Sales and consumption of sparkling wine made in the U.S. are on the rise. This is partially because a number of enterprising individuals have launched sparkling wine-making facilities which any winery or winemaker can now use to make sparkling wine. And it’s partially because people are embracing sparkling wine as an everyday wine, not saving it just for special occasions and celebrations. And I say hurray for that, because sparkling wine is delicious and it does feel fun even on a Tuesday night with Chinese take-out!
There are a handful of California houses that have been at it for decades and Domaine Carneros is one of the originals. The house was started 30 years ago by the Champagne Taittinger family. Many California sparkling houses were started in a similar manor by French Champagne families (Mumm Napa, Chandon, Roederer Estate) but only Domaine Carneros has legendary California sparkling wine pioneer Eileen Crane leading the charge, and winemaker Zak Miller making the bubbles.
I met Zak for lunch recently at Somerset in Chicago where he unleashed a flood of bubbles that had everyone around us wondering “What is going on at that table? Look how many bottles of sparkling they have open! How many glasses do you think are on that table?” Yes, we were working… working hard at tasting sparkling wine!
Zak is an interesting guy. Originally from Virginia, Zak took a trip in 2005 to visit a college roommate in Chico, CA (about 2.5 hours north of Napa). They took a day-trip to Napa and Zak – already on a career trajectory in forestry science – was hooked. He got a cellar job at Saintsbury Winery, then traveled to wine regions south of the equator — New Zealand and Chile – to work harvests. In 2008, he made his way back to California and joined Domaine Carneros in 2008.
His approach to winemaking is based on attention to detail. He said the two trickiest parts of making sparkling wine are knowing exactly when to pick the grapes and the blending of the base wines.
Zak obsesses over the ripening process, ever-mindful that grapes for sparkling wine need a lot of acidity and if left too long on the vine, he’s lost his golden opportunity. When it comes to blending, Zak is tasting wines that are a whole lot different than finished still wines – they’re tart, exploding with acidity and he has to use his palate and his brain to judge how a blend is going to come to life after the second fermentation and show in the glass, whenever someone decides to pop that cork.
Alright, on to the wines! We started with 2012 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs (Blanc de Blancs means it is 100% Chardonnay). Yuh-mee! Although it’s a baby, with the ability to age for up to 10 years, this wine is already showing well, with sweet Meyer lemon, green apple and pineapple wafting out of the glass. Interesting note: Zak told us that so many people mistake this wine for Champagne in blind tastings, that it gets put into a lot Master of Wine blind tastings, to test peoples’ tasting abilities!
There is no oak on this wine and production is small (under 5000 cases). If you want some, you can get it online ($115), because it is not very widely distributed at retail.
Alright, next! 2015 Domaine Carneros Brut (51 percent Chardonnay, 47 percent Pinot Noir and 2 parent Pinot Gris, for aromatics and freshness). Yowza! This was my favorite sparkler of them all. It’s got that glorious yeasty aroma and a really elegant mouthfeel, with notes of key lime, honey, lemon meringue pie, and a nice weight. I love this wine and would drink it everyday with everything — cheeses, meats, vegetables, salads, popcorn – it’s super versatile. I’d even drink it with steak! About $40.
And now for something crazy, a still wine: 2016 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir. I had this with roasted chicken, crushed potatoes and Chinese broccoli and it was divine. A different winemaker at Domaine Carneros (TJ Evans) makes this wine and while Zak uses Pinot Noir in his sparkling wines, the grapes for still pinot noir are tended completely differently. It was bursting with black cherry, raspberry, baking spices and the trademark earthiness for which Pinot Noir is known. I loved it! It’s about $38 which is a stellar value for a wine of this quality.
And finally, time to drink pink! Zak poured Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour, a non-vintage sparkling rosé made from 59 percent Pinot Noir and 41 percent Chardonnay. We all had the lemon cream tart, which was an awesome pairing. It was zingy and fresh with citrus acidity, but it also had enough richness for the wine to cut through and really sing on your palate. This wine is named after the one and only Marie Antoinette, whose breast is said to have inspired the shape of a Champagne coupe!
Zak makes his sparkling rosé by adding finished pinot noir wine to his blend for the color, as opposed to fermenting juice that has had skin contact to get the color. This wine is about $35.
Talking and tasting with Zak has inspired me to add more domestic sparkling into my wine rotations, because yeah – a little Sunday night sparkling could help kick off your week on a fizzy note!
Disclosure Note: While I have done some PR work on behalf of Domaine Carneros, I was not compensated to attend the lunch or write about the wines.