Great Domestic Sparklers

I recently was lucky enough to have a day and a half free in California’s wine country and given the timing, it was in fact just last week, I took advantage of my time as appropriately as possible. I went sparkling wine tasting! I am just as bad as the next guy when it comes to sparkling wines. Thinking about them only rarely, and mostly towards the end of the year.


There is of course no need for a holiday to pop a bottle of bubbly. You know what the next line is of course. Bubbly turns every day into a holiday. And while that is patently untrue, the bubbles do come as a welcome treat whenever they are popped. And with the case of California’s bubblies, that has never been truer. 


After years of being told that Californian Sparklers are just that way: fruity and generous and fun if not complex, and we’re really only in about the third decade of California’s modern sparkling wine renaissance so we are talking of an eternity here, California’s Sparkling wines have come of age. Of course there were always standout offerings but what we have now is a full fledged market segment offering a variety of styles. A novel idea to be sure.
I was only able to visit five producers on my recent trip, and though I’ve visited Schramsberg in the past it is of course worth mentioning here as they are one of the most important and the most historic Sparkling wine houses in the country. I look forward to spending some time with them on my next visit to the region when I also hope to visit Roederer and Scharfenberger up in Anderson Valley, but alas on this visit it was all Sonoma and Napa.


I started in Sonoma and then moved onto Napa before ending in Carneros. I present the tasting notes that follow in chronological order but will go out on a limb and briefly discuss the wines on a more qualitative level. For me the general level of quality at Iron Horse and J Winery was a notch higher than at the other, larger houses, though it is quality you have to pay for. For minerality and wines of terroir Iron Horse cannot be beat. J specializes in wines with the nuance that careful ageing brings. They are the equal of the Iron Horse wines, though in a different style. 


The wines from Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, and Domaine Carneros were all of a high quality as well, though there is more of a distinction here between their most broadly distributed wines, serviceable and well priced, and each winery’s top of the line offerings which are often only available direct from the winery, and via each’s website. It comes with the territory of course. If you are going to produce in large quantities it is basically inevitable that quality will take a hit so we should applaud the affordability of wines of this quality on offer at each winery.


Once you venture into the more expensive offerings you do tend to get a noticeably improved product, which tends to give you a fuller idea of house style specifically and the potential of Sparkling wines in a more general sense. There is no doubt that even with sparkling wine, when fruit is picked less ripe, that california has an edge when it comes to richness of fruit flavors, and in truth nowhere is this more evident than at the lower end of the price range. These less expensive California Sparklers should prove terrifically popular because they do tend to be fruitier than say their European counterparts. A trait that is well in tune with the marketplace. It’s a feature of the wines that the industry celebrates, while holding it in check, particularly as one moves up the price scale when one hopes to encounter the creamy textures and subtly toasty flavors and aromas of brioche, nuts, and dough that are integral to fine Methode Champenoise wines.  


It is a fine line to walk, and each of these producer has chosen their path. All are successful, and yet unique. If I had to associate each with one word to help guide consumer the results would look like this:


Gloria Ferrer: Fruity

Iron Horse: Terroir

J Winery: Ageing

Mumm Napa: Confectionary

Domaine Carneros: Earthy


More complete notes will of course help frame the production of each, and reading them with that one word in mind certainly helps to focus on what I found important in each. It’s the holiday season and the truth is that every day this week is special, thus every bottle of bubblywe open is a celebration. Make the most of what little we have left of 2013 and celebrate with a weekend full of bubblies as a lead in to the big event next Tuesday night! Taste test some of these domestic sparklers and see for yourself that they are up to the challenge of welcoming in the New Year!




Original wine they opened tasting room with in 1986, usually very heavy Pinot, 85% plus


Fruity on the nose with hints of vanilla and faint toasted nut character,. with a rather fine mousse, this delivers lemon curd and  green apple flavors with with juicy acids, all framed by a little toasty nuttiness and some sweet pie crust accents. Rather fruity, fun and easy to like. 88pts



8% Chardonnay, seven to eight hours skin contact,


Red berry, cherry character on the nose is also a bit earthy and spicy. Starting off with a  little raspberry fruit, this has a lovely texture, nice midpalate depth with real red fruit character and hints of tangerine followed by a lemony edge of acidity on the backend which shows hints of of creaminess and sweetness. Very attractive with nice fruity complexity. 89pts



2/3 Pinot 11.5gr 6.5 years on lees


Smells rather evolved with subtle notes of smoke, bookbinder’s glue and hazelnut with a touch of dried flowers, and butterscotch. Bright on entry with a  huge dried apple, tart apple attack followed by floral notes with hints of white chocolate, a little chocolate covered cherry fruit, a little dried lemon peel and  good length, finishing tart and juicy with a fine softness to the hints of  coconut and strawberry on finish.  91pts





Very floral on the nose with accents of worn wood, dried orange peel, white mushrooms, hazelnut skins. Aromatically this shows terrific focus and gains nuanced notes of  orange and hazelnut cream with air. This is lovely on entry, taut and bright and earthy with the creaminess from the lees contact not obscured by sugar. Not as complex as the nose would lead one to believe, but with fine mineral notes, palate cleansing acids and a lingering meyer lemon finish. 91pts



36 hours contact


Earthy on the nose which gains hints of pressed flowers, dried citrus peel, hint of sweetness, a little Chinese five spice spiciness, and a touch of carob with air. A bit of a  coarser mousse typical of roses with a  fine bright palate full of earthy dry pear fruit,  a hint of meatiness, and then lovely spice on the backend. This is moderately rich and textured in the mouth with fine persistence to the dried strawberry and cranberry flavors with a touch of dried orange peel on the finale. Compklex, rich and a bit powerful. 91pts



Lovely nose, complex and floral with sweet pear fruit turning spicy with a hint of white pepper over candied almond  dried apple peel,and candle wax nuance. Lightly creamy on entry though with big flavors in the mouth. The mousse is a little aggressive but this has some fabulous layered flavors of  lime, lemon curd, deep slightly mushroomy notes,  cashew, brazil nut and light vanilla accents. It’s really quite complex and long, rich with umami, and rather elegant finishing with a nice edge of nougat.  I love the savory flavors here. 93pts



Left on lees for 11.5 years


Waxy, yellow fruit, plantains, incense and candle wax with a strong vanilla undertone emerge on the nose. This has a lovely, fine mousse and subtle flavors of freshly baked bread, white mushroom, fresh lemon pith with a hint of pineapple emerge on the palate followed by burnt orange peel on the long finish.  Elegant with a light buffering of creaminess on the racy palate. 91pts



19 years on the lees


Very nutty on the nose then full of honeycomb,  linzer torte, raspberries, whipped cream, citron peel and angelica root. Just great complexity on the nose, In the mouth this has a rather soft mousse and gentle flavors of burnt citrus peels, a bit frontloaded with some jellied lime and almost blackberry fruit, then this leans out on backend then drops off on finish. Rather delicate. 90pts



Tart on the nose with a little quinine and quince over yeasty, Brie like, creamy, sweet pear fruit Soft and tart on entry with plenty of yeast wrapped apple, melon and mineral flavors. This has a gentle buttery sweetness to it but is a bit lean, fresh and simple, and a bit short. 87pts



90% ish Pinot, 3% muscat


Sourdough, pollen, and ice cream grave the nose layered over a base of melonny fruit. Noticeably sweet on entry,then a little spicy in the mouth with hints of honeysuckle, peach, and creamy melon fruit that leads to a lightly sweet finish. The muscat shows up more obviously on the finish. Easy to understand, easy to like. 87pts





4 gr


A very pretty nose with lots of yeasty character, fennel and fruity freshness with some vanilla notes adding some highlights. This is tense, zesty and bright in the mouth with a nice rush of clear white fruits followed by a yeasty midpalate flecked with sweet kiwi and green apple skin flavors. There’s really good length here and this turns attractively floral and chalky on the finish. Bright, brisk and mineraly with a fine mousse, this is superbly refreshing. 93pts



78% Pinot, little skin contact


Dark, a bit sour fruited and citrussy on the nose then turning a little sweet and earthy with hints of Asian pear, wild cherry and dried rose petals. A very fine mousse greets the palate along with a hint of dill right up front. Elegant on the palate with lovely herbal shadings to the fruit which is a bit front loaded with fruit then turns nuanced and complex on the mid-palate, with nice acids that drive the moderately chaly finish, and flavors of cranberries. This is nicely rich with just a touch of spice, and a nice juxtaposition of fruit and chalky minerality. 91pts



74% Pinot




Wonderfully complex aromas of yeast, brioche, sweet almost peachy and tangelo fruit fill the glass. Made in a brighter, tenser style this shows off steely mineral notes up front, followed by subtle yeast tones well integrated on the lemon zest and lemon pith rich midpalate. very refined and long on the finish with a bit of clay minerals the finish with a hint of fruit cake with tart plums on the finale. very precise and elegant. 91pts





Floral with sweet caramel accents to the Brie yeastiness on the nose with a subtle edge of toastiness, and candied apple undertones Floral on entry and quite sweet with lots of fruit, a bit of strawberry, lots of sweet pear, sweetness adds richness here but obscures the detail. Some fine strawberry suggestions emerge on the backend along with plenty of yeasty complexity. The finish is a pop of sweetness then cleansing acid, wrapped in a moderately creamy, rich mouthfeel. 89pts



Same base, a hint of brandy added 10gr


With a sweet nuttiness on the nose, then floral aromas and  notes of dried peaches, melon and pear all topped with touch of cotton candy makes for a fabulous nose. Love the balance of freshness, sweetness and aged character here. Nuanced, bright, clear and tense in the mouth in a very brisk and clean style that highlights the chalk and mineral flavors on the palate while leaving layers of hazelnuts and peach to the long finish. This is a little large scaled but shows real finesse in the mouth. A gorgeous wine. 92pts





8 years on the yeast


Relaxed on the nose which is broad with baked orange, lime, floral, carnations, and a little freshly baked bread. A touch sweet but cleans and fresh on the palate with lovely  precision to the high toned and lemony,  subtle complexity on the midpalate and gentle tones of raw nuts on the soft finish. elegant and gentle. 91pts


Pinot seven day cold soak 63% Pinot


Spicy with aromas of candied cherry, creamy strawberry and a little salty oyster shell on the nose as well as softly yeasty accent notes. Opening with a touch of tart plum which is followed by some sweet nutty brittle notes and then  lots of red fruit on backend, filled with tart cranberry through the finish, which could be a bit longer. Rich and creamy yet rather firm, this is quite bold on the midpalate before fading a bit on the finish. Would love this with food. 90pts



74% Pinot


Socks, chestnut, chalk, brioche, chunky sugar, and lean, steely, white Asian pear fruits all come together on the wonderfully aromatic nose. Steely on entry with an initial burst of  lemon pith that quickly turns creamy in the mouth and leads to a tense, perfumed midpalate filled with subtle red fruits and a texture that is firm, tense and vibrant with real persistence to the tart fruits. minerals, and softly yeasty complexity on the finish. I could drink this all night long. 93pts





Launched in honor of 20th anniversary

two to three years 14gr


Bright and citrusy on the nose with a light leesy edge to the almond, brioche and orange peel Aromas. Starting off a  little creamy in the mouth with a hint of vanilla, bright acids emerge to help support the fairly big lemony fruit. There are  gorgeous acids here that really drives the palate,full of  green apple and mineral flavors with a gentle mousse. This is really quite elegant with lovely cut on the palate and a strong finish filled with the flavors of panettone and brioche tempered with a steely edge. Finishes just a touch sticky. 92pts



Five years, 12gr


Nutty, earthy and complex on the nose with a little red fruit, subtle sultanas, hints of chalk and smoky almonds adding nuanced complexity.  On entry this is clean, and precise with a lovely bright attack, gorgeous balance, subtle sweetness, great acids. There’s a soft mineral accent to the apple and pear fruit on the palate and this finishes with great length, though it still shows a little sweetness on the finale.  Very pure and fresh fruit flows through to the green apple finish with accents of marzipan and delicate hints of butter and toast adding further detail. Lovely and complete. 93pts



Two to three years 12gr


Strawberries and smoke greet  the nose joined by  earthy aromas and hints of cherry pie and minerals. This is quite powerful in the mouth with  lots of raspberry and baked strawberry fruit, strawberry/rhubarb pie, a hint of herb, shortbread cookies and a little mineral. Holding its sugar very well, and showing firm mineral and dried berry fruit on the finish, this remains very very precise through the palate but lacks a little nuance and complexity. 89pts



Seven years, 12gr


Layered smoky, toasted nuts,clay, dough, and little creamy strawberry aromas on the nose are joined by hints of honey and river stones with air. Right out of the gate this is  elegant and  refined with a  lovely mouthfeel that is both firm and creamy, rich yet fresh, and attractively complex with  earthy, mineral notes framing a core of citrus pith and leading to a big, aromatic finish with lingering mineral notes. 92pts



New offering


Two to three years, 4gr


Dusty, steely, firm nose shows hints of  toast, chalk, dried pear and dried flowers. Wonderfully tense, and snappy in the mouth this offers up  mineral driven flavors laced with hints of dried herbs, polleny flowers and gorgeous yeasty notes that support a core of dried apple and pear fruit. gentle and delicate in the mouth with a finish that is clear and tense with dry white fruit and a little lemon curd accent. Wonderfully pure and focused. 92pts





Toasty and sweet on the nose with shadings of vanilla. Slightly coarse mousse on entry lending this a rather  energetic feel in the mouth with bright fresh citrus flavors that are  a little creamy but  very acid driven and bright in the mouth. Finishing modestly with a gentle nutty character and apple fruit this is simple and easy. 86pts



Little Pinot Gris


Yeasty then fairly complex on the nose with with bitter melon, chalk, sweet herb, and candied fennel seed. aromas. A little  creamy on entry then showing fairly big Meyer lemon, apple and a hint of green walnut flavors on the palate which is nicely layered and nuanced with a fine mousse. This shows good length good length, refreshing acids and a bit of pithy grapefruit on finish. Fruity but fresh and well balanced. 88pts



Two years on lees


A little creamy on the nose and filled with aromas of strawberry shortcake and almond cookies with some sweetly spicy top notes. True to the nose this is a little creamy on entry, with earthy red apple peel flavors and subtle creamy accents on the palate then this drops off on finish. A little short and simple. 85pts



In mags they age for six years in bottle, reserve mag seven years,


Yeasty on the nose with complex notes of spice, toast, and some dried herb strawberry tops accenting the core of sweet raspberry fruit. Lightly creamy in the mouth, this retains a nice bright feel and shows attractive mineral notes on entry followed by nuanced raspberry, earthy red fruit, and little rose petal note on the midpalate. There’s a subtle sweetness supporting the palate and this finishes with fine length and flavors that gain mineral and hazelnut details. A vast improvement over the 750 version of this wine. 90pts



About 30% in FO


Sweet pear fruit on the nose is wrapped up in layers of  fresh dough and powdered sugar with some floral top notes and kiwi fruit accents. This is a big wine, rich and powerful with  earthy,  deep flavors of apple strudel, walnut, French bread and a little preserved lemon. The texture is actually a touch soft and slightly creamy in the mouth, lending this a voluptuous feel with heirloom apple flavors on the backend that lead to a long, tart, simple finish. 89pts



42 months, part of proceeds go to Milagros children’s foundation


A little orange marmalade and waffles on the nose. This has that crisp baked/ fried dough/toasty thing going on topped with a little caramel and vanilla, cream, and just a hint of spice. Fairly bright on entry, then turning rich and faintly sweet on the palate with tangerine, peach and green apple flavors topped with a spritz of pith lime. There’s plenty of autolytic character though it gets lost in the sweetness which emerges on the finish with a donut edge. a little crispy creme like. 88pts



10% Pinot gris, three years on the lees


Sweet on the  nose, which shows an array of candied and rich dried fruit aromas: red currants, apricot and dried apples over a base of lightly toasted bread. Fresh dough flavors fill the mouth on entry and this shows a  fine mousse and creamy texture up front followed by bright juicy acids. There’s lovely purity of fruit here,  all lemon and pear with a hint of kiwi and a suggestion of white chocolate adding some  attractive complexity to the backend, though this does peters out a touch on the finish. 89pts



Sweet on the nose with lots of brioche character and a  little baked peach fruit topped with hints of smoke and Brie. This offers an attractive blend of aged character and fruit, with nice cut on entry, really quite firm, dry and transparent with fine mineral base notes and a layered, almost wood spice like palate impression. The fruit is cool and crisp and white with green apple skin and key lime pie notes then reverts to a mineral quality on the  fairly long finish, revealing lovely complexity and length on the finish. 91pts



Sweet and  peachy on the nose with lots of  caramel, toast and cream character topped with a hint of lemon rind. Pretty sweet right off the bat, this is round, rich and soft in the mouth with lots of sweet pear and peach fruit framed by sweet tea and  vanilla chiffon accent notes. Everything wraps up in a plump, sweet finish. Very easy wine for those looking for something obviously sweet. 86pts





2009 estate Brut exclusive to the winery, organically certified


67% Chardonnay


Toasty and earthy on the nose with lovely dried floral notes and a hint of smoke adding detail to the subtle peachy fruit of the nose. Clean and fresh, if a touch simple in the mouth with lovely apple and almost peachy fruits framed with nice mineral and autolytic complexity: big  linden flowers and  herbal tea notes. Fairly elegant and well balanced showing more of a lemon curd quality on the backend, this is underpinned by fruity acids and finishes with decent length. 90pts



60 PN


Hints of red fruit greet the nose, little creamy strawberry jammy notes. The mousse is just a hint aggressive, and the palate shows off nice dry pithy flavors backed up with gentle Brie and raw almond and cashew notes, gaining an attractive core of  apple fruit with a hint of pineapple on the modest finish. A bit fruity and simple. 87pts



28 gr


Quite complex on the nose with aromas of clay, dried apricot, raspberry and black tea. The mousse is a bit coarse in the mouth, though this retains  bright acids that help to balance the considerable weight of the sugars. it is quite well balanced in the mouth and doesn’t come off as terribly sweet, with a texture that is quite creamy and flavors that lean towards the lemon chiffon, preserved citrus end of the spectrum. Gaining a little powdered sugar on the back end, this is very clean and easy to drink,and  holds its sugar pretty well, really doesn’t come off as 28 grams except on the very end of the finish where you are left with sweetness. I’d like to pair this with some cave aged Comte and see what happens. A very attractive Demi-sec. 91pts



Three years


Dusty rose petals along with earthy yeasty undertones support strawberry and earthy wild berry fruit on the nose. While creamy up front, this turns  round and moderately rich but nicely firm with acids on the midpalate. With a hint of peach at its core then strawberry and cranberry fruit leading to the  clean finish with nice brioche and cream notes this shows some attractive complexity. Additional time in the glass reveals flavors of apricot torte, and a hint of tangerine, as this turns quite aromatic in the mouth, particularly on the backend which is long and picks up a little mineral tinge and some fresh dough on the finale. A lovely rose. 92pts




60 PN

4 years on lees


Cut apples with hints of smoke, apple peels and old wood greets the nose.With a fine mousse and  bright acids on entry this shows early snap on the palate that gains a nice richness on the mid palate where it shows quite a dry profile, steely with flavors of key lime pie followed by big citrus pith on backend and then a hint of white chocolate on the moderately long finish, clean, Sapid and focused, a little hazelnut adds additional complexity as this finishes assertively dry, and a little spicy with mouthwatering acids. Clean, focused and direct on the palate. 91pts



100 Chardonnay


Six years on yeast


Decidedly aromatic,with big toast, floral, dried lemon, and  smoky, dried herb aromas. This has a most  fine mousse, lending it a very refined feel  in the mouth. There are lovely complex citrus flavors, key lime pie, lime zest, with a hint of pineapple and oily pinenuts and a suggestion of gingery creme brûlée in the mouth.  Finishing with a big pop of lemon curd and lemon grass flavor, before turning complex and earthy, this then softly fades in the mouth, with modestly noticeable sweetness. Fairly big, rich and complex. 91pts



Earthy on the nose and Pinot Meunier like, with hint of black cherry and middle eastern spices, black spices, poppy seeds and a hint of dried pork. this shows a rich, round, zaftig style with white chocolate and raspberry/blackberry jam on the nose that translates to nice tart berry fruit on the palate. Very soft and velvety in the mouth with flavors of cranberries and lemons, over a base of mineral and Brie. There’s nice clarity to the fruit, aromatic and almost a bit minty of the long finish which picks up a little dried tangerine ruby grapefruit peel. excellent in the style. 92pts


Via: Snooth – Articles


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