Working the Land

In California, there is little in terms of bespoke viticulture specific to the production of sparkling wine. Not unlike still/table wines, decisions as to variety, clone, planting density, pruning method, climate, and soils are individually addressed based on the context of achieving desired grape quality. One overall observation is a relatively less intensive viticultural management applied to grapes destined for sparkling wines compared to table wines. This is due to the fact that yields are higher, and the fruit picked earlier. As such, you can be far more forgiving than you can with the needs in still/table wine. The reality is that there are simply not many studies that have focused on viticulture explicitly for sparkling wine production. A reflection, once again, that sparkling wine is as much about hand as it is land.

When making sparkling wines, it is generally accepted that a lower pH, higher acidity, and lower sugars than table wine are considered necessary. Most of this has been historically addressed through earlier picking metrics. However, looking forward, modern challenges will include diversifying to growing regions that are cooler, to enable production of high-acid fruit, as well as increased exploration of alternative grape varieties and clones better suited to warmer climates. For a deep dive into sparkling wine grape growing and production, read Viticulture for Sparkling Wine Production: A Review by the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.

Working The Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir,” the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at the University of California, Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all wine grapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste): They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

A time-honored adage says that all Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. It is both not true and true. What’s not true is that all Champagne is sparkling wine: Those in the know are aware that there is table wine made (Coteaux Champenois) and some delicious, fortified grape must too (Ratafia de Champagne). However, the second claim is correct - not all sparkling wine is Champagne. This is true organoleptically and legally: It must be made in Champagne, France, from a limited selection of grape varieties, and produced using the méthode champenoise. Moreover, it is simply impossible to recreate the flavors that emanate from Champagne’s uniquely chalky soils and terroir. So, wineries producing quality sparkling wine elsewhere (yes, the best producers adhere to the law, and label their bottles “sparkling wine”) do not try. 

Soil types in areas where quality sparkling wine is produced in California can be as far-ranging as their wine styles, blends/cuvées, and individual winemakers’ points of view about production. The commonality of these terroirs is that they are selected for their ability to grow excellent grapes and, given the profile of grapes used (mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc), sites where those grapes perform best. We recommend that you check out the “Working the Land” section of the respective varieties to better understand their unique soil preferences.

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Sustainability and California

The California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world in terms of case production and acreage, and – together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state – has made California wine a leader in sustainable practices from the ground to the glass, which includes practices that address climate change.