Grape Varieties

Beyond Cabernet: Sensational Sparkling Wine In Napa

11 June 2019

Domaine Carneros Winemaker Zak Miller

After meeting with Ivo Jeremaz of Grgich Hills winery in Napa, I resolved to give the famous valley more of a fair shake on this blog. I’ve mostly ignored Napa for the entirety of Odd Bacchus’s eight years of existence, and it’s time I gave one of the world’s most important wine regions a bit of attention. It didn’t take long for an opportunity to present itself.

Along with two other writers, I sat down to (a complimentary) lunch with Zak Miller, one of the few winemakers I’ve met whose name appears nowhere on his winery’s website. That’s no reflection on the quality of his work, however, as my dining companions and I were about to discover.

Miller doesn’t make Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, as one might expect from a Napa winemaker. Instead, he crafts superlative sparkling wines, wines that could compete with top Champagne any day. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a blind tasting, the bottlings he makes for Domaine Carneros might even top those of Taittinger, the Champagne house that founded the winery in 1987.

If you’ve ever driven between Napa and San Francisco, you’ve almost certainly seen Domaine Carneros. It stands at the southern end of the valley, marked by an imposing chateau that looks transplanted straight from the Loire (in fact, the building dates from 1989). The Napa Valley is climatically a bit counterintuitive; it’s cooler at its southern end, where breezes from the Pacific have more of an influence. Cooler weather makes for better sparkling wine, because it’s important for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to retain ample acidity. If they ripen too much, the resulting bubbly will be unbalanced.

The Champagne region, in north-central France, famously uses Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in its sparkling wines, just as Domaine Carneros does. Pinot Meunier is also allowed in Champagne blends, but Miller uses none of it. “We don’t need insurance in Carneros,” he explained. In the less-predictable climate of Champagne, Pinot Meunier ends up in the wine when Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir fail to ripen properly. “Something like 50 percent of the Champagne region is planted with Pinot Meunier,” Miller said, “and yet you’ll almost never see it listed on the label!” Domaine Carneros uses only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because they tend to make higher-quality sparkling wines.

I knew California was capable of producing very good sparkling wine — reasonably priced Chandon regularly finds its way into my glass — but I hadn’t tasted very many truly great California sparklers. That changed with the first wine Miller poured, a 2012 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve” Blanc de Blancs. The 2012 is the current release of this 100-percent Chardonnay, the “tête du cuvée” (top wine) of Domaine Carneros.

All that time aging on the lees (yeast) gives it a sensational richness. One whiff, and I immediately knew I was about to drink something special. It had an enticingly toasty aroma, but it smelled lively as well. “This sees no oak,” Miller told us. “All the toastiness comes from the bottle-aging.” Lengthy bottle-aging is expensive — it costs a lot of money to wait for seven years to sell your wine — but the payoff in this case is huge. I loved the focused green-apple acids, the round fruit, the rich undergirding of toast… And the pin-prick bubbles felt thoroughly elegant. Le Rêve is expensive at $115 a bottle, but its flavor and texture live up to its price tag. What a gorgeous pairing with some tangy sourdough bread topped with fresh, creamy butter.

Miller tasting the Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir

If you’re looking to impress someone, this bubbly is an ideal choice. On the other hand, if I happened to have a bottle of Le Rêve on hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself drinking the entire thing alone. I’m an only child. Sharing is hard.

The less-expensive 2015 Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvée would be something that I might consider sharing, but only with someone I really, really like. At about $36 a bottle, this sparkler overdelivers in terms of flavor. I’ll take this wine over a $47 bottle of Veuve any day. “This has immediate sex appeal,” my friend Liz Barrett rightly noted. It smelled brighter than Le Rêve, but it still had some toastiness. It tasted juicy and clean, with some minerality on the finish (and some lime curd, as Liz detected). Another food-friendly wine, this bubbly blends 51 percent Chardonnay, 47 percent Pinot Noir and 2 percent Pinot Gris, which “lifts the aroma,” Miller explained.

Domaine Carneros also makes some excellent still wines. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, fragrant with black cherry and fresh herbs, like sage and bay. When I took a sip, it first felt rather ethereal, hovering over the palate before grounding itself with some focused baking spice and a touch of earth. It was an ideal pairing with some roast chicken breast. Good Pinot is expensive, and at $44, this wine isn’t cheap. But compared to Burgundy of similar quality, it’s an excellent value.

Meyer lemon tart with toasted meringue, frozen yogurt and chiffon “croutons” at Somerset

We finished lunch with a sparkling rosé, a style of wine I don’t ordinarily seek out. Rosé Champagne is terrifically expensive, and other sparkling rosés tend to leave me underwhelmed. The NV Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour, however, was racy and exciting. It smelled of lemon, red currant and rose, and it had zesty, sharply focused flavors of juicy lemons and pink apples. This bubbly was superb with our lemon tart dessert, which made the wine feel creamier. Madame de Pompadour introduced Champagne to the French court, and I’m sure she would have been very pleased with this selection.

Over the course of our lunch, Miller explained the effort that goes into making wines like these, but it really wasn’t necessary. The work was obvious as soon as I took a sip (or really, even as soon as I gave the wine a sniff). Champagne and Franciacorta arguably have the best reputations for bubbly, but as these bottlings by Domaine Carneros show, Europe does not have a monopoly on top-quality sparkling wine.

For more on Domaine Carneros, check out Liz Barrett’s article about these wines here.

Note: These wines and the lunch were provided free of charge.

Putting Napa On The Map

16 May 2019

Napa doesn’t get a lot of coverage on Odd Bacchus. Its Chardonnays and Cabernets are the antithesis of “the unusual and obscure.” Napa is the wine powerhouse of the United States, and it’s as famous as any other wine region. I wonder if there’s a single steakhouse any place on the planet that doesn’t have at least one Napa Cabernet on its wine list (steakhouses in countries that ban alcohol excepted)? No, Napa’s wines are world-famous and very popular.

But it wasn’t always so. Indeed, very much within living memory, Napa was a vinous backwater. The name “Napa,” which nowadays connotes serious wines and serious luxury — there is no shortage of hotels in the valley that charge upwards of $1,000 a night — connoted little of anything to most people as recently as the early 1970s. France produced the world’s greatest wines, and that was that. Napa was small potatoes.

Then, in 1976, Steven Spurrier organized the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris” tasting, as it’s now known. He gathered six Napa Chardonnays and four Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies (also Chardonnay, of course), and had nine French wine critics and sommeliers blind-taste them. He did the same with several Napa Cabernets and top Bordeaux wines. The tasters were shocked, even outraged, to learn that their first choices of wines, both red and white, came from California.

The 2008 film dramatizing the event, “Bottle Shock,” ranks as one of my favorite wine-themed movies. Far better than “Sideways,” the popularity of which continues to mystify me.

In any case, although the French press refused to report on the event for quite some time, the tasting sent shock waves around the wine world and put Napa on the map. The winner of the Chardonnay tasting, Chateau Montelena, had Mike Grgich as its winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay beat out some of the very best white Burgundies, a feat which still impresses me, considering how much I love white Burgundy.

Although many disputed the statistical validity of the tasting, it left no doubt that Napa could produce world-class wines, and Grgich bore no small amount of responsibility for that. He went on to found Grgich Hills Estate, in partnership with the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and he still has a hand in making its wines.

But most of the winemaking responsibility now belongs to his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, who, like Grgich, was originally born in Croatia (the Grgich family has a second winery there, which makes excellent Pošip and Plavac Mali). Liz Barrett and I recently had the chance to interview Jeremaz on our web series, Name That Wine, and taste three of his bottlings. He farms his vineyards organically and strives for elegance in the bottle, not just power.

I sometimes poo-poo Napa Cabs and Chards, but I can’t deny that I loved these wines. I was also impressed by Jeremaz’s Zinfandel. Zins can often be ponderous jam bombs, but the Grgich Hills version managed to be ripe as well as light on its feet. I suppose it makes sense that Jeremaz produces a great Zinfandel; the grape originated in his home country. Making a graceful Zinfandel happens in the vineyard, I learned, and it’s fascinating to hear how he does it:

What a joy to taste these wines, and considering the balance and richness they deliver, they’re awfully good values for the money. Good value Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa? Who would have guessed?

And as for the statistical validity of the tasting… Well, Francophiles kept trying to redo the tasting in the hopes of getting different results. Arguing that French wines age better than American wines, some wine critics repeated the tasting two years later, in 1978, holding the tasting in San Francisco. The three top Chardonnays and the three top Cabernets in this tasting were all American (the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay placed second this time, after a 1974 Chalone).

Lest you think that not enough time had elapsed for the French wines to show their age-worthiness, the French Culinary Institute held an anniversary tasting in 1986. They blind-tasted the same vintages of Cabernets and Bordeaux from the same wineries as in the original 1976 tasting. Napa Cabernets from Clos Du Val and Ridge earned the top two places.

But is 10 years really enough time? Perhaps, given a little longer, the results would be different? Spurrier organized a 30-year-anniversary tasting in 2006, opening up those same Cabernet and Bordeaux bottlings from the same 1970s vintages as before. This time, all five of the top ten slots were awarded to Napa Cabernets. Haut-Brion, for example, came in eighth!

That’s four separate tastings, and in all of them, Napa wines came in first. I’m no statistician, but I’m sensing a trend.

You can read about the tastings in more detail here.

I’ve written about Bordeaux and Burgundy on this site with some frequency. Perhaps it’s time I give Napa a little more of a shot. It certainly was a great pleasure to meet Ivo Jeremaz and taste his Grgich Hill wines, especially since they come with such a memorable story.

Now if only someone would offer to help with those $1,000-a-night hotels…

Note: The wines tasted in this episode of Name That Wine were provided free of charge.

Why Altitude Matters In Wine

23 April 2019

Vineyards in Salta

There’s something of a fashion for wine from higher-altitude vineyards nowadays, perhaps coinciding with the fashion for cool-climate wines. I’m not one to follow fashions, of course, but in this case, I’m all for it. One of the reasons the wines of Argentina achieve such richness and fruitiness is because of the altitude of the vineyards.

Mendoza is already getting up there, set at the foot of the Andes at about 3,000 feet above sea level. But lesser-known Salta gets even higher, with vineyards at upwards of 6,000 feet.

But who cares? Why is altitude important?

I consulted my Oxford Companion to Wine, which had this to say about Salta, for example: “Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.”

Many argue that the diurnal temperature shift (the difference between the daytime and nighttime temperatures) at higher elevations help grapes ripen while maintaining their acidity, as opposed to grapes ripened somewhere uniformly warm, where they might simply end up too sugary.

But how much does elevation really come through in the flavor? Does it make a palpable difference, or is it just another marketing ploy? We did a highly unscientific experiment to determine the answer, blind-tasting a Norton Malbec from Mendoza and a higher-elevation Amalaya Malbec from Salta. Let’s see if we can tell which is which!

Get Out Of Your Wine Rut

30 March 2019

Looking at the number of grape varieties about which I’ve written — I count some 146 — it seems almost unbelievable that I could find myself in a wine rut, but it happens even to me. It’s easy to pop into my favorite wine store, grab a couple of my standard bottles and scoot, without giving the new items on the shelf much thought. My current go-to wines may sound rather exotic — Félicette Grenache Blanc and Ivanović Prokupac, for example — but I’ve bought dozens and dozens of bottles of each. They’re not exotic to me, they’re just comfort wines.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort wines, of course, but I have a feeling that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in escaping whatever sort of wine rut you’re in and tasting something new. The problem, I realize, is that unless you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have a hard time homing in on the wine that’s right for you. Let’s say you like light and bright Pinot Grigio, but you’re ready to try something else. Are you supposed to look at the list of 146 grape varieties on the right side of this page, and hope that the one you choose to read about will suit you? How would you guess that I would suggest trying, say, Verdicchio, which isn’t even on the list? There’s no way to get there from here.

In fact, most blogs aren’t set up to help people with that sort of dilemma. So on a recent episode of Name That Wine, Liz and I decided to address that problem. We talk about several popular grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others, and suggest alternatives that will likely give you the same satisfaction:

Now I just have to figure out what a good substitute for Prokupac is…

Next Page »