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In early August, 2007 we were privileged to be invited by the folks at Mumm Napa to their winery for Napa Valley’s first grape harvest of 2007, which is traditionally a celebration of Mumm’s Pinot Noir Champagne grapes grown in the Yountville area. Attended mostly by company employees, with a few lucky media types thrown in, it is a morning of great joy as the growing season’s hard work has ended, and the fruit which is the livelihood of all is ready to be trucked in for pressing, fermentation, and aging.
Before we go any further, let us clarify that we know that most of the world calls sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France “Champagne,” and sparkling wine from everywhere else “something else.” Without getting into the specifics, the United States is not a signatory to the treaty requiring us to use the terms above, so many people in this country use the term Champagne when talking of American sparklers. And there is nothing legally wrong with that. As a matter of fact, usually we have no problem with it at all.
The better sparkling wines in this country are made by the time honored “Methode Champenoise” (also referred to as “Methode Traditionelle”), which requires a second fermentation in the bottle and long term aging in the same manner as the best French Champagnes. On the other hand, there are American sparkling wines, usually of lesser quality, which are not traditionally aged and have carbonation added artificially.
For those American sparkling wines produced by the “Methode Champenoise,” we are quite comfortable referring to them as Champagne. They are created the in same way as in France, are for the most part just as good as the French product, and are better known by the public under that name. For the sparklings not made by the French process, as a general rule they do not deserve the name “Champagne” and we do not honor them with that nomenclature.
Mumm Napa is clearly a premium Champagne/Sparkler. To us, it and Schramsberg offer the best full line of Champagnes in California, though Roederer, Frank Family, Domaine Carneros, J, Iron Horse, and Gloria Ferrer all make some excellent bottles.
One should note, however, that while we and many others easily use the term “Champagne” to refer to the sparklings produced by Mumm Napa, Mumm itself does not. This is easy to understand when you realize that even though Mumm Napa is an independent business, it was founded by, and maintains good relations with, G.H. Mumm of France. In an effort, then, to distinguish each winery, the tradition of referring only to sparklings made in the Champagne region as Champagne is honored by the Americans corporation.*
One of the few producers to use all Napa fruit in its cuvees, most of Mumm’s grapes come from the 112 acre Devaux Vineyard (named after French founder Guy Devaux) in Carneros. Being in the southern region of Napa, with long hot days and cool nights, the fruit is blessed with good ripeness and balanced acidity. For many years the French have not been blessed with the most desired climate, and so it is not unusual for American sparklers to be their equal (2005 is an exception for France – a great year climatically).
A trip to Mumm Napa is always a treat. The visitor’s center is large and staffed by affable and knowledgeable people. Complimentary tours offering in depth information about the winery are given hourly. And the estate houses two large art exhibition spaces, one of them featuring signed works by famed photographer Ansel Adams.
The tasting area offers expansive views from inside or from the patio, and is a place we love to end the day, relax, and enjoy some time with Genevieve Bogle, Ron Lee, or Sophia Wood, three of the super staff employed by the winery to be certain you have a memorable experience. But it matters not who pours for you, as everyone knows their stuff.
The current releases made by up and coming star winemaker Ludovic Dervin are:
-n/v Brut Prestige Napa Valley ($20), a flagship for the winery with 51% Pinot Noir, 46% Chardonnay, 2% Pinot Meuniere, and 1% Pinot Gris. It is bright and creamy with hints of melon. Drink with shellfish and grilled fowl, and, at this price it is doubly good.
-n/v Blanc de Noirs ($20), 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay, the color of salmon, and gives off a nose of cherry. Smoked fish or fish with sauces would be good pairings.
-n/v Cuvee M ($20), a beautiful wine with lots of up front vanilla surrounded by honey and peaches. Comprised of 48% Chardonnay, 43% Pinot Noir, 6% Pinot Gris, and 3% Pinot Meuniere, if it sounds like it goes with desserts (or seems like a dessert itself), you are right. Or even an aperitif. We loved it – and look again at the price.
-2001 Blanc de Blancs ($30), a toasty, fruity (and slightly bitter) wine with apples at its core, and a bit of spice at the finish. 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Gris, an unusual combination.
-n/v Reserve Brut ($30), a wine of excellence that belies its low price point. At 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the Reserve features toast, yeast, honey, cream, and baked bread – all in layers that last long enough to allow you to play with descriptions. There is also plenty of fruit. This is one of the wines to enjoy with pork, prime rib, veal, duck, or other game.
-2000 DVX ($55), year in and year out one of California’s best sparklers. Here we found a lighter nose than usual, but a mid palate full of figs and white cherries followed by a long finish of nuts, oatmeal and mushrooms. 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, drink this with almost anything.
-2001 DVX Rose ($65), Sara’s favorite with 53% Pinot Noir and 47% Chardonnay. The color comes from the addition a bit of still wine (Pinot Noir) before bottling, and then again after fermentation for the dosage. The Rose offers a shell fish nose, a mid palate that never stops dancing, and reminds you throughout the long finish of melba toast, pine nuts, and raspberry jam. If the winery has it available, it is the perfect match for the traditional holiday turkeys, geese, and ducks.
And so we come back to that morning a few weeks ago where the crowd anxiously milled around in anticipation of the first bins of this harvest being brought to the crush pad. As we waited, the winery staff set up one table of traditional French noshes, and another with 100 splits of Mumm Sparkling. Before we knew it, coming to a stop in front of us was the anticipated truck with two tons of quality fruit. Out came the forklifts and their drivers who skillfully and gently offloaded the bins. And then came Ludovic, who, after placing paraphernalia commemorating the 2007 vintage into a chest to be kept in perpetuity by the winery as a time capsule, proceeded to offer thanks for what had been delivered, and exude hope for what that bounty would become.
You have probably seen it coming, but when Ludovic finished anointing the fruit, the ceremony ended with all of us present popping the corks of those 100 splits and anointing each other. If we are invited back again, next time we will know better. We will wear a hat and appropriate clothes.
* Other Sparkling houses in the United States that have a current or former relationship with a French house (e.g. Roederer or Domaine Carneros) seem to think the same way.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.