A Judgment of Paris: How the Sparkling Wines of Schramsberg Stacked Up Against Champagne

26 Oct

Considering sparkling wine is like considering heaven and hell.  On the one hand, you have sparklers that barely qualify as wine–Andre and Cook’s come to mind–while on the other hand you have Champagnes that will take you to the sky (related to price).  I haven’t had too much sparkling wine in my life, which is a shame because they are fun, well-made, and, as many are coming to realize, are absolutely terrific with food.

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to a trade tasting of the sparkling wines of Schramsberg Vineyards, a venerable California sparkling wine institution located in Napa Valley, at Marcel’s in DC.  I had had their wines once or twice before, but was never in a condition to remember too much about them.  With this tasting I was in luck, however, because not only would I try a number of Schramsberg’s wines but would also participate in a blind tasting of Schramsberg wines and the finest French têtes de cuvée (prestige cuvée) wines.

Yikes!  A blind tasting at a trade event?  I felt outclassed, but I decided I would drink more than I spoke. I rolled up (on foot) to the tasting in my black suit (featured in my previous post) and heavy black backpack (at least it matched my suit!) and was greeted with a glass of Schramsberg’s Brut Rosé, which had pretty strawberry and peach aromas that were mirrored on the palate.

We were then led to long tables, where I sat next to David (the proprietor of the excellent Pearson’s Wine & Spirits in Glover Park) and the wine director of the Ritz-Carlton.  The phalanx of glasses reproduced above awaited us, as well as scoring sheets:

Hugh Davies, son of the founders of Schramsberg Vineyards, gave excellent commentary and production notes throughout the whole tasting.

For the first flight, which was the blind tasting of the Schramsberg sparkling wines and the Champagnes, the idea was that we were supposed to rank the wines from first to seventh and determine if we could which were blanc de blancs and which contained Pinot Noir, and which were the Californian wines. These are my transcribed notes from A to G:

  • A | aromas reminiscent of white Burgundy–hazelnut and lanolin.  A long finish but a noticeable burn.  | MY RANK: 6
  • B | thin bodied and high acid, with notes of green apple.  | MY RANK: 7
  • C | wow!   Clover honey and bread, tart but rich.  Really freaking good.  I thought this could be the oldest wine in the lineup, and could contain Pinot.  | MY RANK: 2
  • D | some aroma I couldn’t place… more of the Burgundy, maybe… really evocative and old-smelling.  Well-balanced, with tangerine notes.  | MY RANK: 1
  • E | gentle floral aroma, with lemon curd.  | MY RANK: 5
  • F | a rich color which made me wonder if this was an older vintage.  Burgundian aromas, with a round, full taste evocative of papaya and tropical fruits.  I thought this might contain Pinot.  | MY RANK: 3
  • G | pineapple on the nose, less fruit-driven and more hazelnut on the palate.  | MY RANK: 4
So how did I do on the blind tasting?

  • | 2002 Dom Pérignon | mostly Pinot, 100% malolactic fermentation | TASTING RANK: 7
  • B | 2000 Taittinger | 100% Chardonnay | TASTING RANK: 5
  • C | 2004 J. Schram | 85% Chard, 15% Pinot | TASTING RANK: 2
  • D | NV Krug | blend of Chard and Pinot | TASTING RANK: 3
  • E | 2004 Louis Roederer Cristal | 50% Chard, 50% Pinot, 100% malolactic | TASTING RANK: 5
  • F | 2003 Schramsberg Reserve | mostly Pinot with some Chard | TASTING RANK: 1
  • G | 2002 Perrier-Jouët | 50% Chard, 50% Pinot | TASTING RANK: 4
By and large, my rankings were pretty consistent with what the panel determined.  My first, second, and third wines were the panel’s as well, and apparently I don’t like Dom (though I love Krug).  I still need to do a better job of determining whether a wine is old or just contains a larger percentage of Pinot, and while I thought I was good at determining whether a still wine had undergone malolactic fermentation, apparently I need to do better when it comes to sparkling wines.  In other words, I know what’s good, but I still don’t know why it’s good!

After the blind tasting came the flight of Schramsberg wines:

  • 2008 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs | 100% Chard with aromas of crème brûlée, this was a very easy, delicious drinker.
  • 2007 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs | I really liked this one.  Made mostly from Pinot but with a bit of Chard from the loamy soil of Carneros, this had a wonderful baked bread nose, with peach and berries on the palate and good balance.  This and the Rosé (below) were my favorites in this flight and paired very well with the light appetizers we received.
  • 2004 J. Schram Rosé | a brand-new release, this garnered 98 points from Wine Enthusiast.  It smelled like strawberry jam or figs, and was simply beautiful to drink.  Great body and balance.  Definitely a sparkling rosé anyone can respect.
  • 2008 J. Davies Cabernet | a relatively new project, this still wine is a Bordeaux blend composed mostly of Cab Sauv.  Aged in all-new French oak barrels, this had candied rose on the nose that expanded into more candy on the palate.  This was, I’m afraid, my least favorite wine in the flight.  It was a bit too soft for me.
  • 2007 Schramsberg Crémant Demi-Sec | with 3.5% residual sugar, this had a nice herbal quality on the nose–almost like an herb-based aperitif.  Nice sweetness and body.

I was very impressed with Schramsberg’s wines.  They are great values and extremely well-made wines.  While people might look for the Dom or the Cristal, Schramsberg has the chops to compete against and triumph over the best France has to offer.


2 Responses to “A Judgment of Paris: How the Sparkling Wines of Schramsberg Stacked Up Against Champagne”

  1. Kris October 27, 2011 at 12:28 am #

    Oooh, they make a demi-sec. That’s actually a type of champagne/sparkling wine that seems nearly impossible to find these days, at least when my mom and I look for it. Neither of us particularly care for the dryness of regular champagne, so we try to get demi-secs for special occasions like New Years.

    • vinicultured October 27, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

      Good to hear from you again, Kris! I hope you’re doing well–where are you now? Bay Area?

      I recall your early request to have me do a write-up of Champagnes; your love of sparkling wines remains, I see!

      Demi-secs are pretty wonderful. One relatively common one is the Piper-Heidsieck demi-sec found here: http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku=1061058. Good luck!

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