Wine Talk: A Schramsberg for the Ages

And other California sparkling wines to ring in the new year
December 28, 2020 Updated: December 28, 2020

When the late Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the historic Jacob Schram winery in Calistoga, California, in 1965, they embarked upon what must have seemed at the time to be the impossible dream.

Their goal was to produce the finest sparkling wine in America at the 100-year-old winery up on Diamond Mountain. They dreamed of a bubbly that would rival Champagne. Problem No. 1, however, was an inconsistent supply of chardonnay. Yet they forged ahead with dramatic results that inspired a number of prominent Champagne houses (Mumm, Taittinger, Moet & Chandon, and Roederer, to name a few) to purchase vineyard land in California.

Son Hugh Davies runs the winery these days and doubles as winemaker. Hugh embraced his parents’ vision and, based upon the bottle of 2011 J. Schram ($120) I just finished, has largely succeeded in the eternal quest to put Schramsberg on equal footing with the best Champagne houses.

J. Schram is Schramsberg’s answer to the tête de cuvée of Champagne, a luxury, prestige bottling that represents the finest bubbly the house has to offer. It is 90 percent chardonnay, 10 percent pinot noir. Significantly, it is aged eight years on the yeast lees prior to disgorgement. The extended aging builds complexity but takes time and costs money. Most businesses wouldn’t willingly create a product and then tuck it away for eight or nine years prior to offering it for sale.

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The wine caves at Schramsberg. (Courtesy of Schramsberg Vineyards)

That is what is required, however, to produce a New World sparkling wine that might rival the finest Champagne. The 2011 J. Schram is a stunning bubbly that is remarkably fresh and crisp despite its age. Showing notes of lemon, crunchy apple, and toasted brioche, it reflects the classic methode traditionnelle style.

On top of that, it is a California sparkler for the ages, meaning it will continue to shine for years to come if stored properly. Rating: 98 points.

The following are some of the California sparkling wines I have enjoyed over the past year. All are in broad distribution and perfectly suited to help ring in the new year.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé, Carneros ($37): Easily one of the finest sparkling rosé wines made in the United States, the Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour is restrained and elegant, exhibiting subtle red fruits with notes of crunchy apple and a touch of brioche. Showing a fine mousse and exceptional length, it is refined and impressive. Rating: 95.

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Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rose, Carneros. (Courtesy of Domaine Carneros)

J Vineyards California Cuvée Brut, California ($25): J Vineyards & Winery’s winemaker, Nicole Hitchcock, is nothing if not consistent. The California cuvée bubbly has scored a platinum award at the annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition every year since it was introduced, as it did at the 2020 challenge. The current batch of this nonvintage sparkling wine is dazzling for the price, showing notes of lemon and peach with a fine mousse, splendid freshness, and excellent length on the palate. And the price is right. Rating: 94.

J Vineyards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Cuvée 20 Brut NV ($38): The latest release of J Vineyards’ popular Cuvee 20 delivers a burst of fresh green apple with notes of toasted brioche and almond. With a fine mousse and impressive palate length, this is an elegant nonvintage cuvée sparkling wine that will dress up any dinner party. Rating: 94.

Mumm Napa 2012 ‘DVX’ Methode Traditionnelle, Napa Valley ($70): Domestic sparkling wine with extended aging isn’t very common because of the cost. The question becomes “Is it worth it?” In the case of DVX, Mumm Napa’s luxury bubbly, the answer is yes. The additional complexity and nuance are characteristics typically only found in fine Champagne. The DVX delivers a similar experience, showing notes of brioche, lemon creme, and ripe apple along with a touch of spice and an elegant mousse. It’s one of our finest domestic sparklers and easily worth the additional expense. Rating: 94.

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Mumm Napa 2012 “DVX” Methode Traditionnelle, Napa Valley. (Courtesy of Mumm Napa)

Schramsberg 2016 Blanc de Noirs, North Coast ($43): If done right, sparkling wine production is time-consuming and expensive. It seems Schramsberg spares no expense. The 2016 Blanc de Noirs exhibits the nuance of age often absent from New World sparklers, with subtle notes of maturity and the richness that only develops in bubbly over time. This vintage of Schramsberg’s Blanc de Noirs shows hints of red fruits, baked apple, and stone fruits, with impressive palate length and a fine, persistent mousse. Rating: 93.

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Schramsberg 2016 Blanc de Noirs, North Coast. (Courtesy of Schramsberg Vineyards)

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, Napa County ($24): Mumm’s Brut Prestige has long been one of the most consistent of all California bubblies and one of the best values around. The balance between fruit and acid is exquisite, and the mousse is soft and refreshing, all things that make this cuvée one of the finest nonvintage brut sparklers money can buy. The current release shows notes of lemon and pear, subtle richness, and a long, persistent finish. Rating: 92.

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Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, Napa County. (Courtesy of Mumm Napa)

Schramsberg 2017 Blanc de Blancs Brut, Napa Valley ($41): This vintage Blanc de Blancs from this iconic Napa Valley sparkling wine house is 100 percent chardonnay. It shows notes of crisp green apple and lemon, a hint of bread dough, and a fresh, lively mousse. In other words, it’s another winner from Schramsberg. Rating: 91.

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Schramsberg 2017 Blanc de Blancs Brut, Napa Valley. (Courtesy of Schramsberg Vineyards)

Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley ($24): Mumm Napa blends a bit of pinot gris with its predominantly chardonnay cuvée, and the result is a complex nonvintage blanc de blancs that delivers aromas of crunchy apple, melon, and citrus; a fine mousse; excellent balance; and a long, satisfying finish. Rating: 90.

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Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley. (Courtesy of Mumm Napa)

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com