Winding down our eight year anniversary trip to Napa Valley, we start our last day with bubbly for breakfast. Yesterday, Stags’ Leap stained us with their cabs (read here). So we may be a bit biased with fizz in our future.
Our rainy drive South finds Yountville and Chandon’s first vineyard:
Even before Mumm, famed Champagne house Moët et Chandon was hunting for a Californian home for bubbly. In 1973, John Wright founded Domaine Chandon in Yountville. Being early meant they were the first to have an on site restaurant and catering, before Napa clamped down on weddings and events.
We arrive early, and while soaking outside with another couple, take in Chandon’s campus. An almost Japanese aesthetic of minalism and modernism pervades the space. Ponds, bridges, large oaks, tidy hedges, and a winding path lead to the barrel-vaulted building:
We shake water off and climb stairs to the fermentation vault.
Oddly, these tanks lay sideways because the roof was too low (ah, fashion). From their 1,000 owned acres, each vineyard lot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier ferments into alcohol separately here. Then, Head Winemaker, Tom Tiburzi with Winemaker Pauline Lhote blend each still wine into their desired cuvées. As with Moët, consistency is crucial, so decades’ old wines are held in tanks awaiting their chance to make it into the blend.
Then we stumble into the end scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark:
No Ark of the Covenant here. No oak-aged bubbly either (sigh). But, occasionally, Assistant Winemaker Joel Burt makes grape variety-specific, still wine to show off Chandon’s vineyards (a bit of Newton’s wine also barrel-ages here).
At the barrel-room’s back sits modernity’s answer to making still wine sparkling: a bottle-riddling gyropalate:
To slowly coax added yeasts and sugars into CO2 and then edge them into each bottle’s neck, this mini-machine does the twisting and tilting that only a handful of wrists do today.
We cannot document the massive disgorgement and bottling line that traps bubbly and readies each bottle for you home, but in short, it clinks along like an efficient clock in a gaping room akin to most wineries and breweries.
We sit down to taste Chandon’s standards:
Their Brut Classic (French in word order, but not spelling) looks a clear, pale gold, with a candied nose of light honey and gold apple. It is dry enough, fruity, clean, easy, lovely if a bit straight laced (3 of 5).
Chandon’s Blanc de Noirs, (a Pinot Noir and Meunier mix) raises the bar: pale gold again but ruby tinged with greater intensity aromas of honey, clove, berry, but a whiff of sulfur. It feels drier, which highlights the acidity, and fuller in body (although still medium). Very good (4 of 5).
Their Rosé smells like strawberry Jolly Ranchers, watermelon, and slight petrol. It looks a very young, pretty pale pink and is perfectly fine (3 of 5). Talk tends toward sparkling cocktails, which depresses me a little.
But then Étoile Brut rights our ship. Grapes comes from their coolest vineyards in Carneros (remember Etude? Read here). Extra difference comes from at least5 years of in-bottle, sur lie aging (Champagne only has to do 3). It smells and tastes of ginger, honey, almond paste, biscuits, citrus, and salt that last a long while. The body feels medium but tightened by medium acidity. There is a fair amount of fruit (this is Cali afterall) but Étoile is outstanding stuff (5 of 5).
Étoile Rosé plays a similar but pinker note, adding raspberry and cocoa to the Brut’s autolytics. It is also outstanding (5 of 5).
But, time to leave the basics and try Chandon’s winery only wines at the bar.
We order the olive and cheese plate to survive until lunch. We mistakenly try the Sparkling Red ($30.00): a deep red, pomegranate juice color leads to a dense bramble berry jam that at least tastes saltier and drier than Mumm’s yet remains resolutely fizzy. May be with pizza (3 of 5).
Chandon’s Still Pinot Noir, Dijon Clones 2013 ($55) feels fat and fleshy, tastes quite woody, vanilla-lined around red ripe cherry syrup. Too much (3 of 5).
Pinot Noir, L’Argile Carneros 2012 ($65) comes from a clay-rich vineyard and tastes of cherry cola, cocoa powder, and vanilla. It feels soft, plush, and mellow yet has enough bright acidity and length to edge it into very good territory (4 of 5).
Chandon Reserve Brut ($35) recalls Veuve with a hefty hunk of Pinot Noir. The medium gold color, fine pearl frames aromas of sulfur, light triple cream brie, honey, creme brulee, baguette, strawberry pith, white fig, apricot: a wide variety of airy flavors. It feels fluffy, pillowy, and refreshing. Hardly serious stuff here, but very good quality (4 of 5).
Chandon Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($35) 100% Chardonnay, with four years of bottle down time, flaunts brioche, honey, white figs, cinnamon roll icing, light white peach, and a short saline finish. Like the Reserve Brut it manages to be airy and approachable yet complex and quite good (4 of 5).
2009 Yountville Brut Finally! Fruit literally on Chandon’s doorstep. It has a clear medium minus lemon color and larger bubble. Medium plus aromas of vanilla, baked golden pear, candied lemon, and light honey that get tidied by a salt line throughout. Flavors continue aromas but tack on tequila, white flower, anise, brioche, and lychee ending with chalk for a long length. Complex, if a bit bipolar, this is outstanding (5 of 5).
Although you may think Chandon is grocery store, generic fizz, they actually own over 1,000 acres, farm and produce sustainably (both Napa Green Certified), and make all their sparkling wines the hard way, via the méthode traditionnelle. Yes, this is not Champagne. The wines are notably riper and less focused. Yet they taste impeccably cleaner and more consistent than Mumm’s (read here). I dislike their minimalist, futurist, Mary Kay, Pepto Bismol rosé label. Actually all their labels lack a certain art and focused identity. The building, although cool and modern, does not flow well, feels low, with many stairs and awkward dark halls and spaces. Although its window bays and grounds look lovely.
But what matters is Domaine Chandon makes fabulous, ripe, tidy fizz for a fraction of what Champagne charges.