I have an Old World palate. What can I say? After years of reviewing and drinking French, Italian and Spanish wines, there's really no avoiding it. But that doesn't mean I eschew bottlings from the other side of the ocean, i.e. this side! I'm particularly fascinated by those modeled on Old World versions, and I love to see where the Old and the New line up and where they diverge.
With that philosophy in mind, and given the special place in my heart for France's Champagne region, I was excited when recently in Napa Valley to visit with Schramsberg Vineyards owner and winemaker Hugh Davies.
The modern Schramsberg, established by Jack and Jamie Davies in 1965, was one of the United States' first sparkling wine producers. Its bottlings have graced White House dinners and notably accompanied Pres. Nixon's 1972 "Toast to Peace" with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Bejing. But Schramsberg's historic claim to fame goes back farther; the estate was founded in Calistoga in 1862 by Jacob Schram, a contemporary of fellow German immigrants and California wine industry leaders Charles Krug and Jacob Beringer.
While Schramsberg is best known for its sparklers, it produces outstanding reds as well, under the J. Davies label, from high-elevation vineyards (650 to 1,000 feet) planted to Cabernet and Malbec in the 1990s. This kind of diversity would never be possible from the rolling terrain and terroir of Champagne, a region entrenched in tradition and its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. In this regard, Schramsberg is decidedly outside of the Old World paradigm.
Where the Old World meets the New is in the variety of the estate's vineyards. Davies showed me a map that detailed multiple vineyard and fruit sources, from Mendocino County down through Sonoma and Napa counties and south into Marin County. All told, about 90 different sites contribute fruit that can be vinified into up to 200 different base wines.
To make sparkling wine in the traditional method, the first step is to create highly acidic, still base wines that are then blended into a final still wine. This final wine is bottled with yeast and a small amount of sugar, which kicks off a secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles.
Many of Champagne's top grower-producers and even mid-size négociant houses produce their sparklers with fewer base wines than Schramsberg. But most Champenois will agree that this blending process, and the complexity it brings to the finished wine, is the heart and soul of quality sparkling-wine production.
Schramberg's success in this regard was on full display during my visit, as we tasted through individual base wines from recent and older vintages, to the final base wine blends for two wines, and through to the finished products.
Not surprisingly, these sparklers showcased fruit flavors that were riper and juicier than many of the Champagnes I taste. But they were deftly layered with the freshness and finesse expected from the Chardonnay and the structure that comes from the Pinot. And, as a sucker for aged, vintage bubbly, I kept coming back to my glass of the 1996 J. Schram Napa Valley, a finely knit wine featuring a lovely, lacy texture, rich baked and poached fruit and a lasting note of smoky grilled nut. Almost 20 years old and showing beautifully.