When you think of Napa Valley, you think of bold, juicy reds and ripe, oaky Chardonnays and yet the region to the south of this world-famous region is more than capable of creating elegant, cold-climate wines. Carneros is perhaps a tad less known than its neighbouring production regions and yet its wines are also excellent. Some of the USA’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is grown here and, whilst it doesn’t have the same household name-trait as Sonoma and Napa, its wines are sought after in the USA and in many parts of the world as well. Not only is this region known for mouth-watering, Burgundian-style Chardonnay and elegant Pinot Noir but for its excellent sparkling wines too.
Perhaps the region’s best-known producer of bubbly is Domaine Carneros, situated inside a beautiful palace resembling the Château de la Marquetterie (close to Épernay in the Champagne region of France). It also shares similar ownership: both estates are operated by Taittinger.
When talking about sparkling wines from anywhere other than Champagne, a common question arises? Is there a market for these wines, is there any reason that these products should become unilaterally available? Especially in this case, with Champagne-brand ownership, the appeal of US sparkling wine in Europe at least is perhaps not really very attractive – even established wine producing nations in the EU have trouble remaining viable and relevant: Champagne's market dominance excels over all regions and is constantly (and rightfully) the bubbly that all other sparkling wines are measured against – how can a US producer create wines that are attractive and appealing to all drinkers?
Well, first and foremost, Domaine Carneros is a US-market intended product. Whereas Champagne is widely available and incredibly successful in the US, there is a demand for domestically-produced, high-quality sparkling wine too. In the case of Domaine Carneros, the wines are similar in style to those of the Champagne producer Taittinger and yet, in the premium sector, very different. The entry-level bubblies might indeed lack appeal in Europe (especially when you consider that the retail price is likely to be similar or higher than the French wines), the top-segment is not only good, but also unique.
Taittinger is also not the only Champagnoise producer making wines in California: Moët, Mumm, Roederer and a handful of others also make wine here – with increasing success: many of these products are available outside of the USA and Moet’s Domaine Chandon has developed into a chain of wineries all over the new world: Brazil, Australia, Argentina and even China are home to “Chandon”-Brand wineries.
However Roederer and Taittinger are the quality drivers in French-know-how, Californian bubbly with both brands operating a series of entry-level Brut wines and prestige, Californian-style sparkings.
Late last year, I had the chance to visit Domaine Carneros and tasted the entire range of sparkling wines. Whereas the three “basic” wines are perhaps best-placed only on the US market, the three luxury lines were astonishingly good: The vintage Blanc de Blancs, the "Ultra Brut" and flagship “Le Rêve” wines were excellent: combining both the elegance of Taittinger and the Champagne with the fuller, bolder and more modern style of Californian winemaking.
Below you’ll find my reviews of the six Domaine Carneros sparkling wines.
The Domaine Carneros Rose is one of my favourite American sparkling wines: with a wonderful citrus character in the way of tangerine peel and pink grapefruit, it is completed with a wide variety of stone fruits, red berries and then ends on a brioche-style, biscuity finish, leaving it impeccably clean despite being full of fresh flavour.
Vintage tasted: 2012
This modern, slightly creamier and fruiter take on Demi-Sec is very good with signs of white peach, lychee, apricot and a handful of floral elements: rose petal, a brief hit of lavender and a yeasty undertone lead the wine into a long, off-dry finish with a crispness that completes the wine and tidies up the sweeter edge, leaving it compact and clean rather than sticky and clumsy.
Vintage Tasted: 2011
My favourite of the "basic" Domaine Carneros wines is the Ultra Brut. This Pinot Noir-Chardonnay Cuvee is bursting with character: plenty of delicious yellow fruit: lychee, lemon peel and cooking apple. Excruciatingly dry, the minerals that come through are salt, steel and a touch of toasted white bread. Whilst being very dry, the wine impresses with an unusually creamy body.
Vintage Tasted: 2011
This Chardonnay & Pinot Gris Cuvee Brut is long and smooth. It impresses with a fuller body and more complete aromas than are usually found in American fizz: Almonds, Hazelnut, and macadamia are offset with tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, kiwi and even a touch of banana. Perhaps the boldest and most voluptuous of the Carneros sparkling wines, the finish is crisp and yet remains long on the tongue after swallowing.
Vintage tasted: 2010
Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs
Le Rêve is a modern expression of Taittinger's excellent Comtes de Champagne: just like its french counterpart, it wallows in discretion: a playful and elegant approach rather than an all-out taste-bomb: wonderful notes of honeysuckle, pear and a touch of spice: cardamon and coriander - the fuller fruit notes are well-hidden but definitely there: a decent, structured and well-made sparkling wine -undoubtedly one of the USA's finest.
Vintage tasted: 2009
Finding these wines where you live/ Visit
Domaine Carneros in the USA
Domaine Carneros in the UK
Why shouldn't it be good? With much the same soil, the same climate and, in many cases, the same know-how as that famous region a few hundred kilometres to the South-East, English sparkling wine is one of the wine-industry’s fasting-growing sectors.
Names such as Chapel Down, Ridgeview, Camel Valley and Nyetimber have brought these fantastic products into supermarkets where consumers often boycott their previously favourite Champagne brand for some fantastic British wine.
It’s diverse too. Whereas some producers have gone along the lines of creating wine as similar to Champagne as possible using the same varietals and similar production techniques, others have opted to create a new style of wine – a British sparkler that uses varietals grown (nearly) only in England to make unique and fabulous creations.
Although the production and retailing of English sparkling wine is popular, the Rosés from UK producers have been slower into the racks of your local grocer. It won’t surprise you but the Rosé is also very good. Many producers opt for the often more difficult job of allowing the grape skin to define the colour of the wine rather than (as is commonplace in most of the Champagne region) pouring a small amount of riper red into the final product for the pink hue.
Here are my favourite English Rosé sparkling wines.
Finding these wines where you live
The reason for this is probably the fact that most wineries use Riesling to make sparkling wine. There’s nothing wrong with this but, through experience, I’ve always found Riesling Sekt a little unrefined: rarely does the relatively powerful Riesling fit too well with the acidic touch expected in sparkling wine: often the wines are too sour, too off-balance and feel like their much-cheaper compatriots in the racks below from huge Sektkellereien named after fairy-tail characters or a Champagne house famed for its sponsoring in F1.
Things are changing though
Alongside a handful of specialist producers of only sparkling wine: Schloß Vaux, Kessler and possibly even (the conglomerate-owned) Geldermann, the best bubbly comes from established wineries. I believe the following three offer great drinking and brilliant value-for-money. All three are relatively new on the market and are appealing to audiences never really particularly interested in Sekt – the buyers of Champagne who have recently realised that most of what is on sale in supermarkets is best left there – 40€ for some fancy packaging and a mediocre wine is quite-frankly taking the…
Van Volxem 1900 Riesling Brut
Van Volxem’s 1900 Brut is made using grapes from particularly good parcels of vineyard in the world-famous Saar region. The Riesling vines grow on first-class slate soils and the final wine is fermented for a second time in the bottle for up to five years creating a particularly elegant and aromatic wine.
Tasting Notes (2008)
On the attack are sweet lime and lemon notes with a profound acidity that quickly turns into a full body of stone fruit: particularly nectarine. The finish was characterised by a slate feel which worked well with a shortbread-like note and some floral elements.
Berry Bros. and Rudd
Reichsrat Von Buhl Riesling Brut
Made from selected grapes in Germany’s Pfalz and under the watchful eye of Matthieu Kaufmann (famed for his work at Bollinger), this wine offers a complexity that is seldom in young sparkling wine. There is an immediate elegance which reminds straight away of Champagne but, thanks to the sharp, sour Pfälzer Riesling grapes, the wine offers a beautiful drinkability and freshness.
Tasting Notes (2013)
A Sharp attack with plenty of vibrant citrus: lime juice and lemon peel. In the body are yellow fruits: yellow plum but also apple and gooseberry, the finish is bone dry, slightly sour and remarkably fresh.
Markus Schneider Bubbly
Left on the yeast for nine months, the wine becomes incredibly complex and yet, at the same time, so easy to drink. The grapes are grown at higher altitude creating the 'just-ripe' notes required for a traditional sparkling wine.
Tasting Notes (2013)
The attack is rather reserved and feels reserved at first. It eventually gives way to notes of tropical fruit: pineapple, banana and everything in between alongside a refreshing citrus feel. The brioche note at the end reminds of well-made French bubbly although the whole thing is so much easier to drink – calm and cool but also full of energy – something that somes up most of Markus Schneider’s wines.
German Wine Agencies
Blanc De Noir