A new star in a family of stars

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

Well, lucky us. Once again we are the recipients, and tasters, of another new wine. And a star it is. But, as we all know, there are steps we have to go through to learn about this new wine. Some history. Some technology.  All good stuff so that when we do get our first glass of it, our wine is all it can be because we know more about it. And we appreciate it more.

Definitely we are going to California this week. But, sort of, we are going by way of France. That’s because our wine is from California — grown and made in Napa — but much of its heritage and history are from France. Not confusing when we remember all the wineries in California, and for that matter, Oregon and Washington wineries, that are divisions of French producers. This week, we get to look at Domaine Chandon, the Napa Valley offspring of Moët & Chandon.

Moët & Chandon was established in Épernay in 1743, by Claude Moët, a wine trader. Épernay is a town in the southern part of what is now the Champagne region, located just north of Paris, and Moët began shipping his wines to Paris. Luckily for him, this was also during the reign of King Louis XV and the popularity of sparkling wines was increasing rapidly. Soon, the winery’s clients included many nobles and royalty. In 1750, Moët began doing business with Madame de Pompadour who supplied the Royal Court at Compiègne with Moët wines. (Please note, that the wines from this region were not yet all sparkling, on purpose anyhow, and the region, as we think of it today, was not a legal designation.) Also in 1750, the company started shipping their wines to Spain, Germany, Eastern Europe and, yes, the British colonies in America.

In 1792, Claude Moët died and his grandson Jean-Remy Moët moved into the driver’s seat. He expanded the business by buying the vineyards of the Abbey of Hautvillers. It was at this Abbey where a Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, perfected the process of a second fermentation in the wines to make them sparkling wines. Most of us know pieces and parts of that story.  During the nineteenth century, the Moët company continued to grow and attract many more nobles and royalty as loyal customers, across Europe. The Chandon family became connected with the Moëts through marriage and that led to the new company name — Moët & Chandon. A star is now used as the company logo on their labels and corks.

Leaping forward, across many successful years and wines, to 1973, we land when the California subsidiary of Domaine Chandon was formed. When they decided to expand to the United States, and chose Napa Valley for their location, the company found unique soil and climate there. They considered many different grape varieties and planted test batches to see how they did. We have to keep in mind, though, that coming from the Champagne region of France, Moët & Chandon were only familiar with the three varieties allowed in their region — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, a red variety that is a cousin to Pinot Noir.

Now, after 40 years of growing grapes in the United States, they have 1,000 acres in three of the best appellations in Napa, Yountville, Carneros and Mount Veeder. If we look, for a moment, at each of these appellations, we might gain some insight into the wines that Domaine Chandon makes. Yountville has a slightly warmer climate. This results in riper grapes which, in turn, makes richer, more robust wines. Carneros is breezy and cool — perfect conditions for elegant Pinots. And the wines from here reflect their grapes’ elegance. Mount Veeder has vineyards on the slopes of the Mayacamus Mountains. Good drainage produces small grapes with concentrated flavors. And we know that’s good for wines. (Even though I didn’t specify it, these growing conditions and what they mean to the grapes only refers to the three Champagne varieties. Because, that’s what Chandon does.  But, I suspect we have all heard of great wines from the same areas, not necessarily made from these three varieties.)  Definitely, the sparkling wines from Domaine Chandon are the base of their business and reputation. If you have never enjoyed some of them, it’s time.  Past time.

But, not to leave any wine undiscovered, or any grapes unused, Domaine Chandon found that their grapes would also make some remarkable still wines. From all three of their varieties. For many years, many of us have loved their Chandon Pinot Meunier. Holiday after holiday, dinner after dinner, bottle after bottle. And, never willing to rest on their past successes, Chandon still continues to move forward. From somewhere in their past, in Napa, they have a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon. Not related to their sparkling wines in any way, yet there it is, growing. So, what do they do?  Simple, they make a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

And, that is our wine for this week: Chandon Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet grapes from a French-owned Champagne company? Yikes. Is that an oxymoron, or what?  But, if we can get past the restrictions we set on ourselves, we will find a great new wine. The 2010 is only the second vintage of this wine. Really, this is a brand new wine. It is 100 percent Cabernet. With a Napa Valley appellation. The grapes were harvested in September. And the wine was aged in oak barrels for 20 months, all French oak barrels, 40 percent of them new barrels. This Cabernet is full of cassis, blackberry, plum and rosemary flavors.  And a hint of vanilla and mocha on the finish. It’s interesting when you start to taste this wine. Most of us would expect a heavy, intense Cabernet, like most Napa Cabernets tend to be, but it’s not. The tannins are full, but smooth. The flavors are intense, and complex, but not heavy. There are layers.  Subtleties. Nuances. In fact, it’s not like any other Napa Cabernet I can remember tasting. But, it’s delicious. So, I have another sip. And another. This is excellent wine!  And then, the light comes on. Sure, it’s a Napa Cab. But, it’s from a French company, with some French winemakers involved, and French oak barrels.  The perfect combination of two different wine.

This wine is as good as it is too because of the quality of everything from the vineyards to the barrels used to make it. And we know wines this good come at a certain price level.  True, most of the time. Unless you can get a deal. So, we have a deal. At $19.99 this wine is almost half off. Truly stellar — the wine and its price. Enjoy.