How France influences California sparkling wines

Francophiles will tell you that joie de vivre, French for “joy of living,” is synonymous with the free-flowing bubbles dancing in every bottle of top-rate sparkling wine. And with a little imagination, these joie de vivre bubbles will transport you across the pond. You’ll hear French, a language that resembles silk, and you’ll see the glamorous street lamps that line the Seine and the swanky restaurants where poodles are treated like honored guests.

It’s not surprising that a French sensibility has been imported to Northern California, as there are more than a handful of sparkling wine houses with ties to a parent company in France. And there are many others, like Schramsberg Vineyards, that are independently owned but still rely on the traditional French method of producing bubbly.

The question is, what are these quirky marriages — these Franco-American matches that join both sides of the pond — creating in California when it comes to house style?

Are they more Californian in nature? More French? Twins, or an entirely new creation?

To learn more about the house styles of these Old World-New World marriages, we first spoke to the winemakers of sparkling wine houses with direct ties to France — Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Chandon and Mumm Napa.

We then talked to winemakers of four independently owned wineries that align themselves with the traditional French method of winemaking — Schramsberg Vineyards, Benovia Winery, Flaunt and Iron Horse Vineyards.

Most people are well aware that the term “Champagne” is traditionally reserved for bubbly from the Champagne region of France. Perhaps less well known is that the process of making Champagne, which dates back centuries, is widely used in the top sparkling wine houses across the globe. It’s called “méthode Champenoise,” and its pivotal step is full of magic: when the bubbles are created during the second fermentation and all the action happens right in the bottle.

In the simplest terms, the yeast goes on an eating binge, devouring the sugar. The byproducts of that binge are those delightful bubbles — carbon dioxide and the yeast particles that impart rich toasty flavors during aging. (See our sidebar on méthode Champenoise for the step-by-step process.)

All the winemakers we spoke to use the traditional French method when crafting their sparklers. But they’re working with California grapes which can be riper than their French counterparts, although that’s not always the case. So how does this puzzle out in house style? In other words, when you uncork a California sparkler, can you detect a French accent in your glass?

Domaine Carneros

The 2012 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs ($115) — elegant, delicate and well-balanced — is the best example of this winery’s house style, according to Eileen Crane, founding winemaker and CEO of Domaine Carneros.

The Napa sparkling wine house, which opened its doors in 1989, is owned in part by Champagne giant Taittinger. Built in the style of an 18th-century French chateau, it has marble floors and is crowned with chandeliers. But from the beginning, the vision was to create a fine American sparkler rather than recreate Taittinger French champagne, Crane explained.

“Claude Taittinger, then head of Champagne Taittinger, used the analogy that if Picasso had tried to imitate Renoir’s style, you would never have heard of Picasso,” she said. “He said imitations are never as good as originals.”

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