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 with the same method — which is indeed technically titled “méthode champenoise” — as that famous fizz from France. The difference is that the title “Champagne” legally belongs to that French region, just as wine from other California regions cannot bear a label that says “Sonoma County.”
Sonoma County sparkling wines come in all the colors of classic Champagne — from crystal-clear Blanc de Blancs to Rosé and even garnet-red wine with a fizzy twist! Today, there’s a lot of exciting Sonoma County sparkling wine on our tables.
Let’s explore the range of sparkling wine styles made in Sonoma County, highlighting some wines and the typical holiday occasions when they might best be enjoyed, followed by a roundup of sparkling wine tasting day trips in Sonoma County that includes some off-the-beaten-path producers making alternative varietal sparkling wines.
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. Still, perhaps, to pair with aperitifs, and to welcome guests who are more au fait with Champagne.
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.
Breathless Blanc de Noirs shows a little toastiness accenting 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 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 Royal Cuvée is a heavier-bodied wine that’s been gaining richness while losing overt sweetness with each vintage.
Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvée, their top offering, was bottled in May 2007, but not disgorged until January 2017.
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.
Here’s a sampling of Sonoma County wineries to visit on a holiday season wine tasting tour, with stops at a few of the larger, well-established sparkling houses (where tours and education about méthode champenoise production are a big draw) and several of the smaller wineries offering one or two sparkling wines (some of them made from unexpected grapes) at their tasting room.
Set in the redwoods above the Russian River, iconic Korbel is a classic destination in all kinds of weather, for locals and first-time visitors alike. The winery was founded in 1882, and the original brick building houses a visitor center with a mini movie theater and museum. The tours start at a former railroad station, and the charmingly old-fashioned tasting room is festooned for the season.
After an informative tour of Gloria Ferrer’s caves and sparkling wine facility, order up a glass or flight of sparkling wine on the veranda of this Spanish-styled winery.
Take advantage of the food and wine pairings at modern-styled J. The Bubble Room experience is sumptuous.
They may be among the most prestigious sparkling wine producers in California, but the visiting experience here is a laid-back slice of western Sonoma County rusticity. Hang out at the rambling outdoor bar on a brisk, but sunny winter’s day, and take in gorgeous Green Valley views.
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 tasting room has a fun, retro vibe.
If Amista’s bold, bubbly, red sparkling Syrah is too crazy Aussie-style much for you, try the Blanc de Blanc at this friendly, barn-styled Dry Creek Valley winery.
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.
Kathleen Inman makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at this small, tidy winery located at the corner of Piner and Olivet roads, just down the street from Russian River Valley notables like DeLoach. For a bit of fun, she also offers a 2014 Whole Buncha Bubbles Blanc de Noirs.
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.
Woodenhead’s Methode 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.
Here are some great tips on how to properly open a bottle of sparkling wine. Enjoy!
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.