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Sparkling wine may be “hot,” but what does that really mean?

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Is there any wine category that’s had more ups and downs than sparkling wine?

Twenty, thirty years ago and more here in California, many of the French Champagne houses, looking forward to the coming Millennium (not the religious one, but the turn of the 21st century), believed so strongly that Americans were turning into a bubbly-drinking people, and would consume humungous quantities of it on the evening of Dec. 31, 1999, that they established wineries here. Taittinger went to Carneros, Moet & Chandon and Mumm to Napa Valley, Roederer to Anderson Valley, Maison Deutz to Arroyo Grande Valley, and I even remember when Laurent-Perrier was going to partner with Iron Horse, in the Russian River Valley. Not from Champagne but from Spain, Freixenet went to Sonoma and Codorniu to Carneros. Am I forgetting anyone?

Alas, Americans disappointed the Euro bubbly makers by not becoming a sparkling wine-consuming nation, and those wineries had to change business plans. Some, having already planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, went into the still wine business. It cannot have been an easy time for them.

But suddenly it seems like sparkling wine is “the hottest category in the world.” At least, that’s what the drinks business is reporting.

Granted, a lot of that popularity is driven by the fantastic success of Prosecco, a very nice wine that is affordable. Many people I know in my own circle always have a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge. Here in the U.S., the Wine Institute reports sparkling wine shipments increased 7% last year over 2014. That’s pretty good—a lot more than my (and probably your) checking account is paying. So how do we account for this new popularity of bubbly and, more importantly, will it last?

Well, Prosecco obviously is a huge part, but an even greater part is that Americans are finally realizing what some of us have been trying to get across forever: Champagne/sparking wine is not just for New Year’s Eve, weddings and anniversaries! It’s probably the most versatile wine in the world with every type of food imaginable, and it can fest up an ordinary occasion in a way still wine can’t. And I see no reason why this trend shouldn’t continue.

The big question for luxury producers—in California, I’m thinking of Schramsberg, Iron Horse and a few others—is how they can manage to sell more expensive wines. It is quite true that, objectively, a Schramsberg sparkling wine is better than a Prosecco, but that’s from a critic’s point of view. I’m not sure that the average consumer would discern that. Nor would he or she see any reason to spend $50 on bubbly when $17 will get them something fine. Can America truly become a sparkling wine-drinking country beyond Prosecco?


The problem with sparkling wine

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Good article from Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle exploring the challenges of sparkling wine in California, particularly the question of why our State doesn’t have a burgeoning grower-producer movement, the way Champagne (in France) does.

Esther points out the principle stumbling blocks: making sparkling wine is way expensive; the risk is high; why would consumers spend $40, $50 or more on an unknown brand when they can get tried-and-true Mumm Napa or Gloria (or Korbel for that matter) far more affordably?

These are all real problems that would-be champagnistas in California have to face. I think another is simply that Americans are not [yet] a sparkling wine-drinking people. We were raised in the belief that bubbly is for weddings, New Year’s Eve and other special occasions, not an everyday table wine like Cabernet or Chardonnay. And let’s face it, the sparkling wine industry in America 50 years ago (such as it was) worked very hard to convey this very notion: that Champagne is the wine of celebration. Since most days are not celebratory ones for the average American, he or she can find little reason to drink sparkling wine on a regular basis.

Could we change that perception? Probably not anytime soon, because it’s so ingrained. But there’s another problem with sparkling wine, one that’s not talked about so much: it’s not really an everyday wine. It’s too assertive. The fizz grabs your attention so powerfully that bubbly just isn’t a drink that will play second fiddle to your food, the way most still reds, whites and rosés are. Bubbly is the diva of wine—a Mariah Carey who doesn’t like sharing the stage with anyone or anything else.

For this reason, I think I’d tire of sparkling wine on a consistent basis. As great as it can be—and it’s one of the supreme accomplishments of winemaking technique–it’s almost too much of a good thing, like too much butter or too much chocolate (yes, you can O.D. on fudge). I’d never tire of a good dry table wine. I could drink Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay every night for the rest of my days and still yearn for more. But not sparkling wine all the time. I have to be in the right mood for bubbly, and I’m not always. And I think, for most people, we get our spritz fix from beer.

Yes, I do keep a bottle in the fridge at all times. You never know when the bubbly bug will bite! And I do agree with Esther that it would be fabulously cool to see a grower-producer sparkling wine movement in California. There’s plenty of vineyard acreage out there for it, and an argument could be made to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in places where the grapes would never get ripe, like the far Marin coast, the area around Half Moon Bay and even parts of Big Sur; after all, true Champagne is made from grapes that are considered unripe for still table wine.

But who would do it? Who would invest the time and money on such a wager? American wine consumers don’t generally reward innovation. We stick with our favorite producers and varieties—we’re really very conservative in that regard. Producers such as Doug Stewart, whom Esther quotes in her article, are exactly what we need here in California: bold visionaries willing to push the boundaries so that California wine can get to the next level.

But even the most far-seeing visionary can’t do it by himself. He needs consumers willing to reward his risk with their hard-earned cash. And I agree with Doug Stewart: the market is not going to be receptive to grower-producer sparkling wines anytime soon, and not the least of the reasons is simply because sparkling wine is not an everyday drink. It might be in another America; not this one.


Bring on the bubbly

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This time of year, one thing is certain. No, not that the kids return to school (although they do, but that’s not what I’m talking about). What happens like clockwork in late summer is that the California sparkling wines start arriving on my doorstep.

I always assume it’s because the proprietors want a fresh new review for bragging rights in order to boost holiday season sales. It’s too bad that so many people think the only time to drink bubbly is Christmas-New Year’s Eve, but they do. I myself like a nice glass of Champagne or sparkling wine whenever I can get one. Champagne, for me, is a nighttime beverage. I love it as an aperitif sipper, especially before dinner in a nice restaurant, although it would not be my choice for a postprandial drink (that would be Port or a dessert wine, or even a cocktail). I’ve even been known, on a hot summer afternoon, to mix a little orange or cranberry juice with sparkling wine and throw in some sliced strawberries. Why not? (I don’t think that’s as bad as mixing Coca Cola with Lafite!)

California sparkling wine has always been very good, IMHO, at least since I’ve been reviewing it, which goes back to the 1990s. But I think quality has been getting better. Prior to 2000, the highest score I could give one was 91 points, to a Domaine Carneros 1993 Le Rêve, always a compelling wine. I gave 90 points to a Folie a Deux 1995 Brut. Do they still even make a sparkling wine?

It wasn’t until after the turn of the Millennium that I was able to give a higher score. That was 95 points, but it was for a Louis Roederer 1994 Brut, from Champagne, so it doesn’t count. (We hadn’t yet established our formal reviewing turfs at Wine Enthusiast back then.) However, in 2000 I gave 93 points for the first time to a California sparkling wine, Iron Horse’s 1991 Brut LD. Also the same point score to a pair of Domaine Chandons, both non-vintage: Etoile Brut and Etoile Rose. Those are still some of my favorite bubblies, and it just proves that a sparkler doesn’t have to be a vintage wine to excel.

This year by comparison, getting at least 90 points for California bubbly is as easy as falling off a log. I’ve rated 21 this year alone at 90 or higher, and there are still more prestige bottlings to come in during September and October, so I expect that number will rise significantly. Schramsberg has, as usual, headed my list, in terms of scores, followed by Gloria Ferrer (such a fine brand), but even Mumm Napa and Chandon, which are not usually included in most critics’ Best Of lists, have scored remarkably well, suggesting that those houses have invested seriously in upping their games. J Vineyards & Winery also has been excellent. As for Iron Horse, they’re the best ever. I don’t necessarily think it’s because of the vintages, because, for example, Iron Horse’s six new releases are from four different vintages, yet all the wines are wonderful.

What I like in sparkling wine is the mousse. I want the wine to glide over my palate, like silk on silk. It’s not hard for sparkling wine to achieve delicious, complex flavors. All you need is good fruit, proper lees treatment for that hit of brioche, acidity and some slight seasoning from wood. What’s hard is to achieve the right texture. My point scores are based almost exclusively on texture. Scores in the 87-90 range mean the wine is very good, but a little scoury, i.e. to me the bubbles feel too big and rough. The smaller and more refined the bubbles feel, the higher the score goes. I think a fine mousse also is necessary for sparkling wine to age. As for sweetness levels, they tend to be all over the place in California. I may be one of the few critics who likes zero dosage, but I can understand those who find the resulting wines too severe. On the other hand, there are some sparkling wines that taste too sweet to me, and seemed designed for palates that like some sugary soda. My own preference is in the middle, toward the drier side.


What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


‘Tis the season of the bubblies

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The sparkling wine is pouring in, literally. August marks the high point of my receipt of California champers, as producers hope that good reviews in October and November will lead to brisk holiday season depletions, “as the last eight weeks of the year account for one-third of annual [U.S.] sales” of sparkling wine.

You may not know it, but the sparkling wine industry has labored for years to figure out how to convince Americans to buy bubbly year-round, not just for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It’s not that they don’t want consumers buying it for the holidays; they just wish we’d drink as much of it between January-November as we do the last month of the year.

So why don’t we?

Well, for one, the sparkling wine industry has no one to blame but itself. For decades, it promoted bubbly as the wine of celebration: of weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, of winning a World Series or getting a promotion at the office, of buying a new home or concluding a treaty between nations, of toasting in the new year, of graduating university or launching a ship. In other words, a wine to drink just a few times a year. This is hardly a strategy designed to increase sales.

The worst offenders have been the French and the Californians. They just can’t figure out a way to persuade people to drink sparkling wine year-round, the way the Italians have with Prosecco or the Spanish have with cava. Of course, if you have an inexpensive brand like Korbel (average price: $13 for their basic brut, rosé, etc.), you’re likely to sell throughout the year (although the holidays still are peak time). But what of pricier bubblies? Schramsberg ’04 Reserve ($110), Iron Horse non-vintage Joy! ($189 the magnum), Chandon ’01 Etoile ($100), Domaine Carneros ’06 Le Rêve ($95) all are super-delicious, ageable wines I’ve recently reviewed (and scored at least 95 points), but oi, the sticker shock. Not that there’s anything exorbitant about a hundred bucks compared to Roederer ’05 Cristal ($249), Veuve Clicquot ’90 Cave Privée ($208) or Bolly ’04 Grand Année ($235), each of which my colleague Roger Voss recently scored at least 95 points; but those wines are, after all, Champagne; as Bordeaux is Bordeaux, Burgundy, Burgundy and Barolo, Barolo, the consumer is willing to get fleeced, no, make that willing to pay a premium for the privilege of knowing that he is drinking wines of great fame and historicity. But expensive California sparkling wine possesses neither.

Is this right, or fair? No. The best California sparkling wines are among the greatest of that category in the world. (I wish someone would set up a “Judgment of Paris”-type blind tasting between French Tête de Cuvée Champagne and the best of California. Count me in.) The problem is that the world doesn’t understand this. And that problem in turn goes back to the question of timing: If you’re only going to splurge on sparkling wine a couple times a year, it’s probably going to be French–even if it’s something as mediocre as Moët White Star.

Do people then drink with their palates, or their brains? All the evidence points to the latter. When we critics (some of us, anyway) taste blind, we try to eliminate the brain’s interpretive functions in such a way as to render the most objective possible judgment. Do we lose something, in the process, concerning the wine’s historicity, context and reclame–do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Probably. Blind tasting always opens itself to this critique (just as “open” tasting lends itself to the critique of bias).

But how we critics taste is less important than how consumers experience wine, which is by looking at the label and knowing what they’re drinking. If White Star lends a certain prestige to the occasion, it doesn’t really matter that it’s an 84 point wine. What the wine lacks organoleptically, it more than makes up for esthetically or intellectually: its divots, so the speak, are filled in by information: This is French Champagne, an elevating perceptual experience, as would be “I am sitting in George Clooney’s Tuscan villa and there he is, mixing me a martini, wearing a loose silk robe.” You could be drinking the exact same martini at your in-law’s, with Dad watching ESPN in his drawers, but the frisson wouldn’t be the same.

I started out talking about California sparkling wine and ended up with George Clooney in Tuscany. Somehow there must be a connection. Re-reading what I’ve written, I see that I made it sound as if California bubbly were confined to two tiers ($13 and $100) but of course that’s not true. We have a wide spectrum in the middle tier ($20-$30) that is probably superior in quality to French equivalents. (Chandon, Mumm Napa, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate in particular have been impressive the last few years.)

Despite the ambiguous attitude of Americans toward sparkling wine, we’re drinking more of it than ever before: 17.7 million cases last year, according to the Wine Institute. However, that generosity does not appear to be extending to the most expensive wines: while sales of California sparkling wine last year were the highest in at least 25 years, “Moscato based sparklers [drove] the growth.” My personal feeling is that high-end California sparkling wine will never burst out of its straitjacket until consumers understand it: and they will never understand it until they’re taught to think about it in the proper way. Every reputable critic I know has been trying to elevate Americans’ view of sparkling wine for years. It’s an uphill battle.


Sparkling wines for the holidays: why not all year long?

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The sparkling wines have been coming in over the last two months, as producers look for good reviews to use leading into the holiday season. They know they have to do well between now and New Year’s Eve, because that’s when they sell the overwhelming majority of their wine.

How did sparkling wine find itself in the trap of having its sales window of opportunity open for such a short period of time? It’s because the Champenois were the greatest marketers in the wine world. Man oh man, did they know how the sell the sizzle as well as the steak. Way back in the eighteenth century they convinced the world–well, Europeans and Russians, anyhow–that Champagne was the wine of glitz and celebration. The world took them at their word, and by the fin de siècle mauve decade of the 1890s, Champagne was the most famous wine in the world–for celebrating.

Double-edged sword, that. Most people only celebrate New Year’s Eve once a year. Maybe they have an anniversary, wedding, job promotion, birthday or some other special occasion to toast. But Americans by and large don’t see Champagne or sparkling wine as an everyday wine.

A few years back a discussion arose in which I was involved concerning how to persuade more Americans to buy the likes of Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg–in other words, California’s têtes de cuvée. The question producers wanted to know was how to persuade Americans to drink these as often as, say, a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. My suggestion was to have the entire industry collaborate in a big advertising blitz, a marketing order similar to the Got Milk? campaign here in California. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? If consumers could be broken of their habit of seeing bubbly as a special occasion wine, all bubblies–value as well as prestige–would enjoy increased sales.

The problem, from the point of view of the high-end producers, is that they don’t want to see their wines linked in any way to mass-produced sparkling wines, especially those made Charmat or bulk style. Of course, I totally understand. Of all wines, sparkling is most concerned with image. Still, there’s another side of that coin: the mass producers don’t necessarily want to be associated with the high-end wines. They’re the ones who pay for the advertising (Barefoot, Korbel, etc.), not the têtes de cuvée. They’re not about to push the sparkling wine category; they’re going to push their own brands in a way that offers little, if any, spillover benefit to the high-end houses.

I ran into one of California’s great modern day sparkling wine pioneers yesterday, quite by accident in Oakland. Michel Salgues for many years ran Roederer Estate. He left some years ago and I more or less lost track of him. Turns out he’s now the winemaker at a new Santa Lucia Highlands winery, Caraccioli Cellars, whose 2007 Brut Cuvée I tasted and reviewed less than a month ago. I gave it quite a high score (which will appear in the Dec. 31 issue of Wine Enthusiast), but it’s also a little pricey: $52. Michel and I talked about the reluctance of American consumers to pay a lot of money for sparkling wine.

This is, I think, a real challenge to Calfornia’s high-end sparkling wine producers. Even if someone does want a good bottle of bubbly, they’re more likely to reach for, say, a Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (about $40), because they’re heard of it and because it’s from France (and they may even be aware of VC’s association with top prestige Champagnes). Yellow Label may not be anywhere near as good as, say, Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage, which is about the same price, but they’ll buy it anyway because it comes with the insurance of being bullet-proof and with the image of France with all the prestige that implies.

I don’t know what the answer is to the dilemma of sparkling wine in America. The foundations of the problem were constructed over centuries, and its resolution will not take place overnight. All I, as a critic, can do–and I want to help–is to tell people that inexpensive bubbly is a great bargain that can be drunk regularly, and the high-end stuff is easily as good as anything in Champagne, with perhaps a few exceptions, and ought to be enjoyed as often as they can afford it. Beyond that, consumers have free will. You can’t make them buy something they don’t want.


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