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Can California Make ‘Champagne?’

It’s a warm, sun-drenched late-summer afternoon in Sonoma and from the open-aired veranda that serves as the tasting room for Iron Horse Vineyards, one of California’s best sparkling wine houses, vines heavy with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes sprawl across hillsides in every direction. Joy Sterling, the founder of Iron Horse, is smiling as she surveys the property where 100 percent of the grapes used to make her wine grow. “Our vines are really happy. Just look at them. Every year is a vintage year in California.” Unlike in Champagne, which is so cold that only very warm years are declared a vintage or millésimé (other years, producers blend their wine from multiple years to create their house style or cuvée), in California the grapes have no problem reaching optimal ripeness.

Like most quality sparkling wine producers in California, Sterling makes her wine using the same time-consuming and labor-intensive method perfected in Champagne. But unlike in France, she doesn’t have to chaptalize, or add sugar to the fermenting fruit. The complexity that comes from methode champenoise combined with ripe, fully developed fruit makes for one complex and age-worthy bottle of wine.

“For us, it is all about terroir,” says Hugh Davies, proprietor of Schramsberg — currently celebrating its 150th anniversary — is the oldest sparkling wine house in California and, dating back to 1862, one of the first wineries of any sort in Napa Valley. He unfolds a map showing his vineyards dotted across Sonoma and Carneros. He can speak to the unique microclimate of each vineyard and tell you what time the fog settles in the evening and how many hours of sunshine each vineyard gets during the growing season. “We have something special here,” he says.

Eileen Crane, the winemaker for Domaine Carneros, (which is owned by French Champagne house Tattinger) encounters misconceptions about her wine on a daily basis. “A visitor once said to me, ‘This wine is good, but it’s not really Champagne.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not Champagne. And Champagne is not Carneros.’

Champagne is a wine, yes, but it is also a place. And like all grape-growing and wine-making regions, the French concept of terroir (a “sense of place” influenced by the climate, soil, geography as well as intangibles like culture and tradition) applies. Oz Clarke describes Champagne as “inhospitable” for growing grapes. “It is simply too cold, too windy, too rainy” (New Wine Atlas, p. 70). It is this cold, extreme environment that inspired the first, and still most famous  sparkling wine in the world. In California, the Sonoma Coast and Napa’s Carneros region are favored for growing grapes to be used in sparkling wine. Interpreted by experienced vintners, these wines also speak of a special, albeit sunnier place.

And just what makes California sparkling wine different than Champagne? Riper grapes means that even after 4-6 years of aging sur lie (in the bottle with the dead yeast cells from the second fermentation) the fruit is still robust, offering up citrus, strawberries and green apple. The aging, as in France, adds richness, finesse and complexity. The 2004 J. Schram is a perfect example.

In spite of Korbel’s unusual agreement to label their wines “California Champagne,” we will never make Champagne in California and that’s a good thing. Just as Champagne speaks of the place from which it comes, so to, we would argue, does California’s great sparkling wine.

California Sparkling Wines we highly recommend you try:

2007 Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée
2008 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 
2008 Domaine Careneros Brut Rosé 
2002 L’Ermitage Roederer Estate 
2001 Domaine Chandon étoile Tête de Cuvée  (I do not recommend buying any of the entry-level Chandon wines. They are not good examples of the great sparkling wine in California, but the étoile wines — originally blended for the on-site restaurant — are quite good.)