Sparkling wine production was started in California in the 1890s, by Korbel Bros. Then, the charmat method dominated, using a wide range of grape varieties. After World War 2, the transfer method took over. In the 1970s, lack of new acreage in Champagne, and with an eye to the US market, where champagne sales had been decreasing, but sparkling sales increasing, prompted an influx of French Champagne houses, to invest in local production in California. Cheap land and freedom from Champagne style regulation, enabling fast adaptation to taste and situation, iced the cake. After the Champenois’ arrival, the traditional method was used much more, in a trend towards higher quality, using two Champagne varieties – chardonnay and pinot noir.
The European immigrants now include: LVMH as Chandon, Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger, and from Spain – Codorniu and Freixenet.
The terroirs of California and Champagne are completely different, so it no surprise that wines are different. Premium Californian wines, aspire to the quality and characteristics of top quality champagne, but owing to the more benign climate, relative to Northern France, the wines are typically more approachable, fruit forward without being heavily fruity, and to some degree, have less acidity. Nevertheless, there are wines of at least equivalent quality – so they are just not the same thing. For the same climactic reason, vintage wines are produced almost every year.
Other than aspiring champagne style wines, important California sparklers include, amongst others:
- Moscato bianco – low alcohol sweet lightly sparkling, popularised by hip-hop performers, demand has risen dramatically (Gallo, Sutter Home etc)
- Zinfandel – medium sweet, pink and white (Gallo, Beringer etc)
The best sites have proximity to the ocean for cooling breezes, and altitude, contributing to acidity retention and a slow berry maturation. Prime areas include:
- Anderson Valley AVA, in Mendocino County
- Carneros AVA, includes parts of Napa and Sonoma counties.
- Green Valley AVA, in Sonoma County
- Napa Valley AVA
- Sonoma Valley AVA
A warm climate, moderated by proximity to the Pacific, and elevation, as one progresses up the valleys. Warm day temperatures warm the land, causing the air to rise over it. By the afternoon, this starts to draw moist, cool and in some places fog laden air off the Pacific, dropping vineyard temperatures substantially. Though generally rather too warm for top class sparklers, producers are often subsidiaries of knowledgeable Champagne houses, who quickly identified the best sites.
The best sites are in addition, as usual, well-drained with poor fertility. Anderson Valley has weathered weakly consolidated sandstone, giving sandy loamy soils; and Carneros – similar sandstone and some limestone.
The industry is heavily influenced by Champagne houses, as shown in the list below. Pricing is key to their strategy, all offering brut at affordable prices, Chandon for example at US$22. Bulk produced wines occupy a large part of the economy market.
There are over 80 sparkling wine producers in California. In 2012 almost 9m c/s of sparkling wine were shipped in California, with growth over 2011 of 3%, but moscato was the driver for this. Most producers have their own vineyards, as well as contract growers.
The production method is either traditional for premium quality, or charmat for low-cost bulk offerings.
The best producers of traditional method sparkling wine in the style of Champagne are regarded by many, as Iron Horse, Roederer and Schramsberg, within the lists below.
Old world producers in California:
- Carneros (Sonoma Valley) – Gloria Ferrer – Freixenet.
- Carneros (Sonoma Valley) – Domaine Carneros – Taittinger (with Kobrand Corp.). About 39k c/s (2006).
- Carneros (the coolest part of Napa Valey) – Artesa (owned by Codorniu), mainly a still wine producer, but produces and markets Codorniu Napa sparkling wine.
- Mendocino – Roederer Estate, Anderson Valley. Takes extreme care as in France, uses reserve wines in brut; there are vintage and rose too. About 100k cases (2006).
- Napa Valley – Domaine Chandon, the first French-owned producer in California, from 1976. Successful from the start – rich, stylish wines at sensible prices. Best known for its brut, also blancs de noir and vintage wines. About 350k c/s (2006).
- Napa Valley – Mumm Napa Valley. The best is Cuvee Napa, a 50:50 chardonnay:pinot noir blend. About 220k c/s (2006).
Domestic producers include:
- Napa Valley – Schramsberg. Traditional method. With vineyards in prime spots across the area. About 55k c/s (2012).
- Sonoma County (Green Valley) – Iron Horse. A small independent family owned concern, prestige traditional method wines, all styles, include LD – late disgorged; famous for being served at US state dinners.
- Sonoma County – Korbel California Champagne. Traditional method, a large range, diverse varieties – chardonnay, columbard, chenin blanc, pinot noir, sangiovese, zinfandel … About 1.3m c/s (2010). (How do they get away with labels including champagne – the IRS permits it for some producers. Use of Champagne must be qualified by the origin of the grapes, and be to the right on the label, of any such origin).
- Also Beringer, Gallo and many others.
Varieties for premium sparkling wine: chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot meunier and pinot noir.
Varieties for other wines: wide-ranging depending on the production method and price point.
Training is all on wires. Roederer use the lyre system. Vineyards are highly mechanised at the bottom end of the market.
For premium wines, processes follow the Champagne model – grapes are hand harvested, then gentle fractional pressing, then subject to the traditional method, with appropriate lees ageing for the style. Rose is made either by brief skin contact or the addition of red wine.
Wines continue to be made by the charmat method, for example E. J. Gallo’s company Barefoot Wines, produces Barefoot Bubbly, described as pinot grigio Champagne.
Do Californian champagnes age gracefully and beneficially?
Shramsberg for example, reckon their vintage wines can benefit from 10-15 years ageing.
From very dry (natural) to sweet.
In Californian champagne style wines, the fruity flavours can dominate the typical French champagne notes of toast, biscuit and so on.
- Chateau Beaux Hauts, En Tirage, RD Extra Brut, Russian River Valley 1992.
- Roederer Estate’s Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV.
- Bonne, J. (2006). The bubbly issue / Champagne houses take root in California soil. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- California Sparkling Wine. Some informal discussion around the major producers.[online] accessed 31/10/17.
- California Wine Institute – the trade organisation representing over 1000 wineries and affiliated businesses. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Why aren’t there more California sparkling wine producers? San Francisco Chronicle (2015). [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Sullivan, C.L. (1998). A Companion to California Wine. University of California Press.