A field report from Bubble City, USA
Which do you like when faced with these choices: Texture or power? Elegance or strength? Beguiling softness or bold dominance? Does the same side of each question attract you more than the other? These are the questions that haunt every adventurer wading into the field of fine sparkling wine and Champagne, and perhaps, other areas of life, too, right? It is good to know what you like.
Ultimately, your favored sparkling wine flavor comes down to your personal style and the core grape varieties that make up the blend of the finished wines.
This story is about the former: textural, elegant, softer sparkling wines, but I appreciate great and powerful wines from the other side, too. If you are on the side that adores power and strength, can you appreciate the beauty of a gorgeous texture, too? If so, then this set of tasting notes will suit your fancy as well.
For many people, it’s the latter’s bold flavors of power, strength, and dominating acidity that make up the favored flavor profile of most sparkling wines on the planet. Typically, these wines are labeled “brut,” “natural,” and sometimes denoted as “blanc de blanc.” These wines finish very dry and are usually made from a larger percentage of, or completely with, chardonnay, with its bold tart apple and lemony quality shining through.
Yet for a select few folks, it’s the charm of texture, elegance and beguiling softness that occasionally call for a more nuanced approach and romance. These rare wines are made with a larger percentage of pinot noir and called “rosé” and in the slightly more mainstream and regularly seen “blanc de noir.” Knowing which you like is important for the big days when sparkling wine is called for, like most evenings.
Additions to sparkling wine matter. Typically in rosé, a small amount of the still red wine is blended back into the wine at bottling for extra color, texture, and flavor. In rose, blanc de noir and to a lesser extent in brut bottlings, a small amount of sweet wine, called “dosage,” is blended in just before the wine is finished.
These additions balance the wine into true-to-type palatable beverages. In Natural and often in blanc de blanc wines, there is little to no additional sweetness to round out the flavors. Knowing how much sweetness to add back so the wines balance beautifully with the fruit only comes with experience from the winemakers, called chef de cave in the European sparkling wine world. The concept of a chef knowing how much herbs or pepper to add to a cooked dish isn’t that far off from a chef de cave knowing how much dosage to add to sparkling wine. Just like a food chef, while correct dosage can be learned, some have “it” and some don’t.
Today, we are looking at and tasting all of the sparkling wines produced with a street address in Healdsburg. These sparkling wines shine like never before from vineyards tucked-in along the old pasturelands near the Russian River in the Santa Rosa plain of central Sonoma County and around the county. Super excitingly and right now, these wines are simply the best on the planet outside of France, but sell for half the price of the European wines.
Our Sonoma County, and particularly Healdsburg-based sparkling wines, are truly the envy of the rest of the world. There are two reasons why: First, it’s the vineyards, of course. The old rows of grapes found around Healdsburg, planted wide and deep decades ago on the flatlands, produce wines with delicate acidity while showing the core of fruit flavors needed for great wines, hence the spectacular results. If you are looking for strawberry or raspberry aromas and a softer texture in the wine, you’ll want just a little bit of acidity, but not too much, and that is exactly what these older central Russian River vineyards offer, in spades. The prototypical lemon and rare apple tones burst forth from the vineyards who keep their crops low. Just perfect, like nowhere else to be found, these wines are total bargains to boot.
With an abundance of curiosity and an adventurous spirit, more and more wineries are trying off varieties like syrah, grenache, etc. It is a new bubbly world springing forth from the land. Secondly, there is the mystery of aging. Sparkling wine aging in the caves and wine cellars is called “en tirage.” The en triage process produces ‘toasty’ and enticing bakery-yeast like qualities, especially in the aroma. Conjure up the aroma of walking by your favorite bakery and you’ll get it, but en triage flavors are a delicate thing in wine.
For literally decades after the European Champagne houses started opening wineries here from the 1970s to the 1990s, this aging process was muffed. This region was renowned for missing the en-tirage point, creating old, overly toasty, and super expensive wines with little fruit tones and even lesser joy. Perhaps the mystery to why the wines were over-aged for the fruit balance had to do with the younger vineyards, though? Or, could the chef de cave be working from European formulas for aging and not based upon the actual flavors? It happens in wine. Just think of how many cabernet sauvignons are over oaked, fruit-less, super expensive and not really fun to drink. Why do they do that? It is a life mystery to me. It’s as if there is a collective brainwashing about what is good, true and right. Collective brainwashing happens around here sometimes, doesn’t it?