J. Schram and L’Ermitage are among the exceptional sparkling wines in produced in California. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

J. Schram and L’Ermitage are among the exceptional sparkling wines in produced in California. (Lyle Norton/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Roederer Estate and Schramsberg Vineyards: Legends in the California sparkling wine story

U.S. vintners use traditional Champagne method

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For me, this year will forever be known as “That 2020.” Between the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the California wildfires, it has been a very difficult year for everyone. With the holiday season upon us, I suggest a toast for those we love, those we remember, frontline firefighters, health care workers and, importantly, ourselves.

For most people, a celebratory toast is most associated with California sparkling wine. During the last two weeks of the year, U.S. wine sales, according to Nielsen data, increase 47%. During that same period, sparkling wine sales surge 272%. California is the largest national producer of both.

Although only wines made in the Champagne region of France can be called such, most California sparkling wines are made in the méthode champenoise, traditional Champagne method.

The mandated steps are: 1) pressing; 2) first fermentation in tanks or vats; 3) blending of varietals and vintages; 4) second fermentation in the bottle with temporary wax plugs; 5) aging with dead yeast; 6) riddling (turning of bottles); 7) disgorgement (removing the temporary wax cork); 8) dosage (adding small amount of sugar/wine mixture) and 9) re-corking (permanent cork).

With sparkling wine, the cuvée refers to the first and best grape pressings as well as a blend. Another term used for age-extended sparkling wines is late disgorged. While the second fermentation in the bottle can typically take two to five years, some producers lengthen aging to a decade or more before removing the temporary wax plug.

Through Zoom, I joined Tim Marson, master of wine and senior buyer at wine.com; Arnaud Weyrich, winemaker at Roederer Estate; and Hugh Davies, president of Schramsberg Vineyards to taste releases from two of California’s leading sparkling wine producers with a combined 90 years of experience.

The Davies family has owned Schramsberg for 55 years after investing in a small winery on Spring Mountain. They soon discovered that no one was producing sparkling wines in the traditional method. Based in the Napa Valley, Schramsberg sources its grapes from vineyards in Mendocino County, the Anderson Valley, Sonoma, Napa and the Carneros.

In contrast, Roederer Estate, founded in the Anderson Valley in 1982, owns 620 acres of estate vineyards, giving vintners better control in producing the fruit. Founder Jean-Claude Rouzaud was attracted to ocean air, the soil and its distance from the expensive land in the Napa Valley.

The Roederer Estate Brut Rosé NV ($35) is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay. Only the cuvee is used in this non-vintage release that has been highly reviewed by top periodicals. Arnaud adds a small amount of pinot noir with extended maceration (exposure to skins) to give the wine its soft salmon coloring.

The Schramsburg Blanc de Blanc ($41) has some history. Not only was it the first chardonnay-based sparkling wine produced in the U.S., it achieved international recognition when President Nixon served it during the 1972 “Toast for Peace” in China. Because the fruit is sourced from multiple vineyards and regions that ripen differently, Davies spoke of a seven- to eight-week harvest. The chardonnay grapes are barrel-fermented with little malo-lactic fermentation to produce a vibrant natural acidity. Pairing suggestions include fresh oysters, shellfish, seafood or drinking it alone as an apéritif.

Beginning in 1989, L’Ermitage has been Roederer Estate’s exceptional “tête de cuvée” only made in good years with select grapes. The Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut 2013 ($55) is a chardonnay (52%) and pinot noir (48%) blend with the addition of 4% percent reserved, barrel-aged 2011 wine in dosage. Highly scored, it is aged on lees for five years after disgorgement and another five months after re corking. The aromas and flavors are layered with toasted nut notes and a rich mouthfeel.

J. Schram wines, named for the founder, reveal Schramsberg’s commitment to excellence. Rich baked fruit aromas and a lush mouthfeel in the 2011 J. Schram ($130) are evidence of that.

We were fortunate to taste two late-disgorged wines with little to zero availability. The Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut 2004 ($120) was disgorged this past January after 15 years aging on lees, and the J. Schram 1999 ($185) in 2015 after 16 years. Both are sparkling wines of exceptionally rich texture and complex flavors, a testimony to the process.

There are many good sparkling wines available in California at a variety of prices. Roederer Estate and Schramsberg are among the leaders in the field, and I often look to their experience when selecting a “bubbly” for my toast.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com.

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