There was a time (think: late Seventies, early Eighties) when a lot of people would have put money on California being the next Champagne. It seems quite improbable now given California’s reputation for Cabernet and the relative paucity of sparkling wine producers in the state. Yet there are many California winery names that have become synonymous with sparking wine (Korbel, Chandon, Iron Horse, and more) and which have been producing sparkling wines for decades, and continue to do so.
This is not the story of one of those brands. This is the story of the next generation.
In the early Eighties, Judy Jordan left her career as a geologist to return to work with her father, Tom Jordan in the family winemaking business (Jordan Vineyards). By 1986 she was fully immersed, and decided to start her own brand, which would become known simply as J Vineyards. Conceived as a boutique brand of sparkling wine, J Vineyards was a strict departure from the previous generation of bubbly producers in every possible way. From the name to the sleek, label-less bottles, Jordan put a very new spin on California sparkling wine.
In 1996 J Vineyards had grown to the point that it was able to take over the Piper-Sonoma (another long-time sparkling producer) winemaking facility in Sonoma’s Russian River valley, south of the town of Healdsburg. In addition to the acquisition of a winemaking facility, Jordan gradually acquired vineyard plots throughout the Russian River valley.
Today the winery owns and farms nearly 275 acres of fruit in the Russian River Valley, and in recent years has taken to producing still wines as well as sparkling, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinotage, and Chardonnay. Judy Jordan is still at the helm of the business, and winemaking is done by George Bursick, who spent more than twenty years as head winemaker at Ferrari-Carano before joining J Vineyards.
J Vineyards makes its sparkling wine in the traditional Methode Champenoise fashion, and from the traditional three grapes of the region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Since 1988 the winery has been using a Coquard brand grape press that is specifically designed for pressing whole clusters of grapes for the Champagne process, yielding very pure juice with little fruit solids or skin material. The winery claims that theirs is the only one of its kind in use in North America, and only one of two in use outside of France.
After pressing, the wine undergoes its first fermentation and the separate lots are blended before continuing with the multi-step process of making sparkling wine that includes a second fermentation in the bottle (which yields the bubbles) and a dosage of sugar and wine at the end to balance the flavors of the acidic base wine.
After some experimentation, Bursick has decided to use the Coquard press for the Pinot Gris wine as well, as he feels it yields better juice that retains more purity of fruit. The Pinot Gris and the Pinot Noir are both fermented in steel, with the Pinot Noir undergoing its secondary fermentation in French Oak barrels. The Pinot Noir ages for an additional 11 months in 30% new French oak before bottling.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2006 J Vineyards Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley
Palest gold in color, this wine has a bright nose of pear and melon aromas. In the mouth it has great acidity with a lovely silky texture, and tastes all pears and apples straight through to the clean finish. An uncomplicated and refreshing wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $15 Where to Buy?
2005 J Vineyards Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous concocted nose of herbs, roasted meat, sumac, and other red berries. In the mouth it balances delicately between raspberry and dried herbal flavors on a substrate of earthiness. Light on its feet, with restrained tannins, the wine finishes beautifully. core: around 9. Cost: $23 Where to Buy?
NV J Vineyards “Cuvee 20” Brut Sparkling Wine, Russian River Valley
Pale perfect gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of quince and salt-water taffy. In the mouth it is a nice balance between tart dryness and bright fruit, with flavors of apple, parchment, and hints of toasted French bread on the finish. Balanced and refreshing. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23 Where to Buy?
The other current releases from J Vineyards include their 2002 Vintage Brut; Non Vintage Brut Rose; 1997 Late Disgorged Brut; 2006 Vin Gris; 2006 Chardonnay; two single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, and a dessert wine.