If you have any interest in wine, by now you have heard of “Grower Champagne,” a relatively recent trend of independent grape growers in the Champagne region of France producing their own wine from grapes they cultivate rather than selling them off to the large houses. “Farmer Fizz,” as it also is known, accounts for less than 3% of the Champagne market, but is revered by wine geeks for the artisanal, terroir-driven nature of the product.
Here in the States, most sparkling wine is made by large corporate producers – you see them on the bottom shelf of your local grocery store or pharmacy: Cook’s, Andre, Tott’s, Korbel, etc. There are a few better regarded large producers, like Gruet in New Mexico and Gloria Ferrer in California, and a slew of Franco-American partnerships, like Domaine Carneros by Taittinger. While some of these producers grow almost all of their own grapes, most need to purchase some from other sources.
Enter the American grower.
Mary Elke has been farming vineyards and selling grapes for 30 years in both the Napa and Anderson Valleys. Her clients include a who’s who list of sparkling wine producers, such as Roederer Estate and Mumm Napa. But, until a few years ago, she had never produced her own sparkling wine. (Elke Vineyards has made a still Pinot Noir since 1997 under various guest winemakers.)
“[We’re] a very small winery,” Elke explained to me over email. “I neither have the space nor winemaking equipment required to produce sparkling wine in the méthode champenoise.” So when a custom crush facility called Rack & Riddle opened up nearby in Mendocino County employing the winemaking team from J Vineyards, Elke sampled their Brut cuvée and got inspired.
“I thought it would be fun to have 50-100 cases with our name on the label to sell in my tasting room and use for special events,” Elke explains. The sparkling wine was such a hit that it has now found its way into some select restaurants and wine shops in the San Francisco market.
Mary Elke Brut is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, traditional for Champagne, but also a proportion that roughly approximates Elke’s vineyards in Mendocino County. It spends about seven months on the lees and receives a relatively low dosage (1.2% residual sugar). Elke describes it as having “a hint of sweetness and a yeasty flavor,” which allows it to “hold its own with all types of food.” I largely agree, as you can see in my tasting note below.
Elke told me that she hadn’t realized that “there are just not that many domestic sparkling wine brands and almost no ‘artisanal’ producers.” Here’s hoping Mary Elke – and other Champagne lovers like Brian Loring – are the start of a new trend of American Grower Bubbly!
N.V. Elke Vineyards Mary Elke Brut
Lovely rosy gold in color, small bead. Classic nose of baked apples and yeast. Moderate acidity. More apple on the palate, which cuts off a bit earlier than one would like. Nice chalky minerality on the finish. A great food wine (picnic, anyone?), and a fine alternative to other California offerings as an everyday house sparkler. [Around $20]