Mumm staffers celebrating the first grape harvest or 2012

Harvest 2012 Begins With a Bang

Sparkling wine houses welcome the first grapes of the year

On Friday, Aug 10 at 11 a.m., a rubber-boot-clad army of eager employees gathered on the crush pad of Mumm in Napa Valley to welcome the arrival of the first grapes of 2012: pinot noir from the Gamefarm Vineyard in Yountville. Winemaker Ludovic Dervin celebrated the beginning of harvest by sabering a bottle of 2003 DVX and showering its contents over the freshly picked fruit. If you were looking for a splashy photo-op though, you were out of luck, because Mr. Dervin is very good at sabering, a little too good, in fact — he slashed off the cork and bottle top with such practiced dexterity that not a drop was lost until he doused the grapes. However, the more messy celebratory popping of many corks and the drinking of many bubbles followed.

Thanks to an incredible diversity of climates in Northern California, we’re blessed with the ability to not only grow many different grape varieties, but also make many different styles of wine, including what many might say is the best kind of wine in the world: sparkling. Grapes for sparkling wine are typically harvested between 18 and 20 Brix (grapes for still wine typically have more sugar: between 21 and 26 brix), making them the first grapes to be picked each year. When sparkling wine houses begin picking, we know that harvest for everyone else is just around the corner. The week of August 6 signaled the beginning of the 2012 harvest as both Mumm Napa and Domaine Chandon received their first deliveries of fruit.

Growing grapes for sparkling wine is completely different than growing grapes for still wine. “The key for making great bubbly is for the grapes to stay on the vine long enough to be fully mature at lower sugar levels,” says Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards in Green Valley, Sonoma. “That takes a cool climate for slower ripening. And, just as there is a certain region of France deemed best for Champagne, here too in California there are areas that are cool enough – the Central Coast, Carneros, Russian River (most specifically Green Valley) and Anderson Valley in Mendocino, which, moderated by the ocean and the incursion of fog, make bubbly with great finesse.”

Picking early, at lower brix and higher acidity is key. “We are looking for a different flavor profile than for still wine,” says Eileen Crane, the winemaker for Domaine Carneros. “If you imagine a chardonnay that was just made into bubbly wine, it would have all the finesse, acidity and balance that you typically associate with a fine sparkling.”

“At lower brix, acidity is higher, which we need for our wines to have the vibrant structure we are renowned for,” says Tom Tiburzi, the winemaker for Domaine Chandon. Because methode Champenoise sparkling wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, it’s important to start with a base wine that is lower in alcohol (about 11.5 percent according to Dervin.) “Fine sparkling wine gains 1.2 to 1.5 percent more alcohol in the bottle,” says Crane. “A standard chardonnay put in a bottle for a secondary fermentation would go from 13.8 to 15 percent alcohol. This would be clunky and hot,” says Crane.

The pinot noir that Mumm Napa brought to the crush pad this week had great complexity of flavors, according to Dervin. While he is not concerned with the ripeness of the skins and seeds (because the grapes will be pressed for Mumm’s blanc de noirs), he was tasting only the pulp, which tasted of raspberry and strawberries with some dark fruit character as well thanks to hot Napa Valley afternoons. While makers of still pinot noir prefer small clusters and small berries, which increases the skin to juice ratio, sparkling wine producers favor just the opposite: big juicy berries and big clusters. The canopies of vines growing sparkling wine grapes will typically provide more shade for the fruit as well. A vintage that is terrible for say, cabernet sauvignon, can be great for sparkling wine.

“Last year we had a pitifully small crop, which ripened quickly,” says Sterling. “This year’s crop promises to be a ‘proper’ crop. We are estimating 2.5 to 3 tons to the acre.” Domaine Carneros, which makes wine exclusively from organically farmed vineyards in Carneros, is likewise anticipating a good or at least “normal” vintage for sparkling wine: “At this point, the harvest looks normal. The pinot noir appears to be an average size crop, while the chardonnay is light or small.  We expect a very favorable vintage,” says Crane. At Chandon, “Fruit-flavor development is strong and despite occasional heat spikes during the day, nights have been cool helping keep acidity high.”

Besides being a great time to start making sparkling wine, August is also a great time to be drinking it. It’s light, refreshing, celebratory and pairs incredibly well with all kinds of summertime cuisine, from ceviche to grilled meat.