I went to a tasting of the base wine components that go into the sparkling wine, J Schram, made by Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley. What’s a base wine? Champagne and sparkling wines are usually blends of many many base wines, 50 to 60 in some cases. Each component comes from a particular lot – say a block of a vineyard. These base wines are fermented alone, and spend time either in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels before they are tasted by the winemakers to create the final blend. By having so many base wines, or elements, the winemaker can ensure the consistency of the “house style.”
The lineup had six base wines in it: stainless-steel fermented Chardonnays; a Chard with no malolactic fermentation and a Chard with ML; a stainless steel fermented Pinot Noir and a barrel fermented Pinot. All bases wines are single vineyard designate.
You don’t want to drink these wines! They are very acidic — really sour. You think the enamel on your teeth is being eaten away. What you can taste is the fruit, green apple and citrus. The ML Chard and Pinot are definitely richer and creamier. Each of the wine contributes a desired characteristic to the final blend.
Winemaker Keith Hock says they start with over 200 base wines, and after tasting through them all narrow it down to around 40-50 base wines to be considered for the blend.
I have to say this really showed how winemaking is an art. To be able to taste these young wines and find “the bones” that will make a great bubbly is impressive.
We also tasted finished sparklers. We tried the J. Schram 2001 before bottling and after bottling. The before bottling was tart but fuller on the palate while the bottled versiion was lively and full of citrus. Interesting how the wine changes over time, and with the addition of the dosage. Then we tried the 1997 and 1992 bottles. The ’97 still has lots of berries and brioche and vanilla. The ’92 has some tropical notes along with caramel. What’s not to like?
The ’09 J. Schram won’t be out until 2016, because it will also spend 6-7 years of bottle aging on the yeast. I’ll mark my calendar to buy a bottle and see if I can remember how the base wines tasted.