Try singing that line to the tune of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” the theme for which, as the musicologists or trivialists among you will know, comes from the Moderato cantabile section of Chopin’s — but, wait, no, you’ll just have to Google that for yourselves. Meanwhile, here’s a well-known rendition to watch and listen to as you peruse these notes on some sparkling wines and champagnes. The metaphor is not inappropriate for the most starry-eyed, evanescent and romantic of the products of the grape.
Jack and Jamie Davies founded Schramsberg in 1965, dedicated to the principle of making high-quality methode champenoise sparking wine. The site was a long abandoned historic property in Napa Valley that had been established in 1862. Their efforts included restoring the house and winery, replanting vineyards and renovating the old cellars. While it’s true that the competition from other (mainly French-owned) estates in California is more intense than it was 40 years ago, the sparkling wines from Schramsberg possess a sense of elan and gravity that make them not only unique but expressively Californian. Jack Davies died in 1998, his widow 10 years later. The estate is now run by their son Hugh; he makes the wines with the assistance of Keith Hock. Here are reviews of three recently released sparkling wines from Schramsberg.
The Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2006, North Coast, is a blend of 90 percent pinot noir grapes and 10 percent chardonnay. The products of Schramsberg usually consist of grapes from four counties; the proportion for the B de N ’06 is Mendocino 56 percent, Sonoma 20 percent, Napa 18 percent and Marin 6 percent.
This sparkler is a very pale copper color tinged with pale salmon; the glass barely contains its upward flurry of silver-flecked effervescence. Dried raspberries, orange rind and roasted lemon explode from the glass, along with touches of almond skin, jasmine and damp limestone. In the mouth, we taste red currants, lime peel and cloves, nestled in a texture that balances crisp acidity with moderate lushness, all leading to an elegant, slightly austere, mineral-laced finish. Lovely, delicious. Excellent. About $40.
Blanc de noirs means “white from black”; blanc de blancs, it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out, means — yes, class! — “white from white.” You’re thinking, “But F.K., a white wine is made from white grapes. Why bother to distinguish the whiteness of the white wine or sparkling wine?” Because, in Champagne, the traditional is to blend white and red grapes to achieve a consistent house style, whether in a vintage or non-vintage product; making Champagne solely from white grapes, that is, chardonnay, is much rarer.
So, the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2006, North Coast, is made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, from these county sources: Napa 60 percent, Mendocino 22 percent, Sonoma 15 percent, Marin 3 percent. The wine is palest platinum blond; myriad tiny bubbles fling themselves upward as insistently as moths to a flame. The bouquet is all steel and stones, the texture taut and crisp, a bow-string ready to snap. Yet intimations of toasted almonds, spiced and roasted pears and lemons seep in, and that sleek texture is balanced by a note of lush creaminess that spreads warmth through the structure. The finish, not surprisingly, is spare, dry and minerally. A notably elegant and high-toned blanc de blancs. Excellent. About $36.
The third of this trio is the Schramsberg Brut Rosé 2006, North Coast. As is typical in Champagne, the Schramsberg model is made by blending red and white grapes, in this case 68 percent pinot noir and 32 percent chardonnay. The make-up by county is Mendocino 42 percent, Napa 31 percent, Sonoma 22 percent and Marin 5 percent; the emphasis is on pinot noir grapes from cool growing areas — the Napa contingent is Carneros — in order to provide piquant fruit and clean acidity.
The color is pale, ruddy copper-salmon, not as pale as the blanc de noirs; bubbles teem like a froth inside a tempest. Smoke, dried strawberries and raspberries, a hint of rhubarb waft from the glass. This sparkler is dry and crisp yet almost juicy, almost lush; with its snappy, close to audacious acidity, it offers terrific “point” and verve. A touch of yeast and buttered toast fills out the package, with a trace of roasted hazelnuts; the finish is like limestone with a squeeze of lime. Excellent. About $42.
Laurent-Perrier traces its origins to 1812. When the long-lived founder, Alphonse Pierlot, died in 1881, the house was taken over by his cellar-master and heir, Eugene Laurent; his wife was named Mathilde Perrier, hence the name that continues to this day. The Nonancourt family acquired Laurent-Perrier in 1939 — not the most auspicious moment in history — and managed to revive its fortunes after World War II. Bernard de Nonancourtwho assumed leadership of Laurent-Perrier in 1949, still runs the company.
The Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut (nonvintage) is bottled sans dosage, that is, without the final “dose” of wine and sugar syrup that establishes a Champagne’s level of sweetness. Champagne tends to be so high in acidity that residual sugar is often undetectable. Even a Champagne labeled brut — “dry” — may contain up to 15 grams of residual sugar per liter and be perceived as a dry wine. Helpfully, an “Extra Dry” Champagne is sweeter than brut. In any case, eliminating the dosage creates a sort of ultimately dry Champagne, the driest of the dry. Some consumers find such Champagnes forbiddingly dry, but I love them.
The Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut is a blend of 55 percent chardonnay and 45 percent pinot noir grapes. The color is platinum blond; a perfect storm of tiny bubbles seethes skyward in the glass. One could say that this Champagne is all steel and limestone, lithe and sinewy, a Chrysler Building of a Champagne in its sheen and elegance, except that hints of camellia and honeydew melon, yellow plums and peaches creep in from the crisp edges, making this not only dry, chalky and minerally but subtle, nuanced and delicious. Dry — to reiterate — it certainly is, and it brings assertive acidity to the point of brinksmanship. Yet it is ultimately, ultra-ly, serene, poised, whispery, a little detached. Were I facing a duelist’s pistol at dawn tomorrow, I would want this Champagne at my side. Excellent. About $85.
For Mother’s Day this year, I reviewed the Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut, while the Laurent-Perrier Brut L.P. and Grand Siècle Brut were among my “12 Days of Christmas” selections in 2007/08.
Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S., Sausalito, Cal.