Monday, December 28, 2009

Single-vineyard Champagnes aren't better

Single-vineyard Champagnes are all the rage, because they seem like they're more "back to the land." But that doesn't mean they're better.

I like grower Champagnes philosophically, because I like supporting farmers instead of corporations. But I believe the nature of bubbly is best served by blending wines from different areas, and this was driven home by a tasting last month with Hugh Davies and Keith Hock (pictured), proprietor and winemaker of Schramsberg.

We tasted tank samples of nouveau still wines from six different vineyards -- just a small part of the bounty from 95 different vineyards Schramsberg worked with in 2009.

Vineyards good for sparkling wine grapes are practically unknown to the general public because they rarely end up on a wine label. Bubbly makers like grapes with strong acidity and not too much sugar -- the opposite of what most producers of still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir want these days.

Of the six vineyards I tasted samples from, only one -- Hawk Hill, in western Sonoma County -- also sells its grapes for still wine, to Williams Selyem. But all had very different character, which tended to be one-dimensional, because the grapes were picked so early and the first fermentation had barely finished.

Hawk Hill fruit was taut like lime juice. Jones Vineyard fruit from Carneros had minerality and a long finish. Stevens Vineyard fruit from Marin County was like an explosion of lime and ripe apricot. Tognetti-Lyre Vineyard fruit, also from Carneros, was so chalky and musty that it was unpleasant.

Add up those descriptors (skipping unpleasant) and here's what you've got -- taut like lime juice, minerality, long finish, ripe apricot, chalky, musty. Doesn't that sound like a great sparkling wine?

That's why Schramsberg blends, and that's why the big Champagne brands blend as well.

So keep this in mind when you're out shopping for bubbly this week. One vineyard might mean only one dimension -- when I want more dimensions than Stephen Hawking sees on acid.


Amy Sherman said...

Wondering if you feel the same way about French Champagnes? I tried some very interesting grower producer Champagnes with a lot of character and more personality than the big houses produce. The Bruno Michel and Franck Bonville were among my favorites.

Jack Everitt said...

Are Cedric Bouchard's wines the exception?

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi guys. There are always exceptions -- but I'm going to say that generally I believe in blending for bubblies. The problem is separating the fact that the blending in Champagne tends to be done by big, farmer-exploiting wineries.
That said, if you taste the big houses' tete de cuvee (top of the lineup) wines, I think they are better than the grower-producers can do.