An American “Grower Champagne”

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-24-2012

Donnelly Creek Vineyard

Elke's Donnelly Creek Vineyard.

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!

TASTING NOTE:

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]

Comments (6)

  1. David, Did you run out of space? What about Schramsberg and Iron Horse as important domestic sparkling wine producers. They would be at the top of my list.

  2. Hi Doug,
    This is Scott (the author of this post). No space concern – this piece was about Elke and the unique circumstances of a grower who sells to larger sparkling producers deciding to make her own wine, not a general overview of CA sparkling wine. Schramsberg and Iron Horse are fine producers, but not only have they been making sparkling wine themselves from the time they were founded, they also are not exactly boutique – they produce tens of thousands of cases of sparkling wine per year to Elke’s 50-100!
    Cheers,
    Scott

  3. Great post, Scott. I’d love to try an Elke sparkling wine.

  4. Scott,

    Nice piece. I love sparkling wines from the Anderson Valley area so I will have to seek a bottle of this out. I wish you would have posted this sooner as I was just out in that area a few weeks ago!

    As to your comment on tens of thousands of cases and Iron Horse, this isn’t correct. Iron Horse is what I would classify as a “grower” sparkling wine. They produce 10,000 – 12,000 cases a year all from estate vineyards which would put them up there with Champagne growers like Vilmart, Geoffroy, and Goutorbe while still smaller than some like Chiquet, Peters, and Gimonnet. This makes them much smaller than most of the other well known California sparkling wine producers. Still a lot bigger than an Elke, but I don’t think it is fair to lump them in with bigger producers.

  5. Hi Brad,
    Thanks for the comment. I took the tens of thousands figure for Iron Horse from Prince of Pinot, who says they make 30,000 cases per year: http://www.princeofpinot.com/winery/650/
    Cheers,
    Scott

  6. Scott,

    He must be referencing still and sparkling together while I divide the two. Just as Elke’s numbers would be split for sparkling and still, Iron Horse should be done the same IMO.