Most of us never think of aging sparkling wines or Champagnes as they are most often bought to celebrate specific and very contemporary moments. But a meeting (and tasting) with Eileen Crane, CEO of founding winemaker at Napa Valley’s Domaine Carneros and widely considered to be the doyenne of sparkling wines in the U.S., helped us put both of those habits to rest.
Crane launched her winemaking career as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Chandon, the Napa Valley sparkling winery owned by Moet & Chandon Champagne. In 1983, she became winemaker and vice president of Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves in Sonoma’s Carneros region, where she oversaw the design and construction of the facilities, as well as developed the line of sparkling wines.
In 1987 Claude Taittinger, head of the legendary French Taittinger Champagne house, selected Crane for the position of managing director and winemaker at the then new Domaine Carneros winery. Crane oversaw the planning and development of the chateau and winemaking facilities. Domaine Carneros makes three traditional styles of sparkling wine: Brut, Brut Rosť and Blanc de Blancs. A few sparkling questions answered by Crane:
Flute Vs. Coupe Vs. Tulip: The long stem of the flute insures that you can drink the wine without warming it up through the heat from your hand. And the long bowl is designed to preserve the bubbles by reducing the surface area at the top. The tulip also has a long stem and narrow bowl, but boasts a tapered rim which helps emphasize the aromas. The coupe is the classic Champagne glass, designed in the 1600s. But Crane emphasizes that it should ultimately be about the wine not the vessel — “Use whatever glasses you have handy. Our winemakers use a regular wine glass in their technical tastings.”
How to open bubbly like a pro: The goal is to ease — not pop — the cork out. Popping the cork may be dramatic, but it also comes with a loss of wine, and nobody wants that.
• Remove the foil from around the cage
• Tilt the bottle away from yourself — and anyone else — at a 45 degree angle
• Place your thumb on top on top of the cork and twist the wire tab that encases the cork — it should take six twists.
• Keep your hand on the neck and your thumb on the top of the cork. Use your other hand to twist the bottle.
• Once you hear a sigh, gently slide the cork out.
What temperature should your bubbly be? The ideal temperature is 42 degrees, but really, the temperature you like it best at is fine. To chill, one hour in the fridge is good. Or 20 minutes in a bucket of ice and water — adding a ľ cup of salt to the water speeds up the chilling. And pour your glasses less than Ĺ full, and replenish often to keep bubbly cold.
How much bubbly do you need?
• For a toast: one bottle for five to six glasses
• For a two-hour cocktail party: one bottle for every three guests
• Paired with a meal: one bottle for every two people
When to serve sparkling wines? "I think the issue is that Americans believe that sparkling wine is somehow almost illicit, that it needs to be saved just for special occasions," said Crane. A bottle of still wine pays a federal tax of seven cents, while a sparkling wine pays a federal tax of 80 cents. Of course it's sinful! In France for instance, if you go to dinner in a white tablecloth restaurant they expect that you're going to have a glass of champagne or their house sparkling cocktail. In pubs in England you will see people drinking champagne. Americans just don't think that way. But they should. The great thing about sparkling wine is that you can serve it with the simplest food and yet you instantly have a special event. I serve sparkling wine with goat cheese, a double or triple cream cheese, a little dish of nuts. Or popcorn. Brut will go with everything from oysters to New York steak. And I like the RÍve with scallops, crab and especially lobster.
About aging: Fine sparkling wines are ready to drink upon release, but according to Crane they can be aged for up to a decade, if they are kept at a cool constant temperature and kept from light. As they age, the wines will pick up more toast and caramel notes. We got a lesson in aging from Crane as we participated in a vertical tasting of Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine vintages from 1992 through 2005.
Blanc de Blancs means "white of whites" or white wine made from white grapes. Eileen Crane and Claude Taittinger believe that the finest sparkling wine in the world is a Blanc de Blancs made from Chardonnay grapes. Their Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs is generally 100% Chardonnay (with a small percent of Pinot Blanc in some years), made from all estate-grown, organically farmed grapes, is always a vintage production, and is aged a minimum of five years in the bottle before release. Le RÍve has been repeatedly rated as the best sparkling wine made in the U.S. Stylistically Crane describes it as “elegant, balanced, with lots of body and a long finish. It’s like Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress with a string of pearls, everything in place but still fun and kicky. But no tricks, what you see is what you get."
What we tasted:
1992 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs This was the inaugural cuvee, and Crane reminisced about making it over 20 years ago when “during harvest, the vineyard smelled like a peach pie baking.” That profile of ripe stone fruit, with hints of biscuit and spice was evident, with a creamy texture and bright taste.
1993 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs As a contrast the 1993, was creamy and tropical, with aromas of orange blossom, pineapple and honey.
1994 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs It was really interesting to taste the first three vintages in a row, the thread of creamy elegance and citrus ran through them all, but they each showed vastly different characterictics. The 1994 was earthy, almost mushroomy on the nose, with tart apples on the palate.
1995 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The 1995 was all honeysuckle and pineapple on the nose, with a rich body and toast and cream on the palate.
1997 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The 1997 showed good acidity and structure, with aromas of passionfruit and melon, and tasted of toast, cream, caramel and citrus.
1998 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The 1998 was elegant with a lot of structure, with notes of honeysuckle, honey and toast.
1999 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The 1999 was distinguished by distinctive floral notes of honeysuckle and vineyard, with pineapple and orange undercut by a hint of vanilla and particularly mouthwatering acidity.
2000 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The crop for this vintage was slightly smaller than usual and Crane said that flavor development was exceptional. It was creamy and full, showing lots of pear, custard, ginger and spices.
2001 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs This wine had particular fine bubbles, laced with honey and caramel.
2002 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs The growing season was notable for a late spring frost, which led to a smaller crop at harvest. The foggy summer allowed the fruit to ripen slowly during June and July which maximized flavor development and maintained acidity levels. The wine is really reminiscent of crŤme brulee.
2003 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs 2003 was another particularly foggy year, with a small crop that yielded a wine of particular intensity, with a palate of ginger, grapefruit, toasted notes and crŤme brulee, with a particularly long finish.
2004 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs This was the first vintage crafted under fully organic farming practices. “We have a commitment to live as lightly on the land as possible” explained Crane. There was a long slow ripening period with lots of fog. The wine has aromas of flowers, pear and lemon, with ginger and tasted nuts on the palate.
2005 Le RÍve Blanc de Blancs Harvest began on this vintage on July 29th — the earliest ever. The wone is full bodied, with a long silky finish, lots of toasted almonds and crŤme brulee.