For many, sparkling wine marks a celebration. It is shelved and saved to ring in the New Year, toast newlyweds, or welcome a newborn into the world. The distinctive pop is heard in the locker room of the World Series winner and the podium of Formula 1 races. Bottles are busted on the bows of ships to celebrate a maiden voyage. Indeed, the onset of revelry usually follows the bubbly. And it’s not surprising. The elegance of the slender flute holding delicate beaded pearls is alluring. The tiny bubbles dancing along the palette causes a celebration in the mouth before seemingly rising and creating light-headed euphoria. And, of course, the alcohol usually puts a smile on peoples’ faces.
The Champenois, the original propagators of bubbles in the bottle, have made a concerted effort over the past three-plus centuries to market sparkling wine as such. References from art, literature, movies and music (Cristal anyone?) have been the result of a strategic marketing campaign to show sparkling wine as the appropriate (and only) choice for real celebrations. And while those efforts have propelled the widespread popularity of sparkling wines (not just Champagne but Proseco, Cava, and US sparkling), there is a downside to fame.
When asked what pairs well with sparkling wine, the answer is invariably “Anything other than chocolate!” This humorous answer is actually fairly accurate with sparkling wine being quite versatile with food pairings. But the problem is that the answer reveals the attitude towards the style. While it can be paired with nearly “everything”, the prevailing notion is that it is best enjoyed in a few ounces as a toast before moving on to dinner. Pour a bit in a flute but keep it off the dinner table. Unfortunately this could not be further from the truth. And I recently had the pleasure of sampling a bottle that emphatically proved the point.
Richard G. Peterson began making wine 65 years ago in Iowa, of all places. And although the corn fields far outnumbered the grape vines in his hometown, his affinity and talent for science drove his passion for winemaking and propelled his attainment of three advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in Agricultural Chemistry from the University of California. Over the next several decades he was an influential figure in the wine industry of California, replacing the revered Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards, overseeing the excavation of 40,000 sq. feet of storage caves, helping to establish Folie a Deux Winery, making California’s first Botrytis Sauvignon Blanc and Botrytis Pinot Noir, and creating the steel barrel pallet (which allows wineries to stack oak barrels higher and more securely). The last innovation was gifted to the industry rather than patented, a gesture being enjoyed throughout the United States by hundreds, if not thousands, of wineries today. In addition to his own accomplishments, he also undoubtedly had a prominent influence on two well-known figures in the region- his daughters Heidi Petersen Barrett (also known as the “Wine Diva of Napa Valley”) and chef Holy Peterson. On a pleasant spring night, I was honored by one of his latest contributions to wine culture- the 2004 Richard G. Peterson Brut Rosé.
The wine was made under the Amuse Bouche label, an endeavor by his daughter Heidi, with the goal to create “the most lauded sparkling wine produced in Napa Valley”. While that is certainly a lofty goal, the team does have decades of experience and skill at its disposal as well as a very unique grape. In 1980, during a wine competition in England, Peterson came across a vine with furry white and pink leaves known locally as Wrotham. After tasting its grapes he took a couple cuttings from the vines and returned home to test their viability in the California soil. After a decade of experiments at various vineyards, he returned to his farm (the Peterson Family Christmas Tree Farm) where he grafted and planted a couple acres. In 1997, he submitted samples to UC Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology to test his hypothesis of the variety’s DNA lineage. It turns out that he was correct and he was now cultivating an obscure clone of Pinot Noir.
The 2004 Richard G. Peterson Brut Rosé is made from 100% of these unique grapes and their character shines through in the wine. The first remarkable aspect of the wine is its beautiful peach-salmon color and fine string of beads. The aromas are also striking, reminiscent of a composed dish (i.e. raspberry strudel), thanks to seven years of aging the wine in barrel without removing the dead yeast, or “sur lie” as the French refer to the practice. There is a wonderful balance of fruity, bready, and earthy tones, compelling sip after sip. On the palette, the wine continues to impress with soft, mousse-like bubbles gently coating the mouth before a pleasant dry finish. Ample acidity and 12% ABV create a spectacular wine.
But possibly the most striking part of tasting the wine was how well it paired with our dinner. And we gave it quite the challenge. For our appetizer, we started with vegetable rolls dipped in a sweet’n’spicy chili sauce. The wine played perfectly, its fruity components contrasting the spiciness of the dish while the bubbles washed away everything but a hint of the spice. The main was a creamy mushroom shiritake noodle dish, also with a bit of heat and spice. Again, the Rosé complemented the dish delightfully, cleansing the palette of creamy and spice, making each bite taste anew.
All in all, this sparkling wine may in fact live up to its lofty goals and outshine its counterparts in Napa Valley. But with only 242 cases produced in the ’04 vintage, it may not have many lucky judges the first go-round. Fortunately the 2005 will be available early 2014, although it will undoubtedly go quite quickly as well. But its lasting legacy may be introducing people to the fact that a bottle of bubbly can be celebrated over dinner as easily as when the ball drops.