Champagne in the El Dorado Appelation – Really?

OK, so it can’t really be Champagne since we’re not in the Champagne region of

Wente clone picked on 9/11/10 for our first Sparkler!

France, but yes, we’re making an Estate Grown sparkling wine this year. Consider this a Blanc de Blanc, made entirely out of Chardonnay (in fact it’s in tank right now fermenting!). Once we get through people’s excitement that this is even being done, invariably we get two questions. First, when is it going to be available? That’s the easy question. We’ll probably have it ready with a true Methode Champagnoise sometime in mid-2012 (about 18 months from now). We may actually hold off the release until New Year’s of 2013. Nothing ever happens quickly in the wine industry. The second question people ask is, “Why?” This is going to take some more explaining. It’s true that we grow 27 different varieties making a plethora of different wines. Our life is complicated in the winery with multiple lots of each of the varieties giving me between 40 to 50 unique wines from any given vintage in the barrel room at one time. So I guess, what’s one more? Well, that doesn’t really answer the question, but we don’t make these decisions of bringing a new wine into the fold lightly either. Knowing that the logistics with tanks and barrels will be even more complicated with one more wine, we weighed the out the opportunity versus the increase in work. But just like the Port project (which took 5 years to produce), the opportunity in this case won. First and foremost, we felt the Clone 4 Chardonnay in our Estate Vineyards could quite possibly make some of the nicest sparkling wine in California. It ripens slowly, has wonderful fruit characters, and has a longer hang time than lower elevation, warmer-climate grapes. Secondly, our consultant Hugh Chappelle (who used to be the winemaker here back in the 1990’s) has a love for Champagne, Crément, Sekt, Prosecco, and anything sparkly. So much so that his vacation interests revolve around working in Champagne, France, just to learn about the product. Hugh’s interest combined with the fact that he’s working with a French Champagne consultant on another project made our opportunity even greater. Why is this important? Because sparkling wines are like no other wines in the world. To put it bluntly, a winemaker can pretty much get away with treating a Zinfandel like Cabernet Sauvignon or vice versa when making the wine and still have a saleable product (if the grapes are good). But with sparkling wines, the picking, processing and bottling are entirely different than any other wine. And having the knowledge and experience of others to guide us is incredibly important. This brings us to the last reason for making a sparkling wine in 2010. Because it’s fun for us! It’s true that we do like to drink Champagne, finding it both relaxing and invigorating at the same time. But the excitement for us is learning something

Hugh Chappelle, our inspiration for a Sparkler!

entirely new. The conversations I had with Hugh when I started sampling the grapes for this wine were downright amusing. Hugh-“How’s the sample taste?” Paul-“Ummm, well….” Hugh-“Other than tart!” Paul-“I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste since I would never in million years think of picking grapes this under-ripe. Maybe lemons and tartness with cupful more tartness on top?” Hugh-“Perfect.” The whole process is new for us—sampling grapes “under-ripe,” searching for a different kind of balance, using a Champagne cycle when pressing the fruit, adding the tirage/dosage, doing the riddling, freezing the necks of the bottles, etc., it’s all new. Although the process is long, and some of it done at a sister winery in the Mendocino area (because it takes specialized equipment), I find the whole process exciting and exhilarating. I get to learn something new and unusual. The big question is, “Will our sparkling wine sell?” We think so, but that’s why small wineries are so much fun to be a part of. We’ll try things just for the potential, and it doesn’t have to go through the marketing department, two focus groups and eight levels of bureaucracy. We just do it because it’s the right thing to do. For us, this project is about the journey and the destination. We hope you’ll enjoy the ride.

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3 Responses to Champagne in the El Dorado Appelation – Really?

  1. Loretta and Tony says:

    YIKES AND WOWIE! We can’t wait to taste this new project and since it will be under the Madrona label it can’t help but be a magnificent success. And to anyone who may have doubts we say “REMEMBER LA FEUTE.” (probably spelled wrong but the thought is there)


  2. Sheila Fleege says:

    Paul, I can’t wait to taste the sparkly! I am making about 15 gallons of it this year. I made a few bottles a couple of years ago and it turned out pretty good, good enough to make me want to do it again. I’ll have to read up on home winemaker techniques for freezing the neck. My first attempts ended up with me wearing about half the bottle. It was a big mistake to try it in the house; our kitchen ceiling has pink stains on it now (we made a pink champagne)!
    Sheila Fleege (ever the experimental home winemaker!)


  3. Robert Kupps says:

    Hi Paul
    I had done some research for another winemaker and found this articles of interest.
    (expired link)


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