Brighten any gathering with one of the many sparkling wines of Mendocino County
by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
No wine is more synonymous with the holidays than champagne—known as sparkling wine in our country. Think frosty evenings, a warm kitchen, smiling faces and a toast to the future. How fortunate to live in Mendocino County, where at least 17 wineries have méthode champenoise style sparkling wines.
The méthode champenoise is important because, although in the US we can’t label even our finest bubblies “champagne” (only the Champagne region of France can), those with méthode champenoise designation are made exactly as they are in Champagne. That means after the wine is fermented in a tank or barrel, it goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which is where the bubbles form.
After the initial fermentation, the wine is dosed with a mixture of yeast and sugar, then it is bottled and sealed with a metal or plastic cap. It is kept in the bottle en tirage for 18 months or more while it develops bubbles and is “riddled”—stacked, neck slanted down, in racks and turned slowly for several weeks or months. When the winemaker deems it is time, the cap is removed. The neck is frozen and sediment, left over from yeast and sugar that collects in the bottle neck from the riddling, blows out. The bottle is topped off and corked with a wire wrap to make sure the cork stays in place until you are ready to pop it.
How to choose a Mendocino sparkling wine for a meal, to pack for a ski trip, or to simply sip in a candle- or fire-lit room contemplating the end of 2017 and all it has brought? As a champagne lover who feels bereft if I don’t have a bottle always chilled and ready, it is like asking which one is my favorite child. My overall recommendation is you can’t lose with a bottle of Mendocino bubbly.
The first sparkling wine makers in the county were Scharffenberger, Navarro, and Handley in Anderson Valley in the 1970s. In 1982, the esteemed Louis Roederer champagne house in France needed room to grow and set out around the world to find the perfect terroir to produce a sparkling wine similar to their prestigious and renowned Champagne. Roederer sampled soils and grapes and zeroed in on Anderson Valley to locate its new sparkling winery. In 2004 it purchased Scharffenberger Cellars, which continues in its special style and affordability, making what many in Mendocino call their “house sparkling wine.”
Some of Mendocino’s wineries, like Terra Savia in Hopland and Signal Ridge above Boonville, have made delicious rosé and brut sparkling wine alongside their still wines since they started. The historic Parducci Cellars added sparkling wine about 10 years ago to complete their line of varietal, aperitif, and dessert wines.
In the last few years, more wineries known for still wines have added sparklers to their list. McFadden Vineyards, Elke, Graziano, Jeriko, Yorkville Cellars, Cesar Toxqui Cellars, Brutocao, Nelson Vineyards and Toulouse are among them. Cesar Toxqui did so because when he asked his son Hugh Oliver, now 21, if he wanted to join the family business and what wine would he want to make, Hugh answered, “Yes— and sparkling wine.” His winery, which is about to open its new tasting room in Redwood Valley next to Barra, now sports a luscious, tiny-bubble-filled sparkling wine named— Hugh Oliver.
At Brutocao Cellars in Hopland, which has a popular wedding venue where many corks are popped, producing their own sparkling wine “seemed like a no-brainer,” says Steve Brutocao. The wine is called Sparkling Bliss under their Bliss label, which is named for his maternal grandparents, whose farming connections in Mendocino date to 1943.
“We decided to offer a sparkling wine for a few reasons,” says Chris Nelson of Nelson Family Vineyards, located off Highway 101 south of Ukiah. “It’s delicious. We have three wedding venues on our ranch, and bubbly is highly desirable. We have a wine club, and sending sparkling wine before the holidays is a terrific offering.”
According to Guinness McFadden of McFadden Vineyards in Potter Valley, “My friend John Sharffenberger told me years ago that some of the best chardonnay they bought for their bubbly came from Potter Valley. He said that the cold nights here kept the acids at high levels and that was important for sparkling wines.”
When Rack and Riddle, whose specialty is producing sparkling wine for other wineries, opened in Hopland (and since moved to Healdsburg), it offered a new world of possibilities to local wineries like McFadden, Nelson, Cesar Toxqui Cellars, and Brutocao. Having a one-stop shop available to share the high cost of sparkling wine equipment, such as the riddling machines and the bottle neck-freezing equipment, led to more wineries adding sparkling wine to their repertoire.
All this has led to the boon in available sparkling wine in Mendocino—and a reason to toast the New Year with a flute full of tiny bubbles.
Heidi Cusick Dickerson is a culinary and wine adventurer, columnist and author of wine guide books including Mendocino Roots & Ridges: Wine Notes from America’s Greenest Wine Region. Her day job is director of Leadership Mendocino, which she does in between seeing her grandkids and enjoying her homestead in Redwood Valley.
HEIDI SIPS ...
Nelson Family Vineyards Brut, made with Champagne’s classic combo of 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir, delights the senses with its fruit-filled crispness, plethora of bubbles and lingering flavors. Available at the tasting room at the family ranch where you can also cut your own Christmas tree. $35
Yorkville Cellars Malbec Brut Rosé delights with its creamy, joyous, moussey mouthful and light copper color that reflects the elegant balance and luscious surprise from a non-traditional champagne grape. $36
HOLLY SIPS ...
Hugh Oliver, a Blanc de Noir, was named after Cesar Toxqui’s son (pronounced toe-ski). This sparkling wine is as beautiful as it is delicious. The light rose color is balanced by a perfect effervescence. The price allows this bottle to accompany my life’s celebrations both special and spontaneous. $32
McFadden’s Cuvee Brut Special Reserve, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, was left on tirage for 5 years and in the bottle for 2 more years, giving it a complex, almost creamy richness that effuses grape and melon aromas and a sparkling mouthful of flavor. $35
TORREY SIPS ...
The Signal Ridge Tiny Pink Bubbles Brut Rosé “offers up flavors of raspberry, orange peel and grapefruit, alongside deep flavors of ginger and freshly baked bread,” according to its website. All I know is its tantalizing combination of whimsy and deliciousness makes it my go-to sparkling, whether I’m celebrating a momentous occassion or making it through the week. $25
Roederer’s Estate Brut is what sold me on sparkling. It’s crisp and elegant, sophisticated enough to make me feel like a grown up while those tiny bubbles make me feel like a kid frolicking in a field of dandelions. So that would make it ... so-fun-sticated? $20
ANNA SIPS ...
One of my top sparklings is the Roederer Estate Brut Rosé. A mixture of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, it is easy to drink, slightly fruity, and spectacularly celebratory, with a blush hue and tiny bubbles that race joyously to the top of the flute. Pick up a bottle at local stores and at the tasting room. $28.99
Do other people have an everyday sparkling? I do: the Scharffenberger Cremant, which seems to work as well on a summer day as it does at a holiday gathering. It’s a bit sweet, which makes it an appealing escort for spicy dishes, but it is equally at home with a well-chosen cheese plate, or even on its own. $19.99