with the tiniest of bubbles.  The proceeds from the sale of Querencia go to the Jack Davies Fund for the preservation of ag reserve land in Napa. 
2012 Schramsberg Brut Rosé—Another beautiful shade of baby pink, this refreshing sparkler is lighter than Querencia in color and intensity.  However, it is wonderfully dry and acidic with an intense complexity from its time on the lees and in the bottle.
2006 J. Schram—Truly a special and spectacular wine, J Schram is made primarily of chardonnay.  This lends to a rich wine with both citrus and tropical fruits on the nose and palate.  Aged in bottle for nearly seven years, it is like silk in the mouth.  An absolutely exceptional treat.
Happiness waiting to be poured in a glass.

Mumm Napa
In the late 1970s, well-known Champagne producer G.H. Mumm sent his winemaker Guy Devaux to Napa to search for the perfect area to produce methode traditionnelle wines in the United States.  Devaux found land and by 1983 was making wine under the label Domaine Mumm.  A tasting room facility and underground cellar were built before Domaine Mumm changed its name to Mumm Napa.  Set in the middle of a beautiful green space, Mumm has grown into a unique place to visit with its natural beauty overlooking grape vines and its art gallery featuring Ansel Adams’ work (among others). 

Beautiful grounds on all sides of Mumm Napa.
Whether sitting on the picturesque outdoor patio, resting in the classy indoor salon, or strolling through the art, Mumm produces a wine for everyone.

Wines of Note: 
Brut Prestige—A wine good enough for the San Francisco Giants after winning the World Series is definitely good enough for others!  This sparkler is reminiscent of brioche bread while being light, zippy, and refreshing.  Obviously great for celebrations, but also a perfect option for the cocktail hour or with light appetizers.
Brut Reserve Rosé—Almost-salmon color, the denser pigment in the glass shows its denser flavor in the mouth.  Strawberry jam and orange marmalade on the first attack lead to a crisp finish.  Would pair nicely with flavorful cheeses and other savory foods.  I paired it with a BLT with great success.
2007 DVX—Mumm’s tete de cuvèe, this is an incredibly rich and creamy sparkling wine.  Golden apple and roasted almonds on the palate were the result of part of the wine fermenting in oak.  Additionally, spending over six years in the bottle adds to the lusciousness of the final product.  A special wine for any special occasion.
One gorgeous flight of sparkling.

Domaine Chandon
The first French producer to look to Napa to make traditional method wines, Domaine Chandon is the baby of Moet & Chandon.  In the early 1970s, Moet & Chandon began searching for what it considered quality vineyard land to grow the customary sparkling grapes:  chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot munier.  By 1976, Chandon’s Napa wines were released.  Today, Chandon has many spectacular wines, but some of the most special options are the single vineyard varietals.

Chandon grounds.
Next, a tasting room worthy of these wines was built.  The Napa tasting room has an almost-Parisian vibe with a hip, modern place to pour numerous sparkling and still options.  The outdoor terrace remains the perfect place to taste or enjoy a full glass of sparkling with the cheese and charcuterie plate.

Don't miss the cheese and charcuterie.
Wines of Note:
California Rosé—Mostly chardonnay with a small amount of pinot noir, this wine would serve as the perfect everyday sipper.  Light in color and body, this bubbly has strawberry and watermelon on both the nose and palate.  There is great acid throughout with a refreshing finish at the end.
A great everyday rose. 
Reserve Pinot Noir Rosé—Produced from Sonoma County grapes, this selection has more reserve wine added and is aged longer in bottle, creating a richer wine in body, color, and complexity.  The deeper flavor starts with red fruits on the palate adding hints of floral and spice.  Pair with many seafood entrees.
2009 Vintage Mt. Veeder Brut—Being grown from higher-elevation, Mt. Veeder fruit lends this wine very unique characteristics.  It is delicate while being rich, light while being creamy.  Lemon pie from the first attack to the final finish joins the baked sweet bread on the nose and palate.  Worthy of drinking for any special occasion or cellaring for several years. 
Mt. Veeder vintage.

Domaine Carneros
Absolutely gorgeous in every single way, Domaine Carneros is located in southern Napa, in the Carneros region for which the winery is named.  Another Champagne family investing in the Napa region of the United States, the Taittingers knew that the cooler Carneros area would be a textbook California climate for sparkling grapes.

Grown and produced with sustainable practices, all near the tasting room and production facility, Domaine Carneros takes pride in its techniques and wines.  Very rightfully so, Domaine Carneros also takes great pride in its unequivocally stunning chateau where production and tastings take place.  Inspired by Taittinger’s Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, France, the estate can be seen from all directions, whether coming from the Napa County side or the Sonoma County side. 

Stunning views from every direction.
The driveway and gardens welcome all up to the terrace where wine lovers can sit outside overlooking the striking vineyards all around.  Cheese and charcuterie plates are served both indoor and out, and for a really special sparkling experience, order any of the three caviar options (which I’ve heard is complimentary for ten-year wine club members—nice perk!).

Cheers and cheese!
Wines of Note:
Blanc de Noir—White from black, the blanc de noir from the dark sparkling grape of pinot noir is a quality example of this style of bubbly.  Light, crisp, and refreshing, the bread dough and white fruit explode from the glass.  Pair with light bites and a cocktail hour.
2011 Brut Rose—Extended contact with the skin leaves this burnt salmon color in the glass, an absolutely stunning shade.  Complex with strawberry overriding the flavors on the palate, yet delicate bubbles lead to the absolute dryness on the finish.  Another striking example of my favorite sparkling style:  rosé!
2007 Le Rève—Domaine Carneros’ tete de cuvèe, the 2007 was a great growing year which produced an even better sparkler.  Over five years on the lees created a rich and creamy mouthfeel with baked sweet bread and overripe pear ending in a zippy acidic finish.  Pair with seafood or rest it in your cellar for years to come.

A spectacular sparkling sampler.

Bubbles…they make me happy…very happy.  From the time the bottle opens, I begin to get excited.  Each stop for sparkling in Napa made me beam.  These four producers bottle joy; they bottle delight.  Smiles float with the bubbles out of the bottle to the faces of those about to consume the happiest beverage of all…Napa’s French-inspired sparkling wines. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Thinkin' and Drinkin' Pink--Great Rose Wines

As the blazing sun beat down on the pavement, I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead and checked the temperature.  It was no surprise to my red-faced self that it said 91 degrees…in the middle of September.  

Now, I’m not complaining about the heat.  It is actually a special treat for those of us here on the edge of the Black Hills; we call it Indian summer, and we enjoy every day of it.  Mostly because we remember that last year at this exact time we had not only had several nights of a hard freeze, we had also already experienced our first snow storm of the year.

This beautiful weather actually begins to lull area residents into a false sense of security about Mother Nature and her moodiness.  We start to believe we can still drink our favorite summertime wines for months; we have all confidence that our warm-weather drinking habits can continue indefinitely.

But we are always wrong.  

The morning chill reminds us.  The earlier sunset hints at us.  The hard frost prediction in less than two weeks jogs our memory.  

There is no indefinite summer drinking where I live.  None.  

I better get out my favorite rosés and start sipping.  The snowflakes will be falling soon enough, and my transition to heavier, winter wines will begin…whether (weather) I am actually ready or not. 

I loved rosés long before this past year when it was “cool” to drink pink.  I’m not talking your grandmother’s white zin.  I’m talking bone dry pinks.  I can enjoy multiple kinds of rosés, but my favorites are complex, delicate, and/or flavorful.  Here are a few of the standout summer pink drinks from my warm-weather tasting.

Las Rocas Rosé
Spain is a great value for wines in general and rosés in particular.  Made from the garnacha (grenache) grape, this was originally under twelve dollars a bottle; then it was on special, so what a steal at under ten dollars for a great sunny-day sipper.  The nose is filled with strawberry, melon, stone, floral, and white pepper.  On the palate it has a hint of sweetness shown through the strawberry, green herb, and fresh flower.  Pair with robust cheeses for a slight contrast between the hint of sweetness in the wine and the savory flavors of the cheese.

Firehouse Wine Cellars Roosevelt
Yes, I’m including a wine produced in my neck of the woods; it may be a bit of personal bias, but I so enjoyed this wine.  Though it is produced from California fruit, all the production happens in Rapid City, South Dakota.  Another rosé with slight sweetness on the palate, this grenache-based wine has orange blossom and raspberry on the nose first; then the palate is filled with strawberries and green grass.  The gorgeous salmon color is absolutely mesmerizing.  Pair it with fresh fruit, such as strawberry and kiwi.

VJB Le Due Rosé
Another rather unique pink, this is made from the aleatico grape, a common variety in Italy but a quite uncommon variety in Sonoma where it is produced.  The aleatico creates a deep, hot pink hue in the wine.  It is not only saturated with color, but with flavor as well.  On the nose there are peaches and flowers with a hint of white pepper.  On the palate, the peach, berries, and floral come through again.  Pair this with light Italian food, think Caprese salad with an aged balsamic drizzle. 

MacPhail Rose
Vivid pink in color, this rosé of Sonoma Coast pinot noir is moving to the dry side of pink, my favored style.  The nose is filled with orange, strawberry, and dried grass.  The palate brings forth more of the strawberry from the nose and adds dried herbs.  This leads to a great floral finish that lasts and lasts.  I love the complexity of this wine; there is so much to contemplate from first sip to final swallow.  Because the flavor is so saturated, this wine pairs with flavorful pasta salads and cold-served picnic meals.

Cartograph Rose
Another rosé of pinot noir, this time sourced from the North Coast, Cartograph shows the delicate side of rosé, which begins in its beautiful baby pink shade. Don’t mistake this delicacy for a simple wine though.  From the first sniff, wet rock, green grass, orange blossom, and fresh rose come through.  On the palate, it is perfectly dry with peaches and orange blossoms to the finish.  Drink this paired with a warm evening on the patio and one of your closest friends…because believe me, it’s so good you won’t want to share!

Chateau TrinQuevedel Traditional Reserve
It would seem that no discussion of great summer pink wines would be complete without including some fabulous French rosés.  The Tavel region of the southern Rhone Valley produces only rosès, and the style of these wines is my ultimate favorite.  A deep rose shade, the blend of multiple grapes—grenache, cinsault, clairette, syrah, mourvèdre, and bourbolenc—gives this wine so much character.  Deep and dry, this vino shows ripe strawberry, green herbs, and white spices on both the nose and palate.  Pair with cheese and charcuterie or white meats. 

Though today I sat in the heat of the sun until I was sweating and thirsty for something other than wine (water, thank you), I know not to be fooled.  I may wish my summer drinking days would last forever, but in my part of the country, this is just not the case.  I need to relish every last sip of my favorite summer wines:  beautiful pink rosès!  I tasted many that I truly appreciated this season, and once the snow starts to fly—which could actually be in just a few short weeks if the past has taught us anything—I will remember these summertime sips as I long for sunshine and warm weather to pair with a patio on a perfect evening.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What a Historical Web We Weave--Historic Sonoma Wineries

The more I have learned about wine ... the more I have realized that it weaves in with human history from its very beginning as few, if any, other products do.”  No where is this Hugh Johnson quote more true than Sonoma County.  A melting pot of cultures from around the world, Sonoma’s wine history is a rich tapestry, woven together from the many immigrants who brought wine with them to the west coast. 
From Hungry to Italy, Sonoma’s historical wine makers paved the broken road for United States’ wine to arrive where it is today.  Sonoma’s historically important wineries reflect the unique characteristics of the region then, and still show the qualities that make it such a special place today. 

Touted as California’s first winery, Buena Vista—just outside of the town of Sonoma—was founded by Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy in 1857.  The winery continued to grow grapes and make wine for nearly twenty years.  The property was sold, and the new owners were not in the business.  Fast forward through the lean years of prohibition to arrive at 1949, and Buena Vista again became a working winery.  Today, it is owned by Boisset Family Estates, a group that has lovingly restored it to its historic splendor. 
Buena Vista, historic and important. 
While surrounded by all the history, wine lovers can taste many distinct wines, from sparkling to zins.  Tastings occur in the original press house, but other tours allow customers to explore the caves and the winery, as well.  Special events happen all year, including a living history day in the summer for spectators to imagine how a winery in the 1800s would have actually operated.

My fellow wine lovers in front of the original press house, now the tasting room.
Walking up the drive from the parking lot to the tasting room (or hitching a ride on a golf cart like my friends and I), truly feels like going back in time.  The period clothing employees wear adds to the feeling of taking a step back, of reversing time to the first glory days of Sonoma wine. 
Spotlight Wines:
2012 Blanc de Noir Brut—always one to love a sparkling, this is a great example of why these wines are some of my favorites.  Crisp and refreshing with the aromas and flavors of fresh-baked lemon bread, pour this all summer and then again during celebrations the rest of the year.

Bring on the Buena Vista bubbles!
2013 Attila’s Selection Zinfandel—Old vine zinfandel fans will enjoy this wine with elements of black fruit and spice on the nose.  On the palate, the black fruits comes through with ripened characteristics, then the wine hits you with its pepper, spice, and chocolate.

2012 The Sheriff of Buena Vista—Named for Agoston, who was indeed once a sheriff, this is a blend of petite sirah, syrah, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, and grenache.  Those grapes lead to a well-balanced wine, bold on both the nose and palate.  Plus, a cool price and even cooler bottle (a metal sheriff’s badge is the label…love it!), this is a great purchase. 

Show that badge on the Buena Vista Sheriff.

Italian immigrants were very important in early Sonoma wine development.  Many settled in the northern part of Sonoma County, so many that regions of the county even became known as Asti and Chianti Station based on the inhabitants there.  These wonderful Italian names still show themselves in Sonoma—names like Seghesio at Seghesio Family Vineyards. 

An original winery facility from 1882, now Seghesio property. 
The family vineyards were planted in 1895 and the fourth generation of Seghesios—Ted as wine maker and Dave as head of operations—still operates the winery, though since 2011 it is no longer family owned.

Many Italian grape varieties—both red and white—are produced into wine at the facility Seghesio Family bought in 1949 but was built (for another winery) in 1882.  Most of the Italian grapes, like vermentino and aglianico, are grown at the original Home Ranch Vineyard that even has some 120-year-old vines.  Other grapes are sourced from Seghesio’s Keyhole Ranch or some of the 400-plus acres around Sonoma County. 

Seghesio's vineyards.
Zinfandel must be mentioned in the same breath as this producer since it produces so many quality options.  Seghesio sources zin from many different areas like Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Rockpile AVAs and then distributes all over the country.  However, some are only found in the tasting room outside of Healdsburg.

An entire lineup of Seghesio Zinfandels.
Spotlight Wines:
2014 Vermentino—a fairly unique wine to be found in California, this classic Italian grape is grown in the Russian River Valley.  Juicy pear lingers on the nose, with the pear coming through on the palate, as well.  The wine finishes with a refreshing grass flavor.

Vermentino and other Italian varietal wines.
2011 Venom—the sangiovese grapes for this wine are sourced from the hillside of Rattlesnake Hill, hence the name Venom.   My fellow lovers of red Italian wines will enjoy this take on the grape.  Bold with vibrant and silky tannins, the ripe red fruits carry this to a lovely finish.

2012 Old Vine Zinfandel—one of the best known and most popular zins from Seghesio, this zinfandel comes from vines planted anywhere from 1890 to 1930, truly old.  Just a small percentage of petite sirah gives great fruit components to the wine.  Add in the finish that lasts forever, and this is a wine that you will want to drink now; however, this could age for up to ten years.

Another Italian family, the Foppianos, began making wine in 1896, when Giovoni started selling his wine the old-fashioned, Italian way—customers bringing in their own jugs to fill.  Fast forward to today as the fifth generation of Foppianos, Paul and his family, still own and operate the winery. 

The winery and surroundings continue to show historic importance.  Many of the old orchard trees still dot the property producing figs and avocados.  The picnic area shares space with the large, elderly walnut tree.  
The old walnut tree in Foppiano's picnic area.
The winery itself still has one of the original redwood tanks and built-in concrete fermenting wall units.  Though neither of these vessels are currently in use, the redwood tanks are a part of the winery…as the ceiling and walls of the tasting room.

Redwood tanks and the wall of cement fermenters. 
History is front and center here for one main reason: the Foppianos survived prohibition…barely.  In 1926, wine was still being produced by the family.  A tip gave the heads up that a federal agent was on his way to Foppiano Vineyards.  With the advanced notice, over 100,000 gallons of wine was dumped alongside the road.  Neighbors came from all around so that not all of this product would be “wasted”; the family’s historic pictures document that some was put to good use…wink.

Family photo of the prohibition wine dump. 
Spotlight Wines:
2013 Della’s Block Chardonnay—from the block of chardonnay vines named for Louis J.’s wife and Joe’s daughter, this is a rich chardonnay (one hundred percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation) with the essence of sweetness from the tropical fruit on the palate and nose. A fair hint of butter continues to show through the fruit.

2012 Estate Pinot Noir—Russian River Valley pinot noir lovers (like me) will rejoice with this perfect example of the region’s wine.  The cooler area lets the blackberry and eucalyptus come through on the palate and the nose.  Earth and spice are also strong with a fabulous floral finish.  This is a delicate yet complex pinot...just how I like it. 

2012 Estate Petite Sirah—beautiful petite sirah vines surround the picnic area behind the tasting room.  These gorgeous grapes offer another great California petite sirah:  inky, purple color followed by ripe berries, chocolate, and earth.  Smooth and silky tannins show from the first sip until the finish dissipates. 

Gorgeous petite sirah vines and grapes...then wine.

There is a very tight web woven between the early European wine makers who settled the Sonoma area and modern day wine there.  Sonoma’s diversity today owes much to the melting pot of these cultures that brought their close relationships with wine to northern California.  Though Sonoma’s road to modern-day winemaking was not an easy one, these historically important wineries show Sonoma’s exceptional quality…yesterday, today, and tomorrow.