Champagne Crawling In The Napa

Love your bubbly? I know I do. Champagne is the magic word that needs no translation in any language and there’s nothing quite like hearing that delightful “pop” followed by that sparkle and fizz as that liquid gold trickles gently down the neck of a crystal flute. And what better time to enjoy it than Christmastime!

On a recent trip to the United States, I discovered to my great delight that some of, arguably, the finest bubbly in the world can now be found in California. In fact, with the Napa Valley being such a significant producer of sparkling wine, traditional French Champagne houses have opened wineries in this region in order to make American sparkling wine according to the Champagne method. It was no hardship for me whatsoever to explore this fascinating region - and enjoy a few glasses of bubbly in the process - and discover the 5 wineries that are giving the region of Champagne a run for their money.

Driving into the picturesque Sonoma Carneros region in the Napa Valley, 45 kilometres north of San Francisco, is Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards. A beautiful and elegant winery that is set back on a lovely hillside, Gloria Ferrer winery’s sun-drenched Vista terrace overlooks a breathtaking 335-acre estate.

Established in 1986, not only was the Ferrer family’s winery the first sparkling wine house of this region, but their culture embodies a Spanish winegrowing history and centuries-old sustainable practices in creating exceptional sparkling and estate varietal wines that are blended to pair perfectly with food.

As pioneers of sparkling wine-based clonal research, their longtime relationship of discovery with the land shows in balanced, earthy and opulent wines. Try the 1999 Carneros Cuvee, a stunning, decade-old Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend. Great drinking with seafood, roast chicken, risotto.... in fact, on its own will do marvelously too!

About 8 miles “down the road” from Gloria Ferrer is the regional landmark of Domain Carneros, a French chateau founded by France’s legendary Taittinger family of Champagne fame. The building is a replica of the Taittinger family’s country home and estate in France, the Chateau de la Marquetterie. In the late 1970’s, Claude Taittinger proclaimed his faith in the future of American wines, so he began his search on U.S. soil for a suitable winery site. In 1987, he was able to select a 138 acre parcel in the heart of Carneros which he believed had the potential to produce world class sparkling wines.

The result of that vision are award-winning wines handcrafted from grapes grown in certified organic vineyards. On a beautiful day, the place to be is the terrace outside the tasting room, savouring the exquisite views of endless vineyard-covered hills with a glass of bubbly in your hand, preferably the Domain Carneros’ Brut Rose Cuvee de la Pompadour. After a couple of glasses, one should find no trouble in imagining oneself as Madame de Pompadour, great courtesan and mistress of Louis XV, who uttered the famous words, ”Champagne is the only wine a woman can drink and remain beautiful.” Continuing on the Carneros Highway and left on Highway 29 towards Yountville, you will find Domaine Chandon, founded by the great Champagne house of Moet & Chandon.

Like Taittinger, they too believed in the future of American wines and chose the Carneros and Mount Veeder regions of the Napa Valley as the ideal climate and soil to make fine sparkling wines in the French tradition. Establishing their winery in the early 70‘s, they produced their first vintage in 1976. Today, Domain Chandon not only produce a large variety of fine handcrafted sparkling wines, their spectacular winery is, in itself, well worth the visit. An architectural wonder, complete with landscaped grounds, trees, ponds and sculptures, a world-class gourmet restaurant named Etoile, and that inescapable view of the valley that sits behind their tasting room, this winery is a “must” on your Napa Champagne Crawl.

From Highway 29, turning right on Oakville Cross Road, then left and 2 miles down the Silverado Trail, lies Mumm Napa Valley, a partnership established in 1979 between France’s Mumm Champagne house and American Seagram & Sons. Another architecturally stunning winery, its tasting room has a glass wall overlooking acres of breathtaking vineyards and an outdoor terrace. It also houses a permanent photo gallery, where works of some of America’s most famous photographers are rotated. The 1-hour Champagne tour is fascinating, and if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a working robot named “Bob” who is stationed in the bottling area. I recommend you visit during the week, when it is less crowded, or book your tour early. Oh, and don’t forget to try the Cuvee M. Marvelous. Magical. Magnificent. Are you there yet?

Further along the Silverado Trail, crossing the valley and along Highway 29 to St. Helena, you will find the magnificent Victorian home that houses the second winery to be established in the Napa Valley, Schramsberg Vineyards and Winery. Constructed in the late 1800’s, Jack Davis and his wife Jamie purchased the historic property in 1965 with the vision of producing fine sparkling wines.

The Schramsberg wine tours are extremely popular due to their small numbers and tour guides with a wealth of information about the wines, so do book your tour early. The underground “Champagne Caves” are the largest in the Napa and truly incredible and atmospheric, with wine tastings conducted in the candle-lit tasting bar. This is the perfect atmosphere to try the newly released 2007 Blanc de Blancs - delicious and fresh with
a crisp, long and lingering finish. Mmmmm! You may want to avoid the cave experience if you are slightly claustrophobic!

Wine country doesn’t get more real than the Napa Valley, its rich soils marking the birthplace of California’s wine industry. Might I thank the French for bringing methode champenoise to this part of the world, thereby making Champagne more accessible to everyone. Whether you prefer simple pleasures or lavish luxury, provided you drink responsibly, there’s no better way to toast life than with a glass of “bubbly”!

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