When Pinot Growers Go Bubbly

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 06-11-2012

What would cause a winemaker who grows or vinifies Pinot Noir all of sudden to try his hand at making sparkling wine? It certainly wouldn’t be profit, as the high cost of production and low margins would scare even the most bullish of vintner-entrepreneurs away. And it’s probably not demand, as sparkling wine consumption, although on the rise, still represents only about 5% of all the wine drunk here in the States.

Perhaps the reason is simple pleasure.

“We decided to try our hand at sparkling wine because both my sister and I are huge fans of Champagne,” explains Brian Loring, of Loring Wine Company in the Sta. Rita Hills. Loring, who calls Pinot Noir his “obsession,” produces around a dozen different Pinots, predominantly from single vineyard sources, along with some Chardonnay and a Spanish-inspired red blend. Starting in 2009, he started experimenting with sparklers, bottling a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé.

Over e-mail, Loring described the challenges facing domestic sparkling wine producers – or, at least those who attempt to emulate the great wines of Champagne. “Champagne is so far north [in latitude] that there are significantly more daylight hours during the peak of the growing season than we see in California,” he says. “That helps the grapes in Champagne to actually get ripe at the 19-ish brix level you need to make the low alcohol base wine. Now matter how cold an area you find in California, you simply can’t overcome that difference.”

That’s not to say that some haven’t tried, and succeeded, in growing grapes in California worthy of world-class sparkling wine.

French Champagne houses arrived in the late 1970s, experimenting with some existing regions and discovering others. Indeed, according to John Haeger, professor, author, and Pinot Noir expert, these houses actually saved Pinot from abandon in California, and are mainly responsible for the migration of Pinot into cooler sites. Their legacy is some terrific domestic sparkling wine originating from the deep end of the Anderson Valley, and cooler parts of Napa and Sonoma, among other places.

But what of the Central Coast? In addition to Loring, Clos Pepe dabbles in bubbles, Brewer-Clifton makes a highly acclaimed sparkling Chardonnay, and of course Laetitia carries on the heritage of Champagne Deutz. The most famous name to get in the game, however, is Sea Smoke Cellars.

Sea Smoke, a producer of high scoring, highly allocated, cult Pinot Noir, launched a Blanc de Noirs called “Sea Spray” with the 2008 vintage. According to Victor Gallegos, the Director of Winemaking, they “knew they had the right raw materials…with great acids…to pull off a nice sparkling wine.” Those raw materials come from Sea Smoke’s estate vineyard, which is a self-declared “grand cru” consisting of about 100 acres of south-facing hillside land ranging from 300 to 700 feet in elevation.

Is this the type of site that can produce a ripe but low alcohol base wine suited to sparkling wine making?

Gallegos seems to think so. He calls Sea Spray a “grower-style” blanc de noirs, but admits that it is made in “an esoteric style.” Given Sea Smoke’s propensity for powerful, robust Pinots, one might be skeptical about the winery’s ability to create a well-balanced sparkler. Having tasted the final product, I think they have some more work to do. Even Gallegos admits over e-mail, “there is always room for improvement.” My guess, given the winery’s track record, is that it will improve, once Sea Smoke finds the right balance among its climate, soil, location, and vineyard techniques. We shall see in a few years – the next vintage of Sea Spray is 2011, currently en tirage.

For his part, Loring acknowledges the challenges of working with Central Coast fruit and is realistic about what that means in the cellar. He tells me that they pick the grapes used in their sparkling wines at the same ripeness parameters as for their still wines, resulting in alcohol levels of around 15%. They “then de-alc the wines back down to 11% and add acid.” The goal is to have the “correct” flavors, even if a bit is lost during the de-alc process. (It’s not clear if Sea Smoke follows the same process, although it is notable that Sea Spray weighs in at less than 11% abv.) Like Sea Spray, Loring’s sparkling wine is still a work in progress. The bottles I sampled may have been disgorged too soon; Loring admits they could use more time on the yeast. But, as this is an experiment for them – probably no more than 100 or so cases per year – the learning process is part of the fun.

In the end, that may be all the reason a Pinot grower needs to start going bubbly.


2008 Sea Smoke Sea Spray
Light gold in color. Not very vigorous bubbles. The nose is all creamy, ripe fruit. This is a big, heavy, full-bodied wine. Tons of red fruit – raspberry, sour cherry candy. The finish is surprisingly short, with a metallic edge. There is some potential here, but as yet unrealized. Even at an eye-opening release price of $80, it sold out in three days, so there’s obviously a market.

2009 Loring Wine Company Blanc de Blancs
Lemon yellow. A unique nose of sweet orchard fruit mixed with an earthy component. This wine has decent acidity, but a touch out of balance with the fruit, which is somewhat syrupy, like the remnants of a can of peaches or pears. Good mouthfeel, but has an odd finish. I look forward to seeing where this project goes. [Around $35]

For another take on these wines, visit Isaac James Baker’s blog.

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