Domaine Carneros is one of the most prestigious names in Californian sparkling wine. Owned by Maison Taittinger of Champagne, and run, until recently, by Californian fizz queen Eileen Crane, this small estate, in the Napa part of Carneros, is dedicated to traditional method Champagne style wines. As you drive into Napa from the south (San Francisco), the estate’s imposing and impressive chateau is one of the first landmarks that tells you you’re in wine country. Built in 1989, and based upon Taittinger’s home in Reims, its royal gardens and French style staircases are quite a spectacle. This wine is their Brut NV, an almost 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Traditional Method Grapes
Most traditional method sparkling wines around the world take their inspiration squarely from Champagne, and as such, the grapes used tend to be the same also. With this style of wine there are many components that denote the final composition, but the grapes and proportions thereof are a great place to start when looking to understand these wines and why they taste the way they taste. While there are 7 permitted grapes in Champagne, 3 rule the roost, and certainly it’s very rare to find international expressions containing any of the ‘forgotten 4’ - Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane. So what do Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay bring to the table?
A highly versatile grape, Chardonnay in traditional method wines allows a little wiggle room. Once in the winery, it’s possible to coax Chardonnay in the desired direction, either expressing acid, ripeness or richness. As such, it’s a useful tool to the winemaker. Stylistically, as it’s the only white grape of the 3, Chardonnay dominant sparkling wines tend to be lighter, with more finesse, citrus and orchard fruit character, and often higher acidity. In a blend it provides freshness and energy.
A light red grape, but when the skins are removed, the juice leads to traditional method wines with richness and weight - it gives the wine texture and aromatic intensity (something Chardonnay lacks). Pinot dominant traditional method wines are often considered bigger and weightier, richer and more powerful. In a blend it gives oomph and balance.
The final of the 3, yet not one to be forgotten. Pinot Meunier, another red grape, can be quite taut and austere, and brings lots of red fruit to traditional method wines, alongside some firmness and clarity - it’s the conductor in the orchestra, the grape that often sits in the background, but which allows the two great grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to perform well together.
This wine is made from only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and it’s an exercise in tradition and expertise. It captures that quality one looks for in the great sparkling wines - vivacious acidity perfectly balanced alongside richness and poise. It’s classically Californian with ripe, stone fruit, melon even, then all those quintessential notes of pastry, brioche and buttery biscuits. The bubbles are tiny and frothy and the length is pretty awesome. Every bit the equal of the wines they make in Reims, this is celebratory and profound fizz for a special occasion.