Bubbling under the surface: Californian sparklers

18th July, 2013 by db_staff - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2
Arnaud Weyrich, Roederer Estate

Arnaud Weyrich, Roederer Estate

BIG HITTER
The largest quality producer and biggest exporter is Roederer Estate in Philo, 80 miles further north in Mendocino County. Its production of 100,000 nine-litre cases annually, of which 10% are exported, is dwarfed by Louis Roederer’s Champagne output, but the ethos is similar. Arnaud Weyrich, vice president and winemaker at Roederer Estate, explains: “As there are no regulations in California on how to make sparkling wine, we rely heavily on the French quality standards to craft traditional method sparkling wine.” His export strategy is simple: “Being present on the main export markets – Europe, Japan, Canada and China – and showcasing the best possible New World sparkling wine.” Unlike its peers, Roederer’s famous Quartet NV is not vintage-dated: the more northerly location necessitates more rounding from foudre-aged reserve wines. There is no hard and fast rule on malolactic fermentation, just that the dosage is slightly higher (12g per litre on average). Roederer Estate grows all of its own fruit on 194ha (107ha Pinot Noir, 87ha Chardonnay). Jackie Brown, senior brand manager in the UK of MMD Ltd, reports that despite its NV Champagne price point, “Quartet seems to have found its “own” category” where “national distribution is deliberately selective.” She has “definitely seen an increase” in both interest and sales, citing particularly the rise of American-styled restaurants. MMD is even considering bringing in magnums now. The link to Champagne still helps. “We make sure customers are aware of Quartet and its connection to Champagne Louis Roederer. It’s such a strong link and generates confidence,” she says. James Hocking, director of wine at The Vineyard Group, Schramsberg’s UK distributer, echoes this: “The trade, in particular independent retail, seems to be considering Californian sparkling wine for the first time now. London steak houses are moving good quantities, plus a recent listing at Hedonism Wines underpins the quality of the wine. Generally speaking, we are selling more this year than last.”sparkling-wine-table2

Eileen Crane, Domaine Carneros

Eileen Crane, Domaine Carneros

SIZE LIMITATIONS
The smallest producer with a mere 23ha (Pinot Noir 14.5ha, Chardonnay 8.5ha) and a production of just 12,000 nine-litre cases is boutique operation Iron Horse Vineyards in the Green Valley AVA of Russian River. Winemaker David Munksgard who has been there since 1996 recounts that after years of trying to “downplay this beautiful fruit” he learned to embrace it and started at Iron Horse with the aim of making “an entirely different style – a Californian sparkling wine – and do the best we possibly can with that”. He has foresworn malolactic fermentation and knows his small parcels intimately – his vins clairs are strikingly different and palatable in their still state. “We are limited by the size of our estate, we grow what we make,” he says but concedes that they are trying to get to 15,000 cases per year. Joy Sterling, CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards, agrees: “Iron Horse would like to grow in export to establish ourselves as a global brand, but as is so often the case, our greatest strength – being estate bottled – also limits us on an international scale.”

Stateside, the challenge is to get people drinking sparkling wines not just on special occasions, as both Munksgard and Crane point out. Over here, the challenge is to convince people of the superior quality and value. While a chilled flute of Iron Horse would quickly accomplish that, Eileen Crane has a splendid idea: “Do you remember the Judgement of Paris?” she asks. “They staged a re-do of that and nobody’s ever put a sparkling wine in that,” she exclaims, “now this would change things.”

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