Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Affordable champagne from Korbel earns its label

Champagne is expensive, right? Champagne is for special occasions, right? Champagne is from France, right?

No, no and, well, not necessarily.

One at a time:

• “Champagne,” by which we mean sparkling wine from the French region of Champagne, can be dear, true. On the other hand, sparkling wine that may or may not be called “Champagne,” made with the same grape varieties and the same techniques historically used in Champagne, isn’t always pricey. In California, for example, sparkling wine that mimics “Champagne” to such an extent that in a blind tasting you’d be hard pressed to tell the region of origin, offers the best value on the market these days, broadly speaking.

• While “Champagne” and other sparkling wine is widely associated with weddings, birthdays, the christening of ships and other milestone events, there’s really no reason, certainly neither financial nor aesthetic, to limit its consumption to black-tie soirees.

• OK, I’m a member of the camp that believes “Champagne” should come only from Champagne. The region has the history, the acclaim and absolutely nothing else to which it can claim respect, so why not give it that?

On the other hand, I rather like the argument that Paul Ahvenainen makes for allowing California vintners to appropriate the name “Champagne” for their sparkling wines. In short, he argues, “champagne” has become a generic term when it comes to sparkling wine, regardless of its pedigree. You greet a person with a flute of sparkling wine when they arrive for a party and all they are going to think is, “Ah, champagne.” That’s the automatic association with the special glass, the streams of bubbles and the frothy mousse, so go with it and stick with it, says Ahvenainen. “For the vast majority of people receiving a glass of ‘champagne,’ they aren’t thinking of where it’s from,” he says.

“The world is full of products that started originally in one place – Champagne, Cheddar and Roquefort cheeses, certain beers. Is baloney still from Bologna? At some point the term becomes generic for a certain style. The term ‘champagne’ has crossed that threshold,” adds Ahvenainen.

He has, not surprisingly, a vested interest in the debate. For 28 years he’s worked for Korbel Champagne Cellars in Sonoma County, where sparkling wine – no, make that “champagne” – has been made since the 1890s. A graduate in enology of UC Davis, he’s been Korbel’s director of winemaking since 1997.

Today, Korbel makes 1,350,000 cases of “champagne” a year. Ahvenainen oversees the production of 16 styles, the most popular being the nonvintage Brut, a staple at perhaps more weddings in the United States than any other type of sparkling wine. That helps explain why it is the single most popular release in the Korbel portfolio, accounting for 750,000 cases a year.

Since the start of the year, however, another Korbel bubbly, the Korbel Champagne Cellars California Blanc de Noirs, has been drawing new attention to the winery. Several Korbel sparklers show well consistently on the wine-competition circuit, including the Brut, the Brut Rose, the Extra Dry and the Sweet Rose, but none has been rounding up more high awards than the Blanc de Noirs. In January it was the sparkling wine sweepstakes winner at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the biggest in the nation, and since then has been racking up one high prize after another. It subsequently was crowned best-of-show sparkling wine at the San Diego Wine Competition, won a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, and capped its string with best-of-show white wine honors at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

Why is it such a hit? It’s a decidedly California-inspired sparkler, for one, which means its emphasis is on fresh and sunny fruit flavors, mostly suggestive of strawberries and raspberries, but in a more delicate than aggressive manner. It isn’t as dry as many of its French counterparts in the Brut category, but it also isn’t sweet, thanks to a zesty acidity that offsets its 1.5 percent residual sugar, leaving it liltingly refreshing. It has a sturdy structure, but is readily accessible; nothing gets in the way of the snap of its fruit.

As the name “blanc de noirs” suggests, it’s a salmon-hued wine made mostly with pinot noir, but it breaks the mold for the genre in both Champagne and California by also including sangiovese, zinfandel, carignane and gamay. If the French weren’t apoplectic over Korbel’s exploitation of “Champagne,” the notion of such a strange mix for a sparkling wine almost certainly would push them over the edge.

Ahvenainen, however, relishes the “no-handcuffs” freedom he’s been given at Korbel, which allows him first to source the best grapes he can find and then use them in whatever combination he feels appropriate to hit the bulls-eye of his stylistic target – “fruit forward, sort of delicate, moderately high in acid and with a moderate sugar level.”

“We are looking for a balanced wine,” says Ahvenainen. Judges on the competition circuit apparently agree that’s what he is delivering along with vibrancy, charm and other attributes commonly associated with sparkling wine.

Ahvenainen credits the success of Korbel wines generally and the blanc de noirs in particular to the quality of the grapes he gets both from Korbel’s own vineyards and from growers with whom the winery has had generally long-term contracts. “Three-quarters of the work is done for us when the fruit shows up. So much comes down to the quality of the fruit,” Ahvenainen says.

Korbel controls 1,700 acres of grapes, 900 of them in the Russian River Valley, prized for its chardonnay and pinot noir, the varieties upon which sparkling wine traditionally have been based. Another substantial Korbel vineyard is at Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. Those vineyards supply only half the fruit that Korbel needs yearly, so it reaches far beyond its home base in the Russian River Valley – to Mendocino, Monterey, Lodi and elsewhere – for the rest of the grapes it needs each harvest.

How does Korbel keep its prices so restrained, especially in view of the esteem its sparklers receive? Those 1,700 acres of grapes help explain that, as does the winery. It was built in 1886 and only rarely has been sold over the past century; the Heck family alone has owned it since 1954. Bottom line: The Hecks aren’t saddled with mortgage rates they need to pay off with their wines.

Production efficiencies that Korbel has adopted over the decades also help explain its low prices, Ahvenainen says. “We’ve simplified our production steps. We’ve tried to be more gentle and less intrusive, letting the fruit speak for itself. When you have quality fruit you don’t need a sledgehammer to fix it. As a winemaker, when you get up in the morning and go to work you want to do something, so I have to remember that sometimes the best thing is to do nothing,” Ahvenainen says.