wines in transition

The Wine:  J Winery “Cuvee 20” Non-Vintage Sparkling Wine

The Grapes:  Chardonnay (49%), Pinot Noir (49%), Pinot Meunier (2%)

The Region:  Russian River Valley, Sonoma California

Pairs Well With:  Mild meats, slightly salty fare:  fried chicken, sushi, etc.

Stay Away From:  Bold red meat

You Will Like It If:  You need a versatile, easy drinking sparkler with modest complexity at a fair price

Stay Away If: You want a full-throttle, yeast-driven bubbly and or you are looking for a wine to cellar.

Cellar Potential:  Best now

In America, for better or worse, we aren’t bogged down with silly things like tradition.

 In Europe, fine wine’s birthplace, everything is done just-so.  Wines, liquors, beer, cheeses, and other consumables are cultivated and produced in traditional styles.  And it’s more than mere custom; in most cases regional and federal laws actually regulate how they are made. 

Take French wine for example – the epitome of tradition.  When we say Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne or Cotes-du-Rhone (among countless others) we are talking about wines made to exacting standards in geography, cultivation, and production.  And these are just the general rules.  In areas like Bordeaux, regional bodies have developed their own hierarchical standards of production and hierarchy.   There is little room for interpretation.

But these standards aren’t just happenstance.  Europe’s generally cool climate historically dictated how wines were made.  With winemakers and grape-growers exploiting every advantage to achieve ripeness and quality (and thanks to a few Monastic orders that sought out ideal growing locations and methods), necessity and eventually became tradition…and law.

This was especially true in northerly Champagne, where chilly temperatures meant local favorites Pinot Noir and Chardonnay couldn’t be made in a style to rival Burgundy to the south.  Champagne’s fall winemaking was tormented by cold temperatures that could stall fermentation.  In the spring, as the weather warmed, fermentation would begin again – but by now the wines had been bottled.   Carbon dioxide, trapped in-bottle during this secondary fermentation, bubble out when the wines were opened.

And it was more than just the bubbles.  In the vineyard, cold temperatures made for problematic ripening, and quality varied widely year to year.  Under-ripe grapes meant wines were low in sugar (which made for low alcohol), bitingly acidic, and finished bubblies were thought to be unpalatable without generous sweetening. 

So in short, Champagne was weird – a bit of a misfit.  But absent a better solution, the style was embraced and became tradition.  It was further refined, eventually becoming drier (although bubbly is still dosed with sugar and yeast to temper the dryness and facilitate a predictable secondary fermentation), and multiple vintages were blended together to help mitigate troublesome years.   Over time, Champagne houses each developed their own personal styles.

In that Xanadu that is California wine country, call it tradition or necessity, there is no need of either.  The climate is generally warm, and there is little need to worry about under-ripeness or stuck fermentation.  But absent a climactic need, domestic bubblies made all over California (really all over the US and the New World in general), and many are of impressive quality.

Enter J Vineyard and Winery’s “Cuvee 20.”  Like its ancestors in Champagne, it is a “non-vintage wine,” blended from numerous vintages, which in theory coalesces into a specific house style.   For the Cuvee 20, this means an interesting, understated nose of lemon zest and ginger.  On the palate, flavors lean toward lemon curd, orange peel, green apple and shortcake.  The finish is long and marked by a mild acidity.

While many Champagnes lean toward richer, more yeast-driven flavors, J follows a more domestic style of crisp, lively, fruit-driven bubbly.  It’s a light, pleasant wine made in a subtly complex style that seems just dry enough to be called Brut.  When most domestic wines tend to be richer, blowsier versions of their European competition, the J (and really many domestic sparkling wines) seems like a leaner, livelier version of Champagne.

 Interestingly,  J has only been producing this non-vintage Cuvee 20 for a couple years (previously the Russian River’s moderate weather allowed J to produce vintage-dated wines each year, which the winery still does) – so we are not dealing with an established “house style.”  This J is somewhat of a blank slate. 

So here’s the kicker – I’ve had the Cuvee 20 a few times before, and it keeps changing on me.  A couple years ago, when it was first released, a local wine shop opened it up for a few of us.  At that point, the wine was screechingly tart.   My fellow tasters liked it, and the quality was unmistakable.  But I heard mumbles of “holy acid!” as a few folks downed some oyster crackers to take the edge off. 

About a year later, some Cuvee 20 and a few rolls of sushi came home with us for a Friday evening snack.  If you have never tried California bubbly and sushi, give it a shot.  Sushi’s savory, slightly salty nuances are perfectly suited to California bubbly’s creamy, often off-dry approach.  What’s more, sushi (to we domestic consumers) can mean anything from mild nigiri to crazy over the top fusion-inspired rolls chock full of hot sauce, mayonnaise, and cream cheese.  Sparkling wine’s acidity and palate cleansing bubbles make it versatile enough to stand up to whatever the sushi bar throws at you. 

With our sushi, the J seemed rich, round and full.  You could taste a nod to traditional champagne in its biscuity, almost nutty aromas and flavors.  We were left thinking the Cuvee 20 was a wine to be reckoned with, and it certainly seemed a more voluptuous wine than the one I most recently tasted.

 So why the difference?  It’s hard to say.  I certainly didn’t try these wines in a vacuum, and I can see the purists shaking their heads, offering a million reasons why the same wine might taste different day to day.  The foods were different (“I mean he tried one with sushi, give me a break”), the wine was showing its age, varying glassware made an impact, the climate had changed, it was Tuesday, the Cardinals lost that day, etc etc etc.  But here’s the deal.  The wine’s variation is too much to chalk up to mere chance.  I find it more likely that as J periodically releases its Cuvee 20, it has used slightly different blends as it looks for a best fit.

I was not at all put off by the changes in the wine, especially since each time its quality was hard to ignore. It’s a great example of how domestic wines often change and evolve while European counterparts keep (relatively) rooted in tradition.  J supposedly began making the Cuvee 20 following its 20-year anniversary (J was started in 1986 by Judy Jordan of Sonoma’s famous Jordan winery), so in theory it has more than 20 vintages to select from.  There is no-doubt some trial and error at work, as J looks for its own style in a non-vintage wine.  Fickle market forces no doubt play a part as well – Sonoma’s moderate climate means J can tailor its wine in any number of ways, so style can be made to fit demand.

In the end, I am reminded that domestic wines, unencumbered by tradition or drastic winemaking conditions, have much more freedom in winemaking.  This versatility can be a blessing and a curse, as wines tend to change with the times.  Even this new non-vintage bubbly has avoided some fluctuation.   Are these changes for good or ill?  I guess that’s up to us.

– b

All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house

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