Bring on the summer bubbly

By Celia Strong

I think bubbles are good all the time. And, because I tend to drink them all the time, I expect everyone else to enjoy them too. And, hopefully, with today’s lesson, one or two of you may join me in doing bubbles on a regular basis.

Our bubbles this week come from California. As we know, this makes them officially sparkling wine, not Champagne. Champagne is a sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wines are Champagne. The soil where the grapes grow, and the grape varieties used and the process that makes the bubbles are the determining factors. Since we already know we are doing a California, let’s just study bubbles from there — the grapes, the styles, the history and legacy. And, of course, our winery for this week’s bottle.

For some fun trivia: Do you know who is the father of American Sparkling Wine? When I hear anyone say anything about American sparkling wine, I jump to the conclusion they must mean California, maybe Washington or Oregon. But, no. The first sparkling wine made in this country was in 1842 in Ohio. And, like in the Champagne region of France, it was by accident.

Nicholas Longworth moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati in 1803, the same year that Ohio became a state. Longworth was 21 years old and started studying law. Within a couple of years of starting his own law firm, he was the wealthiest man in the state. Longworth, though, was not a big drinker and was appalled at the amount of whiskey that his fellow Ohioans drank. Believing it might be healthier, and without really being interested in drinking any himself, he turned to grape growing and winemaking. He planted his first vineyard in 1813 and played with “vitis vinifera” varieties from France as well as native grapes. Finally, in 1825, he found a grape that was able to grow successfully in Ohio — Catawba, a hybrid that was a cross between a Labrusca  grape on a “vinifera” vine root.

Three years later, he got his first musky tasting wine. In an effort to remove the muskiness, Longworth removed the skins before fermentation and ended up with a pinkish wine similar to a White Zinfandel. During the 1830’s, Longworth planted more vineyards. And, finally, in 1842, he had his accident. Some bottles of his Catawba wine had second fermentations happen in them. And the wine was bubbly. By 1859, Ohio was the biggest wine producer in the country and Longworth was the king of the industry.  He produced more than 100,000 bottles a year and distributed his wines across the country and even in Europe.

The history of sparkling wine in California can be traced to Sonoma Valley, in 1892. The Korbel brothers used the “méthode chamoenoise” to make sparkling wines from Riesling, Muscatel, Traminer and Chasselas. With time, the quality got better and the  traditional grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — became available. And foreign investments, most importantly from Champagne houses, came. Moët et Chandon built Domaine Chandon in southern Napa Valley. Taittinger built Domaine Carneros in Carneros. Louis Roederer built Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley. And, we stop right there. Because our winery this week is Roederer Estate.

First, though, we have to realize that there are differences, besides the soil and climate, between Champagnes and California sparkling wines. A normal Champagne cuvée (non-vintage house blend) is rarely made with less than 30 different wines. Often they are made from 50 to 60, and sometimes more, vintages. Usually, California sparkling wines come from four to six different vintages. In Champagne, non-vintage wines have to age on their lies for at least 15 months. Legally, they have to. California has no such minimum requirements and six to eight months is normal. In Champagne, vintage-dated wines are not made every year; the grapes from one year are not usually good enough to stand on their own without blending in other vintages’ grapes. The climate in California is much nicer to grapes and almost every year they can make vintage bubbles. It is partly the requirements in the Champagne region that raises their prices.

The Anderson Valley is one of the AVAs in Mendocino County. It is one of the very coolest grape growing areas in California. Since the 1980’s, this area has been associated with high quality wines, including great sparkling wines. This valley is located about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Its climate is tempered by cool marine air, with the average annual temperature being about 53 degrees. (Sounds wonderful compared to our current temperature and humidity!) The first European settlers came to the Anderson Valley in 1850, right at the same time Mr. Longhorn was making his sparkling Catawba wine back in Ohio. The first vineyards were planted here in the early 1960’s, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that the wine boom came this far north. Louis Roederer looked for years for a location for its American sparkling wine, and chose the Anderson Valley because its climate is so similar to Champagne’s.

Roederer Estate was founded in 1982. Louis Roederer then-president Jean-Claude Rouzaud bought 580 acres in Anderson Valley. He was the fifth generation of his family who owned Louis Roederer. He thought the cool climate and well-drained soil there were perfect for their style of sparkling wine. At the estate, they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And Rouzaud invented a new trellising style for the vines that had a moveable wire, this let them optimize the balance between acids and sugars. They also keep a supply of reserve wines so that each cuvée has some blended into it. The blending in of these reserve wines makes Roederer Estate Brut a unique sparkling wine, one with body, finesse and deep flavors.

Generally, this wine is made from 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir, all grown on their land by them. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks at 65 degrees and malolactic is rarely done, both to keep the acidity in the wine higher so it can age well. The Roederer Estate Brut is aged for at least two years on its lies.

This sparkling wine is crisp and elegant with complex pear, spice and hazelnut flavors. It has real depth and intensity in its flavors and textures. Roederer Estate Brut goes well with cheeses and charcuterie, salads, cream sauces, seafood, sushi and Asian foods and flavors, roast chicken and turkey, birthdays, anniversaries, Sunday afternoons — all day, every day, with everything.

It may not be a sparkling, award-winning Catawba from Ohio, but it is a great sparkling wine, and wins awards in its category. It usually sells for $25 to $30 dollars. For us, though? Only $20.99 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island. Enjoy!

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