The Bubble Whisperer of Anderson Valley

Méthode Champenoise: The labor-intensive and costly process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles. All Champagne and most high-quality sparkling wine is made by this process.

A couple years back at an abundant Memorial Day Weekend party on Mendocino Ridge, I noticed winemaker Arnaud Weyrich of Roederer Estate sampling the random red wines on Anne Fashauer’s table with a Champagne flute instead of a regular wine glass.

While other winemakers in attendance were holding Pinot Noir style goblets and talking loudly about some of the bottles (or greasily devouring an actual platter of perfectly battered and fried abalone like myself and Jason Drew), Arnaud seemed to be quietly assessing the wines in a studious fashion. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, apologize for my practically pornographic style of wine writing in the AVA at the time, and mention my tour of his méthode champenoise operation in 2010 that made me a devout believer in Roederer Estate.

Gearing up for this holiday review of five local Sparklers that you should buy and try before 2014 goes out with a smattering of ridgeline shotgun bangs, I took the opportunity to talk with Arnaud and ask him how he became the bubble whisperer of Anderson Valley, the differences between Roederer and Scharffenberger, and some food options for their five current releases. There are a few other wineries making bubbly too, including Mary Elke, Goldeneye, and Navarro, but I chose to focus on the OG of Mendo sparkling wine.

Darren Delmore: Why did such a famous Champagne house choose Anderson Valley for its American operation? 

Arnaud Weyrich: The main reasons were the families were looking to expand outside of Champagne, and needed a climate close enough to Champagne. The families had a local contact named Henry Bugatto who was the GM for the retail markets on the West Coast. He knew the Parduccis, he knew the Mondavi’s. He was very well connected. He was the best person to scout out potential areas for sparkling wine on the West Coast. He pointed out a few locations to check. The family members looked at the numbers and weather patterns of Anderson Valley, and there were already a couple established wineries in the valley and they could taste the wines. They commissioned a small batch of pinot sparkling base to be made at Navarro in 1985. Fifty bottles or a hundred bottles, something like that. The outcome and decisions came from of the tasting of that wine. Plus, land was available.

DD: What was the first real production year for Roederer?

AW: We made a little bit of wine in 1986, and released in 1988 a small amount.

DD: When did you arrive in the Valley?

AW: I was an intern at Roederer in 1993 and stayed two years. I went back to France for five years and returned to the valley in 2000.

DD: Is there such a thing as a bad year for sparkling winemaking? 

AW: You have to think of the opposites. Things that can be good for still wines and pinot noir, like low crop and tannins and skin quality, are not good for sparkling wines. I’m not looking for concentration, not looking at tannins or skin quality. High alcohol is a defect [for sparkling wine production], and high acid is a defect. Low acid is a defect too. I’m trying to pinpoint some place in the middle.

DD: What are the stylistic differences between Roederer and Scharffenberger?

AW: Roederer uses reserve wines aged in wood casks. The use of oak creates the house style. On top of that and the selection of the wines is an acid-driven fruitiness and the creaminess of aging in the bottle as well. The style is non-ML and the wine ages on average for two and a half years. Scharffenberger wines see absolutely no oak and are a full ML style. The softness only comes from the malolactic fermentation – this softens the acid and makes the wines smoother. You get some aromatics from the ML, like banana cream. The Scharffenberger wines are more California in style.

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These comments ticked all the boxes as some friends and I tasted through the wines over a few different evenings. We came to the conclusion that Scharffenberger is crowd pleasing and pretty inexpensive, so if you’re throwing a big bash, or you and your partner are looking for hot tub juice and some easy effervescent nectar to splash on each other’s nipples, go that direction. But the acidity and intensity of the Roederer wines make them as nervy as real Champagne at a fraction of the cost, and the current lineup will inspire the true wine and cheesers in the county and abroad. What’s commendable is that Arnaud and his team have managed to keep both properties true to their own style, and crafted five wines that each has their place and occasion.

The Wines

Roederer Brut MV (60%Chardonnay/40% Pinot Noir). 80,000 cases produced and suggested retail $23.99. Tastes bright and steely. Metal, minerals and golden delicious apple if that makes sense. An entire bottle without food would have any man reaching for the Prilosec. Serve with sashimi, or as Arnaud recommended, with Asian fusion and spicy dishes. “The acidity works with oysters and fish,” he pointed out, “but it will be difficult with red meats.”

Scharffenberger Brut Excellence MV (55% Pinot Noir/45% Chardonnay). 35,000 cases produced/suggested retail $19.99. This is the social sparkler, more yellow in color and richer bodied, with the malolactic fermentation butter coming through. Makes me think of Mendo Chardonnay, even though the wine is half and half. This is softer, fatter and more drinkable on its own.

Scharffenberger Brut Rosé Excellence MV (57% Pinot Noir/43% Chardonnay). 3,000 cases produced/suggested retail $22.99. Very jammy and fruit-focused, with baking spices and richness. Immediate buzz on. Lord knows what a case of this would do to a bachelorette party in Vegas.

Roederer Brut Rosé MV (60% Pinot Noir/40% Chardonnay). 5,200 cases produced/suggested retail $28.99. This wine is a bona fide baby maker. Arnaud told me “the extra pinot noir gives structure and density in the wine, and a very broad spectrum of food can be matched. 99% of food will work, from pasta to pizza to fish to white meat.” He mentioned a Roederer event in Boston where a chef even paired steak tartare with it and everyone was stoked. I love this wine.

Roederer L’Ermitage Brut 2006 (52% Chardonnay/48% Pinot Noir). 3,200 cases produced/suggested retail $48. And here is “the heavyweight boxer” as Arnaud describes it. The L’Ermitage always gets high ratings in the wine press and is clearly the top domestic sparkler. “Ninety-five percent of this wine comes from 2006 and is a selection of the best lots… It’s a super selection. It’s bottled a year after harvest and spends seven years in bottle. It has concentration and dedicated flavors and density, so you want more elaborate food. Things like fish and butter. It has the power to go with that type of food.” This is one of the greatest wines in California and drinks like liquefied gold.

(These wines are available at the Roederer Estate Tasting Room and at Scharffenberger Cellars tasting room, which are both located on Highway 128 in Philo and open from 11 am to 5 pm. You can usually find bottles at Lemon’s in Philo and at Harvest Market in Fort Bragg and Mendocino too. Happy New Year!)

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