The Napa Valley winemaker offers bubbles for every day.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
I am a bubbly fanatic — I just can’t get enough of the stuff. And as for saving it for special occasions? That is just unfathomable to me. Getting takeout Popeye’s on Tuesday or curling up on the couch on a rainy Friday movie-night is every bit as sparkling-wine worthy to me as celebrating a birthday or promotion. (Maybe even more so, as bubbles have the uncanny ability to effortlessly give the mundane a bit of je ne sais quoi.) I have, however, gotten a bit more discriminating over the years about which bubbles can grace my flute (Confected Prosecco? Usually not. Cava? Totally depends on the producer. Sekt? Can be very interesting, if only for a glass). I could drink Champagne any night of the week, bien sûr (especially if someone else is buying), but equally delicious in their own right are traditional method sparkling wines made by California wineries — some of which are affiliated with French Champagne houses. Producers like Mumm Napa Valley, Schramsberg, Iron Horse and Gloria Ferrer put out some fantastic fizz, usually at price points that make them accessible and wallet-friendly no matter the occasion — or lack thereof.
Also well-deserved in this category is Chandon, established in Napa Valley in 1973 by Moët & Chandon, whose diverse portfolio of sparkling wines means that effervescent-loving oenophiles can grab the right bottle, anytime the mood for bubbly strikes them. I recently sat down with Chandon sparkling winemaker Tom Tiburzi for a brunch that started with (what else?) a few of Chandon’s fizzy offerings. Tiburzi has been making wine at Chandon since 1989, when he was hired to assist with experimental wine trials. He worked his way up from the lab and production areas to become associate winemaker, before being promoted in 2005 to winemaker for all of Chandon’s sparkling wines. (To put this in perspective, 95% of the wine they produce is sparkling, so he’s quite a busy guy.) Currently, Chandon offers three tiers of sparkling wine, and Tiburzi shared with me the characteristics and differences.
“Our classic tier sparkling wines are all about soft fruit,” Tiburzi explained. Chandon Brut Classic ($14) delivers apple, pear and hints of brioche; Chandon Blanc de Noirs ($15) has hints of strawberry, cherry and cassis. (It also happens to be the wine currently served at all White House receptions.) I tend to favor the fuller body and structure of the Blanc de Noirs, not to mention its gorgeous salmon hue. Its subtle spiciness also makes it a great match with sushi or sashimi.
Though it can be difficult to win over wine lovers with pink — even if it’s a dry, crisp Spanish or French bottle that’s nothing like white zin — rosé sparkling wine doesn’t seem to suffer from the same stigma, and is in fact pretty trendy right now. Tiburzi touts rosé bubbles like his Chandon Rosé ($15) as food-friendly and festive, and likes to do them in a Brut style. He does point out that the inclusion of red wine for rosé bubbly renders astringency, so he adds just enough sugar to offset the bitterness. (The step in sparkling wine production where sugar and a bit of the base wine are used to top off the bottle before fine corking is called dosage, and it determines the final sweetness. Tiburzi shared with me that to him, it’s akin to making lemonade and determining how tart/sweet you want the beverage to be. Great analogy.)
Chandon’s Reserve line of sparkling wine offers more complexity and quality, at a slightly higher price point. These wines spend three years on the yeast, versus a minimum of twelve months for Classic wines. As a result, the familiar aromas of yeast, bread dough, brioche, and all other great baking scents are more apparent, as they would be with Champagne (remember, all of Chandon’s wines are made in the traditional method, with the same grapes and production techniques as the French stuff). Tiburzi explained that their Reserve wines are more about style, rather than making the fruit front and center. Currently, the wines are labeled according to the inclusion of their main grape: Chandon Chardonnay Brut, Pinot Noir Brut and Pinot Noir Rosé. But the winery has seen wine drinkers become savvier about sparkling wine and how it’s labeled. As a result, they will soon be relabeled Chandon Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($22), and Chandon Reserve Brut ($22).
Chandon’s third tier of effervescent elixirs is named for the restaurant on property at the winery. Not only is Etoile the only restaurant in Napa Valley with a winery on the property, it has just been graced with a Michelin star for the third year in a row. Chef (and Napa Valley native) Perry Hoffman has led the culinary team since 2007, having previously worked as sous chef at the bucolic Auberge du Soleil and the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
But back to the wines. Tiburzi likens étoile to a Champagne house’s Prestige Cuvée, the flagship, highest quality bottle only produced in certain vintages (Louis Roederer’s is Cristal, for example, and Moet & Chandon’s is Dom Pérignon). Etoile Brut ($28) has enticing notes of baked apple, baking spices, creaminess and a nutty finish; Etoile Rosé ($32) has plum, cherry and raspberry on the nose, and is at the same time elegant, bold and well-balanced.
Aficionados of the winery are referred to as “Domainiacs,” many of whom visit the winery often and snatch up some of the limited releases. But most of Chandon’s bubbly is widely available in the D.C. area, and on area restaurant wine lists.
For more information on Chandon’s wines, and on visiting the winery if you are planning a trip to Napa Valley, go to www.chandon.com. I stopped by a few years back during a trip to Napa, and I can tell you that sitting on their patio on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, with a bottle of wine, some cheese and charcuterie was one of the highlights of my trip. For now, I’ll have to be content with a bottle of étoile Rosé on my patio. Not bad, either.