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Tasting notes from California

© 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Keith Schramsberg is one of California's best known names, their portfolio of excellent, traditional method sparkling wines provide the pop and fizz in many a celebration, and their miles of old caves dug into the Diamond Mountain are a major visitor attraction in the area. What many drinkers of Schramsberg may not know is that the company also produces red Bordeaux-style wines from the vineyards around the sparkling wine cellars, which appear under the J Davies label.

My appointment was with Keith Hock (right), former professional cyclist and now winemaker for Schramsberg's sparkling wines. Keith has been here since 2002, having gained experience working for David Ramey, then at Saintsbury. His new job at Schramsberg was something of a culture shock at first: "Most winemakers think making sparkling wine is easy - we get the juice and stick it in a bottle. But sparkling wine is more challenging to make, because we have to do everything twice." At Schramsberg the process is a complex one: "We are making many, many small lots of base wines, and that is a big task: the base wines are all basically tart and thin, but it is the tiny nuances at that stage that make the differences."

Schramsberg's 40-odd acres of vineyard spread across a lovely old 200-acre farm. The operation is Napa Green Certified, and entirely solar powered. Standing looking over steep slopes, PR Manager Matt Levy tells me "Because of the steep slopes we must use some chemical sprays, we can't work them by hand or horses, so we are sustainable but not organic." It takes a little moment for it to sink in that the vineyards all around the winery do not produce the fruit for the wines being made there: "This property in Diamond Mountain is too hot for the Chardonnay and Pinot we need for sparkling," says Keith. All of the vineyards are Bordeaux varieties, destined for the J Davies label.

winery pond

The first sparkling wines were produced by Schramsberg in 1965, under the ownership of the Davies family who still own it today, but the estate has been here since 1852 and one of its biggest admirers was Robert Louis Stevenson. Having married in San Francisco, Stevenson's honeymoon was in the nearby town of Calistoga. In his diary, Stevenson wrote: "Mr. Schram' the oldest vineyard in the valley, eighteen years old I think. In this wild spot, I did not feel the sacredness of ancient cultivation. It was still raw, it was no Marathon, and no Johannesburg; yet the stirring sunlight, and the growing vines, and the vats and bottles in the cavern, made a pleasant music for the mind. Here, also, earth's cream was being skimmed and garnered: and the customers can taste, such as it is, the tang of the earth in this green valley. So local, so quintessential is a wine, that it seems the very birds in the verandah might communicate a flavour, and that romantic cellar influence the bottle next to be uncorked in Pimlico, and the smile of jolly Mr. Schram might mantle in the glass."

Another celebrity of sorts, President Richard Nixon, also boosted the fortunes of the company and the whole sparkling wine industry in Napa when he took a bottle of Schramsberg to China in 1972 on an official visit. The bottle made front page news, and soon the Champagne houses took an interest in the valley, leading to the foundation of Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Mumm's Cuvée Napa and Domaine Chandon.

Today's portfolio of sparkling wines is very impressive. Across the range, around 25% sees barrel fermentation and malolactic depends on the character of the vintage season. The top cuvée, J Schram, ages for six years and can be as much as 40% barrel fermented.

the wines

Schramsberg is imported by The Vineyard Cellars. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Schramsberg, Blanc de Blanc 2010, California
100% Chardonnay. Lovely bright, apple and yeasty nose, with a touch of brioche and a nice zestiness about it aromatically. Real feeling of sweetness on the palate (though it has a Brut level of dosage) with, a delightful length and ripe fruit filling the mouth, but then a big core of pithy lemon and dry apple that keeps it really fresh in the finish. 88-89/100. $37 locally.

Schramsberg, Brut Rosé 2009, California
Around 40% Chardonnay, along with Pinot. Small lots of Pinot made as a red wine and blended. Fine peach and light salmon colour. Bright, summery character, with touches of strawberry and cream. The palate is nicely dry and has that touch of pleasing sour cherry and lemon giving it very dry, savoury character. The sweetness of the fruit, the strawberry touch is lovely. Fresh and lively stuff of lovely quality. 89-90. $42 locally.

Schramsberg, J Schram 2005, California
Mostly Chardonnay, with around 10% Pinot Noir, aged for 6 years. Lovely deep, Champagne-like yeast and autolysis nose, bruised fruit to the fore, huge lemony core, it has that sweetness of the fruit ripeness again, and extra bruised fruit and gently toffeed depth, but has lovely sour grapefruity tang in the finish. Deliciously long. 92/100. $110. Only around 3,000 cases of this and the Reserve are made.

Schramsberg, Reserve 2005, California
Blanc de Noir style, but there is around 25% Chardonnay in this vintage, normally only around 10%. Big autolytic nose, lots of nettle and bruised fruit, a really nice savoury character. There is terrific fruit on the palate, but it is much racier and more serious, with great concentration and a decisive core of pithy grapefruit that drives it, just a flattering touch of sweetness and creamy oak character that rounds out the finish. 93/100. $110.

J. Davies Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
A blend of 87% Cabernet and 13% Malbec aged in 65% new French oak. A nice bit of lifted, gently floral Malbec character, there is a bright, sparky cherry and violet touch to the nose over tight black fruit and a touch of mint. The palate has huge presence, with a creamy, fat black fruit sweetness, filled with juicy black fruit, the tannins are extremely smooth, extremely chocolaty and creamy, the buoyant quality of the fruit and the elegance of the tannins make this both easy to drink but not lacking the structure. 92/100. $80.

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