Mon 1 Feb 2010
Schramsberg’s two flagship sparkling wines, the Schramsberg Reserve and the J. Schram, have just been released in their manifestations of vintage 2002. Since they cost the same amount — $105 a bottle — it’s instructive to look at the differences and similarities between them, both in subtleties and broad strokes.
J. Schram 2002 is not quite a blanc de blancs; it’s a blend of 83 percent chardonnay and 17 percent pinot noir. Schramsberg Reserve 2002 is not exactly a blanc de noirs; it’s a blend of 75 percent pinot noir and 25 percent chardonnay. Each wine ages for five years and nine months on the yeast in the bottle in which it will be sold; this is, of course, the “champagne method” of second fermentation in the bottle to produce the essential bubbles and build character and complexity. These sparkling wines receive an additional year’s aging in the bottle after they are disgorged and capped.
Following the winery’s usual policy of drawing on vineyards from Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties, the Schramsberg Reserve 2002 and J. Schram 2002 carry North Coast designations. There’s an interesting contrast, though: With its emphasis on chardonnay, the J. Schram ’02 derives primarily from Napa (56%) and Sonoma (21%); the Schramberg Reserve ’02, however, with its 75% pinot noir, draws mainly from Napa (45%) and Mendocino (33%). The Napa and Sonoma components are from the Carneros district.
What about the winemaking process? The grapes for J. Schram ’02 are 35 percent barrel-fermented, meaning that 65 percent is fermented in stainless steel tanks; for Schramsberg Reserve ’02, the proportion is 45 percent barrel-fermented, 44 percent in stainless steel. Only small portions of the wines go through the malolactic process in order to ensure the crisp acidity necessary for sparkling wine but also to provide some lushness in texture.
So, blah, blah, blah, this is all technical crap and your eyes are glazing over, but what I find interesting is that the two sparkling wines are made in close to identical manner, the primary differences between the products being not what happens in the winery but in the nature and proportion of the grapes themselves. With the blending of grapes in varying percentages from four counties, dominated by Napa Carneros, it’s obvious that winemaker Hugh Davies is not attempting to create a regional identity, and certainly not a narrower appellation identity, but a consistent and expressive house style, as is generally the case with the large houses in Champagne.
So, how does this philosophy and practice translate into the bottle and your glass?
The J. Schram 2002 — remember, 83% chardonnay, 17% pinot noir — offers wonderful presence, tone and body; this is a sparkling wine with plenty of there there. The color is an almost immoderate gold with pale silver highlights and myriad tiny swirling bubbles. Scents of roasted hazelnuts, fresh biscuits, buttered cinnamon toast and orange zest twine with baking spice and an undeniable damp limestone element, like rain on gravel. It’s large-framed, substantial, dignified and earthy, jazzed by scintillating acidity and minerality in a texture that’s both crisp and supple. Massively dry and adroitly confident, this sparkling wine is no light-hearted aperitif; sip with grilled shrimp, gravlox, lobster salad or a seafood risotto. 973 cases. Excellent. About $105.
The pale gold/platinum blond Schramsberg Reserve 2002 — 75% pinot noir, 25% chardonnay — takes the opposite tack toward the ethereal and the elegant; this is the essence of liquid limestone set to an upward drift of bubbles in stately polonaise. This sparkling wine delivers Schramsberg’s typical yeasty, bready aromas but laced with scents of dried red currants, orange zest and crystallized ginger. It’s quite dry but luscious and slightly creamy, and it displays fine-boned balance among clean, bright acidity, a fruit-forward nature and the plangent keenness of chalk-like minerality. An absolute delight, more spare and high-toned than lavish. Again, this is an appetizer and dinner sparkling wine, appropriate for the best caviar (because of its piercing acidity and minerality), smoked salmon, sushi, duck spring rolls and some curry dishes. 1,473 cases. Excellent. About $105.
Obviously, these are priced as special occasion sparkling wines, but then a special occasion is speeding right toward us, and that’s Valentine’s Day. Nothing, it should go without saying, is too good for your sweetie.
Samples for review.