Mendocino’s Sparkling Evolution

Roederer Estate is rethinking how it makes California bubblies
From the Oct 31, 2010, issue

In Anderson Valley there are redwoods that reach as high as a 30-story building. How long does it take for a tree to grow that tall, you have to wonder. That's the sort of thing you contemplate as you stand outside Roederer Estate winery and look out across a valley that's almost unblemished by civilization, a place that seems to move at its own pace.

When Champagne house Louis Roederer established a California outpost in 1982, it could have followed some of its leading competitors to Napa or Sonoma rather than set up shop in this untested region to the north. But then-president Jean-Claude Rouzaud believed the terroir in this Mendocino County appellation was a better choice, offering cool evening temperatures, plenty of fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean and well-drained clay and gravel soils.

Since then, the quiet Anderson Valley has allowed Roederer Estate to follow its own clock, like a slowly growing tree. The making of sparkling wine, after all, requires a long-term relationship. Anderson Valley and Champagne may be 5,600 miles and nine time zones apart, but in both places change comes slowly, methodically.

And while Roederer Estate has produced some of the most impressive sparkling wines in California, in the past decade it has pursued a careful and steady course toward making its wines even better.

Mint is in the breeze as Arnaud Weyrich walks through a young Pinot Noir vineyard along Mendocino's Highway 128. He kneels down and pulls wild thyme from the dirt between vine rows, but seems less interested in enjoying the aroma and more concerned about the herb's untidy presence in the vineyard.

Winemaker and general manager, the France-born Weyrich is intense and meticulous, but also droll. Describing his approach to making sparkling wine, he uses phrases such as "those are our Lego blocks" and "the yeast kind of has a big party in the bottles and then has a big siesta."

Since taking the helm in 2002, Weyrich, 41, has been tweaking the Roederer Estate style, and the results are beginning to show in the bottle. L'Ermitage 2002 (91 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $45) is sleek and creamy, with pinpoint focus and long, complex apple and spicy, yeasty flavors. Even better is L'Ermitage Rosé 2003 (93, $70), which has delicate floral aromas of strawberry and peach, but also deep, opulent raspberry, toasty vanilla and mineral flavors. The current release Brut NV (91, $23) is the wine's best version ever, with bold, spicy apple aromas and rich, layered flavors of baked apple, pear and crème brûlée.

Change has been a long time coming. As far back as 1993, when Weyrich was an intern at the winery, founding winemaker Michel Salgues asked him to survey the estate's 340 acres of vines for signs of phylloxera, a root louse that slowly devastates vineyards. Weyrich found it. The estate vines were only a decade old, but since most of the vineyards were planted on AxR-1 rootstock, which is susceptible to phylloxera, Roederer began pulling out vines and replanting, a process that continues even today.

The winery now owns 980 acres in Anderson Valley, ranging from Boonville on the southeastern end to the village of Navarro to the north. About 577 acres are planted to vines, about 53 percent of that Pinot Noir, the rest Chardonnay.

The Pinot vineyard Weyrich is walking through is one of the newest, planted in 2008, and it reflects the winery's current approach. The vines are trained on a vertical trellis and the row spacing is a (fairly typical) 7 feet, which allows for even sun exposure but keeps the tall canopy of leaves from shading adjacent rows. Also, the vines are planted tightly within the rows, about 3 feet apart; that sort of tight-density planting is believed to encourage intensity in the fruit.

"We tried to turn a curse," Weyrich says of phylloxera, "into a benefit." The extensive replanting also allowed Roederer to add a wider and better selection of grape clones. "The choice was extremely limited back in the early 1980s," Weyrich says. About 25 percent of the new vines are Dijon clones, which have smaller berries, less acid and more concentrated flavors than Champagne clones. "Dijon clones are like salt and pepper. They're a good tool and are a great base for sparkling rosé, but if you go too far [with the percentage of Dijon] you lose some of the delicacy and the wines become heavy, too ripe, too intense."

Roederer is hardly alone in making extensive changes in the vineyards. California sparkling wine producers such as Schramsberg, Domaine Carneros and others have as well, but because Roederer sources only estate vineyards, the pace has been more gradual. "Roederer," Weyrich says, "is not a company that likes to rush things."

When Champagne producers began their expansion into California in the 1970s, it was a bold move for the traditionally conservative Rouzaud family, which founded Louis Roederer in 1776, to choose Mendocino County. The company is best known for its prestige cuvée Cristal, but it also owns estates in Bordeaux, Provence and Portugal. In the early 1980s, Anderson Valley was not the Pinot Noir powerhouse it is today. Few people outside of Mendocino County knew about it. Though the region had a long history of winegrowing, only a handful of vineyards were in production at the time and area wineries such as Husch, Navarro and Edmeades produced only small amounts of wine.

Frenchman Salgues was hired in 1985 to oversee winemaking for the newly dubbed Roederer Estate. That same year the winery had its first harvest, with the initial release of the non-vintage brut following in 1988. It was a quick success, praised for its good value, elegance and freshness. The winery's tête de cuvée, L'Ermitage, made its debut with the 1989 vintage; released in 1993, it earned 92 points from Wine Spectator and also appreared in the Top 100 that year. "A graceful bubbly with style and plenty of flavor, a lot like a fine Champagne," senior editor James Laube wrote at the time.

Built on the benchland above the valley, the winery, with its rustic wood exterior, blends into the landscape. Inside, it's deceptively large. Annual production is about 100,000 cases and, like most sparkling wine producers, Roederer has a large stock of wines aging in bottle, most of them stored in metal cages that allow machines to riddle the wines. (Riddling is the process of moving the sediment that remains in the bottle from the second fermentation to rest on the cap, for easy removal.) The winery also makes a small amount of still Pinot Noir, which is sold only at the winery.

In 2000, Salgues signaled that he wanted to transition out of California to spend more time in France, so Weyrich returned to Anderson Valley. A native of the Alsace region, Weyrich received a degree in viticulture and enology and a masters in enology from the University of Montpellier in southern France. In the interim five years in France, he had been beverage quality manager for Promodes, now part of the multinational retail giant Carrefour. Moving to California with him this time were his wife and two sons.

Since Weyrich's return, the evolution has continued at a measured pace. The parent company bought nearby sparkling house Pacific Echo and reestablished its original name, Scharffenberger Cellars. Weyrich has continued to expand Roederer's use of 1,500-gallon French oak casks and now puts a small percentage of his wines through malolactic fermentation. While both practices are part of the house style at Louis Roederer, they remain controversial among some traditionalists.

Oak has been used sparingly since the beginning of Roederer Estate, but, Weyrich says, "Michel [Salgues] was very much non-malolactic in the first years." Indeed, certain releases of the non-vintage brut over the years could be shy on texture and finesse. "The turning point was the 2002 vintage," Weyrich says. "I had to do some malolactic to keep the [house] style, to soften some of the wines that were too harsh."

Use of malolactic, which converts (tart) malic acid into (softer) lactic acid, depends on the year; Weyrich likes to call it "malolactic à la carte." Generally the range is less than 10 percent to up to 20 percent in any given year.

The use of oak requires a delicate balance as well, and the winery ages only Chardonnay in the casks, for an average time of four years. "We're not trying to make Chardonnay aged in oak," Weyrich says. "You extract oak at a very low pace. It brings a bit of body and concentration, more complexity and density, and it doesn't taste like wood but it is more yeasty."

The cask-aged wines help Roederer maintain house style, particularly with the non-vintage brut, which includes about 10 percent in its blend. L'Ermitage averages around 4 percent. Weyrich sees the Roederer Estate style as a marriage between Champagne and California. "We are carefully crafting the wines to create a French twist," he says.

The quality and consistency of the house style was certainly apparent when Weyrich poured a selection of wines that spanned more than two decades. The wines were not late-disgorged, but the same bottles consumers would have bought on original release. The non-vintage bruts were generally showing well, although the wines released in the early 1990s were fading. L'Ermitage drank beautifully, even the first release 1989, which showed great length, with layers of flavor and an appealing nutty, Sherry-like quality.

Besides phylloxera-induced replantings, another challenge has been the winery's difficulty in identifying the most consistent vineyard blocks for L'Ermitage. "We were just beginning to target the best places, and then [came] phylloxera," Weyrich concedes with a shrug. "Basically we're reinventing ourselves, rediscovering."

Sparkling wines sales boomed with the new millennium, but the past two years have been difficult, even for top Champagne houses. Yet patience is a trait bubbly makers must cultivate—sparkling houses often don't release their best wines until two or three years after still wine producers would. "I am one of many winemakers, before me and after," Weyrich says. "There's a sense of staying humble. You're trying to be a part of the legacy. Every generation brings a little tweak, and I'm just a link in the family chain."

If Weyrich ever doubts that, he need only consider the redwoods across the valley.

United States California Sparkling Wines