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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?

Now, with more mature vineyards and really some courageous and bold winemakers who are throwing off the old formulas, led primarily by Rack and Riddle but now spilling over across the Santa Rosa plain to pretty much all the chefs, en triage timing has suddenly come into balance and spectacular, fruitful, complex and delicious results are super-excitingly found in most of the sparkling wine bottles all around here. Older vineyards with quality fruit entering the wineries; bold, courageous and experienced winemakers who are finally tasting the fruit; and a revised general understand of the dosage and en triage levels needed to create gorgeous wines in both the lemony crisp or soft strawberry and textural wine styles are all coming together right now to create exciting revolutionary times in the Healdsburg sparkling wine scene. It is an ever expanding and rising circle of light for Healdsburg sparklers. These are our tasting notes.

Amista sparkling syrah
Amista sparkling syrah

Amista Vineyards

3320 Dry Creek Rd, Healdsburg, CA.

A lovely outside tasting area is highlighted by crisp, professional service, making this a rewarding stop in Middle Dry Creek. “Every day, everything should start with sparkling wine,” says the owner, Vicki Farrow.

NV Blanc de Blanc. Score: 92. This hits the right nerve for every point of blanc de blanc, bold lemon tones, crisp acidity and strong finish. Spring skiing down The Headwaters, everything is cold, crisp and sunny.

NV Sparkling Grenache. Score: 93. An idiosyncratic wine - nobody else is making this, but they could. It shows more red fruit tones and with a plush mouthfeel, this is fun. Matisse cutout, The Sheaf in all of its fun glory.

NV Sparkling Mataro. Score; 94. Glorious and delicious in its core, this wine is neither overwrought or heavy on the palate. Inviting aromas scream: It’s cherry season!

NV Sparkling Syrah. Score: 96. This wine is fantastic, with berry and gobs of fruit at its core. It’s like, why would anyone ever make another heavy and insipid still Syrah instead of just doing this?

Bacigalupi Vineyards

4353 Westside Road, Healdsburg.

This icon winery for chardonnay has quietly been making exquisite sparkling wine (93 points - NV brillianté last time around) for their tasting room/wine club crowd for a number of years. Super secretly on the down-low, they are about to release a revolutionary experimental new brillianté, a blanc de noir with a dosage of … instead of sweet wine or sugar… local honey! Not a mead, just a kiss of nature in a blanc de noir. I’ll be first in line, but you can be second. Expected release late summer 2021. Experimentation in Bubble City continue to amaze.

Breathless blanc de noirs
Breathless blanc de noirs

Breathless

499 Moore Lane, Healdsburg.

This is winery is an homage from the founders, a group of sisters, to their Mom and the breathless moments she created for their lives. No other winery can lay claim to the heart of the Sparkling wine revolution in Healdsburg like the Breathless family of companies. The exuberant wines shy away from lemony power in favor of elegant soft textures. The fun winery patio has expert service that doesn’t over describe the wines, leaving impressions to the visitor to conjure up for themselves - first rate service! From sitting in the bubble on a winter’s day to learning to saber-sword the top off a sparkling wine bottle, this winery is a must stop for all Sonoma County wine aficionados, period. The wines really will take your breath away…

NV Brut. Score: 96. 53% PN, 39% chardonnay, 8% pinot meunier. Gorgeous layered complexity, soft plush mouthfeel and mild baker’s yeast mid-palate and pleasant acidity on the finish. It’s a candlelight, and anything else you can imagine.

NV McMinn Vineyard Blanc de Blanc. Score: 97. A natural (zero dosage) with 4 years en tirage, it is in very short supply. Spectacular blanc de blanc chardonnay apple tones with only a trace of lemon. A scallops and browned butter kind of night.

NV Blanc de Noir. Score: 96. 87% PN, 13% pinot Meunier. Divine bubbler with a soft core of decadent berry and a subtle and smooth finish. This is iconic modest priced blanc de noir with softer textures and elegance for the right price. The moment when you see him/her and you know.

NV Rosé. Score: 94. Can you say raspberry and white chocolate decadence cake? Soft, fruitful, strawberry with a touch of balsamic in a great way. This cat’s meow. Do you have a cat’s meow, too?

NV Robledo Vineyard, Blanc de Noir. 99 Points. 100 % pinot noir. Four years en tirage. This is the extremely rarely seen soft textural mouthfeel in a drier wine, with beautiful berry fruit tones in perfect balance to the natural acidity. Everyone has a choice, every day, you really do. Choose happiness, every day.

NV Sparkling Moscato. 91 Points. Deft touch on the moscoto aroma with mild and lovely fruit tropical fruit tones and a dry fruitful finish. Hot days, cilantro foods, great friends and laughs.

Cartograph Wines

340 Center St., Healdsburg, CA.

In-town wine tasting room with pretty decor and nice, competent help, this is a solid destination for any tasting room crawl. The owner’s take on the revolution? It is really interesting how these new dry, but fruitful wines are coinciding with the changes in the vineyards from climate change. Hmmm. Interesting owner here…

2013 Rosé. Score: 92. 5 years en tirage. This wine might be better labeled rose of blanc de blanc, for it is 100% chardonnay base wine with just a touch of still pinot noir added at bottling. Hence the wine’s color is pale salmon, almost a shade of pale light carrot in color - beautiful (!) and its core is a very dry, crisp and lemony wine with bold fruit tones that stand up to the extended aging, but is has a wrapping of softer pinot noir tones - again an interesting take. It’s like an old 50/50 bar, but lemon instead of orange; is it lemon or is it cream? Quite good and different.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery

300 Via Archimedes, Healdsburg, CA.

This winery isn’t just for movie buffs, tucked in and around the place you’ll find wine bargains galore for regular people, too.

NV Poolhouse Brut Rosé. Score: 90. If a wine tastes really good, and it’s priced at $16.00 and everything else is over twice as much, there are extra points for affordability. This is light, refreshing strawberry and raspberry tones and a trace of acidity, but really - it’s a pool thing. Spanish cava meets California fruit.

NV Sophia Brut Rose. Score: 90. The flagship wine for the line, its moderate complexity and depth holds up, but like it’s fun brethren, a bargain under $20.

Jeff Cohn Wines. 34 North St., Healdsburg, CA. An old pro takes a swing at the revolution with a Taval inspired sparkling rosé and hits a home run. New tasting room opening soon in town should have lines around the block to get in here.

2017 “Iris” Brut Rosé GSM. Score: 98. Deftly balanced at 23 months en triage Jeff didn’t overshoot the fruit but married the strawberry aromas to the light dry toast tones. How brilliant is this? When a job is done right, what do you do? Just raise your eyebrows, nod your head and smile, smile, smile.

Davis Family Wines

52 Front St, Healdsburg, CA.

How great is this place? Pretty darn fantastic. No visit to Healdsburg for any reason would be complete without a stop at this wine tasting room, located just above the river. The staff is outstanding, the wines can be spectacular, the vibe is cool.

2016 Blanc de Noir. Score: 92. Four years en triage. Bright salmon/pink colored. This is a bold and crisp wine with a delicious tart strawberry, almost pomegranate core - such a lovely wine. Late weekend brunch; strawberry crepes and in the background Bill Frisell - Keep your eyes open for this wine.

2017 Rosé. Score 96. 3 years en tirage. *Note, this singular wine, first tasted at the 2018 barrel tasting weekend, was the impetus for this story three years later. It is the hallmark of the Russian River sparkling wine revolution. Multiple layers of bold dry berry and mixed fruit tones wrapped with very mild complexity - a deft touch on the brioche/toast balance focused on the fruit. A symphony in a bottle.

Foppiano Vineyard

12707 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg.

With Rob McNeill at the helm, our favorite local throwback winery gets a huge boost with a brand new sparkling wine program to highlights its 125th year in town! What a blessing for the rest of us from Foppiano Vineyards. This is the 1st release.

2017 rosé. Score: 96. Straight up cherry/strawberry tones with a lovely bead of tiny bubbles and toast correctly in the background to the fruit. Foppiano is back! While the sparklers are pricey, and this place is still our growler winery, Foppiano is suddenly flashing a bit of panache around Bubble Town.

J Vineyards

11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, CA.

Simply one of the most exciting wineries to visit right now in Sonoma County. If you’ve never been, it is the summer to experience this wonderful 30-year-old facility. This winery has been on the cutting edge of Sonoma County sparkling wine and is still true to that exacting vision.

XB Non-Vintage. Score: 93. Citrus peel and tiny bubbles. Everyone is perfectly happy. Oysters on Limantour, or Fire Island, or the beach of your dreams, this wine works.

2016 J Blanc de Noir. Score: 94. Notes: Bold mousse of dried strawberry and lingering strawberry jam on brioche. Picasso’s painting “The Dance of Youth” on the palate.

2016 J Rosé. Score: 97. Notes: Softer on the palate with beautiful rose and mild berry tones carried by gentle acidity. A pillow of rose petals on which you can rest in the softly filtered light.

2016 Blanc de Blanc. Score 93. Crisp tart green apples full of joy in the bottle with moderate toast, this is excellent blanc de blanc wine. Bingo! Hey look down, there’s $40 on the street!

Cuvee 20. Score: 97. 50% chardonnay, 50% pinot noir. A glorious wine. Layers of light lemon and mild brioche tones that is simply divine. Just out of the oven gruyere gougéres and an all-knowing wink and a smile.

2012 Late Disgorged. Score 94. Rich and bright citrus background with moderate of toasted bread tones. Sole doré with beurre blanc sauce and capers.

2011 Vintage, (Magnum bottling). Score 97. Glorious lemon and bread tones marry with surprisingly plush mouthfeel. This bottling is consistently one of Sonoma County’s premier sparkling wines. Lemon/graham cracker bars anyone? A clutch of daisies and a summer dress in the meadow.

La Crema

3575 Slusser Rd, Windsor.

The old winery has moved to Windsor, but they still get counted in Healdsburg with their sparkling wine and heritage here.

NV Brut Rose. Score: 93. This is a brisk lovely sparkler with pleasing tart dried raspberry tones and bright acidity on the finish. This could be great with a seafood salad or even a halibut steak with a creamy sauce at my favorite restaurant - my kitchen on a Saturday night! What’s cookin’ at your favorite place? La Crema rosé wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Longboard Vineyards

5 Fitch Street, Healdsburg.

Internationally renowned winemaker with decades of working with Sonoma County sparklers at the helm, super fun tasting room; it is all about puppies, surfboards and bubbles.

NV Brut. Score: 91. 60% chardonnay, 40% pinot noir, neutral barrel fermented. Old school, traditional sparkling wine, focused on the creamy yeast and bread. This is an anachronism to the new wave of fruit forward wines, and yet worthy of your attention. Settling into a familiar old chair and spinning the old record, you know every note, times have passed and yet you still gotta love the sound of it all.

NV Rosé. Score: 94. 60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay. Bold, delicious, assertive flavors of strawberry and earthy complexity combined. Quality wine for sure. Strawberry and cream cheese on toast, but I’d go crazy for a good vindaloo right about now. Spectacular wine.

Meeker Vineyards

5 Fitch Street, Healdsburg.

How much fun has this place been for decades? No trip to Healdsburg would be complete without a little peek inside to see what adventures this winery is up to. With the exciting new young wines, it’s easy to say “this isn’t your father’s winery anymore.”

Verdejo Pet Nat. Score: 96. Freakishly delicious, this wine is Hazy IPA meets Dom Perignon. Lemony bold and leesy with aggressive, glorious fruit tones. I’ll kneel at the altar of this bottle and pray for more.

Pinot Noir Pet Nat. Score 93. Bright and tart with solid strawberry underpinnings. Sunny day, good wind, out on the boat with the gang.

Notre Vue Estate Winery

11010 Estate Lane, Windsor.

Technically a Windsor address but if you drive up the long and winding road, it’ll lead to your heart and the frontier of Healdsburg and Chalk Hill.

2019 GSM. Score: 91. Bright salmon colored GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvedre blend) this wine has pretty aromas of plum and almond. On the palate, there is bright acidity balanced fruit tones that aren’t overwrought in any direction. A solid and delicious sparkler.

Thomas George brut rosé
Thomas George brut rosé

Thomas George Estates

8075 Westside Road, Healdsburg.

One of Healdsburg’s best kept secrets, this astounding winery is pushing the envelope for premier wines across its portfolio.

2015 Brut Rosé. Score: 98. Strawberry and violets abound in the light airy aroma. The wine is brisk and boldly dry and pleasing, all at once finishing like a cranberry firecracker. This is delicious. Miles Davis meets Jacques Pepin in a glass. There is genius at work here.

West Wines

1000 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg.

Shhh, don’t tell anyone about this place. Nobody knows about it. Everyone just drives on past to get Up Valley. It is completely empty on Saturday afternoons. The wines are spectacular. Especially don’t tell anyone about both viognier wines. This place will be our secret.

Seafoam blanc de blanc
Seafoam blanc de blanc

2016 Seafoam Blanc de Blanc. Score: 96. Bold elegant wine with perfect dosage. This could be about $100 and I wouldn’t bat an eye, it’s the classic rendition of excellent Healdsburg sparkling wine. Crisp lemon flavors with lingering soft, brilliant lemon and caper tones. Every appetizer on the planet will go with this wine. Every party you can think of will go with this wine. Every romantic evening will go with this wine. Seafoam is great.

Bill Williamson, Williamson Wines
Bill Williamson, Williamson Wines

Williamson Wines

18 Matheson & 124 Matheson, Healdsburg.

These tasting rooms have offered full tasting experiences with some of the most knowledgable staff in the county for some time. A stop here is sophisticated eye opener, every time.

NV Fizz. Score 98. This may be one of the best predominately chardonnay (60%) based sparkler in the county. With lower yields in the vineyards and a deft hand in the cellar, fizz is one of the only wines to display the natural apple flavors (vs lemony acidity) that is so exuberant in the grapes. Spectacular wine. Pair with anything before dinner, during dinner and after dinner too. More fizz, please!

NV Bliss. Score 95. 100% shiraz (syrah). Bold delicious wine highlighted by blueberry tones and bright acidity that balances perfectly with the fruit. This wine would make just about any full-bodied dish shine from marinara sauces to full on meat dishes.

NV Bubbles. Score 95. 100% Malbec. The fruit just pops on this wine, with a trace of almost chocolate like depth and concentration. The grill is on, feet in the pool, hanging out and laughing with everyone, this is perfect.

Wilson Winery

1960 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg.

This is the country wine tasting setting in our dreams.

NV Keneth Clark Brut. Score 93. 72% chardonnay, 24% pinot noir, 4% pinot meunier. Massive toast and lees match up with Anderson Valley chardonnay. This is old school all the way, mimicking a mid-weight bottle from Rheims. It is a classic wine in the throwback style.

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