Sparkling Wines for The Holidays
From holiday office parties to holiday family meals and, at long last, New Year's Eve, the holidays call for Champagne and sparkling wine. But what is the difference? Sonoma County sparkling wine is made by the same method—méthode champenoise—as that famous fizz from France, but the title "Champagne" legally belongs to that French region, just like the use of "Sonoma County" on a label belongs only to wines made here.
Sonoma County sparkling wines come in all the colors of classic Champagne—from crystal-clear Blanc de Blancs to Rosé, and even garnet-red Zinfandels and Syrahs with a fizzy twist. Just in time for the winter holidays, let's explore the sparkling-wine wineries and range of bubbly being made in Sonoma County.
Korbel was founded in 1882, before France laid legal claim to the name Champagne—and it remains the only U.S. winery that can legally make "champagne" rather than sparkling wine. Set in the redwoods above the Russian River, this classic Sonoma County destination features a visitor center with a small movie theater and museum, and docent-led tours end with bubbly in the tasting room.
Woodenhead's Méthode Champenoise Naturale Russian River Valley Sparkling Wine is crafted from a base wine of humble French Colombard instead of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but it's got the pie crust notes and dry, lemony finish of a grand cru Champagne.
After an informative tour of Gloria Ferrer's caves and sparkling wine facility, order up a glass or flight of sparkling wine in the sleek tasting room or on the veranda of this Spanish-styled winery, overlooking the vines.
Family-owned by longtime Dry Creek and Alexander Valley grape growers, this small winery calls its nutty, rich, sparkling wine "Brut Frizzante." Located on Geyserville's characterful, Old West-evoking main street, they also offer Zinfandel and port.
Known for elegant pairings in its sumptuous Bubble Room, this Healdsburg winery uses Coquard presses—rarely seen outside of France—to prevent astringency and bitterness. The result is a wide array of some of the most refreshing sparkling wines in America, much less Sonoma County.
Kathleen Inman makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at her small, tidy winery at the corner of Piner and Olivet roads—and she combines the two to make a delicious trio of sparkling wines: a Brut Rosé , a Blanc de Blancs, and an Extra Brut Cuvée.
Though Iron Horse is among the most prestigious sparkling wine producers in California, the visiting experience here is a laid-back slice of western Sonoma County rusticity. Hang out at the rambling outdoor bar on a brisk, sunny winter's day, and take in gorgeous Green Valley views.
This Russian River Valley Zinfandel specialist with estate-grown Gewürztraminer is one of the few wineries that makes their own small-production sparkling wine. Dry sparkling Gewürztraminer and red sparkling Zinfandel expand your food-pairing options at the holiday table.
Three sisters make a fun, stylishly labeled Sonoma County Blanc de Noirs at Healdsburg's Rack & Riddle, a facility that helps many local winemakers make bubbly from their own grapes. The indoor-outdoor tasting room, featuring a garden-rimmed patio, has a fun, retro vibe.
If Amista's bold, bubbly, red sparkling Syrah is too Aussie-style much for you, try the Blanc de Blanc at this friendly, barn-style Dry Creek Valley winery.
The most common designation on a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine, brut means that the bubbly is basically dry, but usually contains about 1 percent sugar from the dosage, the slightly sweetened juice-shot the wine gets after the yeast residue from fermentation is ejected from the bottle during disgorgement. This balances the high acidity and carbonation of the wine.
Note that sparkling wine styles may also bear the 'Brut' designation: for example, a Rosé style wine, if it's not sweet, may also be labeled "Brut Rosé." But unless labeled otherwise, brut wines are typically a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These are good 'welcome' wines, a pour at the door to start the evening.
Korbel Brut, produced among the redwood forests of the Russian River Valley region, remains one of this nation's most budget-friendly, crowd-pleasing bottles of sparkling wine for entertaining groups, or just picking up for a no-fuss bottle of well-made bubbly on any day. Korbel was a pioneer in mechanizing the traditional methods of producing sparkling wine. (They're also among the few producers that can use the historical term 'California Champagne' on their labels.)
Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut is a bright, non-vintage (NV) sparkler that's bound to be found at many Sonoma County holiday functions.
Extra Brut Sparkling Wine
This category, also called ultra brut, contains less sugar in the dosage, and consequently requires more flavor and character in the wine to counterbalance its natural acidity. It's gaining in popularity and includes some of Sonoma County's most exciting sparkling wines right now, still way below the radar for their quality.
Gloria Ferrer 2009 Extra Brut Reserve Cuvée has the toasty, yeasty notes of the winery's Royal Cuvée, but a razor-sharp line of citrus zest cutting through the mid-palate.
J Cuvée XB Extra Brut is J Vineyards' driest style of sparkling, but you'd never know it by the rich, toasty shortbread biscuit aroma. Pair it with seafood.
Iron Horse 2013 Brut X is the kind of sparkling with which you can test your doubting, French Champagne connoisseurs - Iron Horse's lean style of sparkling wine, from the cool Green Valley of Russian River Valley, does not shout 'California!'
Korbel Natural is nicely priced for a Russian River Valley wine from 75 percent estate vineyards.
Extra Dry Sparkling Wine
This confusing category is actually the next less 'dry' than brut, but not as sweet as 'sec.'
Got it? It's called this in contrast to historically sweeter styles of Champagne.
Korbel Extra Dry has just 1.5 percent sugar in the dosage, and an herbal, honeyed character.
Iron Horse Winter's Cuvée is evocative of a spicy, boozy beverage to enjoy on a cold winter's night, and indeed, it is spiked with a little Pinot Noir brandy. But this wine is not very sweet at all, and is a nice alternative to a Tom and Jerry!
Blanc de Blancs
The 'blanc' in question is the white grape component to most Champagne and sparkling wine, Chardonnay. These wines are all Chardonnay, and typically have a brut level of dosage. They can be starters or pair with seafood and lighter fare.
Iron Horse 2013 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs not only a charitable bottle, giving $4 per sale to National Geographic's Ocean Initiative, but it is becoming one of the producer's most enticing cuvées, balancing saline, lemon notes with toasty richness.
Breathless Blanc de Blancs is made at the Rack & Riddle sparkling wine facility in Healdsburg: it's tropical and creamy, one of their best.
Blanc de Noirs
This clear sparkling wine is made possible because the juice of the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape, especially early in the harvest season when grapes are picked for sparkling wine, is not tinted pink or red. Yet Pinot Noir's varietal characteristics contribute to its sparkling iteration in important ways.
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs is a fine partner to Dungeness crab cakes, while Breathless Blanc de Noirs shows a little toastiness, accenting a raspberry-soda flavor from the Pinot Noir.
While NV brut allows a winery to blend vintages and offer a consistent product from year to year, Sonoma County's sparkling wines that are made from a particular year show the variation of the vintage. They may be fresh wines from a recent vintage, or they may include the winery's tête de cuvée, cellared en tirage for years, gaining complexity and a creamy quality from contact with the yeasty lees. These wines may be suited to pairing with rich meals, not only quaffing and toasting. Like younger brut wines, they are typically a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvée is their top offering. The heavier-bodied Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée has been gaining richness each vintage, while losing overt sweetness.
Most Sonoma County Brut Rosé sparkling wines are made from crushed Pinot Noir grapes that have been allowed to settle and soak in some color from the skins before pressing. They are a top choice for holiday meal pairing, as well as fun wines to start the party with, and enjoy with appetizers.
Breathless Brut Rosé is a bright, raspberries-and-cream inflected sparkler with a stylish label. Korbel California Brut Rosé reliably delivers classic, peachy and yeasty notes for a great price. J Vineyards Brut Rosé is fresh and lightly fruity.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.