California's best bubbles are crisp, dry, delicious, and highly underrated.
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Mendocino's new Sparkling Wine Trek
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

It was afternoon on the tasting-room terrace at the Roederer Estate in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley, and the bees and I were having a time of it. As they feasted on pollen in a nearby stand of lavender, I nibbled a lavender honey and goat cheese crostini while sipping from a magnum of creamy, honeyed Brut. A multi-vintage blend containing a percentage of reserve wine aged in neutral oak, the sparkling wine had a fleshy lusciousness that wrapped its mineral spine. It reaffirmed what I've long believed: This little-traveled AVA in Northern California produces the nation's best bubbles. Now, Mendocino's new Sparkling Wine Trek, a self-guided tour of more than 20 of the county's 90-plus wineries, is proving as much. 

Champagne Louis Roederer's Jean-Claude Rouzand had searched for years for the right terroir for his French house to make a California sparkling. In 1982, he found it in what locals call the Deep End, the valley's northwestern tip, where chilly Pacific fog slows grapes' maturation, helping retain the acidity that is so important in champagne-style wines. "The Anderson Valley is one of California's coldest winegrowing regions. In the 1970s and early '80s, it was mostly planted to Alsatian varieties. It was risky thinking Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would be suited to the area, but the gamble paid off," director of hospitality Gregg Lamer told me. "It was also a bargain compared to Napa, which is why Roederer Estate overdelivers for the money." 

As illustration, he poured a 2013 L'Ermitage Rosé. The 50/50 Chardonnay-Pinot blend was made in the traditional method, which is typically used for Champagne. Only the cuvée, or first portion of the pressing, was used in the fermentation –– that's the juice with the most sugars and acids, but the least color and bitter phenolics. The wine had gotten its salmon color and berrylike aromatics instead from the addition of some still red wine. The 2013 vintage had a sweet-savory, nearly meaty character that meshed with a dish of prosciutto-draped potato chips. It was worth the $100 it was listed for.

Mendocino's new Sparkling Wine Trek
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

Still, a Franklin is a lot to drop for an American sparkling — even one made by the producers of Cristal. For $85, I picked up a 2013 Grande Cuvée, a 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot blend, at Lichen Estate, 10 minutes southeast on Highway 128, the valley's one main road. Owner Doug Stewart cribbed lessons from producers in Champagne and planted his organic vines densely to decrease their vigor, so they put more energy into the fruit than the shoots. Even though the grapes are picked early to maximize their acidity, they're flavorful. 

He refines the cuvée to "capture the cleanest, most acidic fraction of the pressing" and leaves the Grand Cuvée on the lees for up to five years to add weighty texture. Then he finishes it with a good amount of sugar — around 10 grams per liter to Roederer's eight — to temper its zing with richness. That level of dosage gives his Pinot-based bubbles a lovely floral quality and adds a caramel-apple note to his snappy Pinot Gris sparkler. "If we had lowered the dosage, they would get more herbaceous," he says. "The secret sauce is balance."

But not everyone on the trail is a fan of dosage. At Goldeneye, where I indulged in a pairing of bubbles and sustainable caviar, winemaker Kristen McMahan poured wines containing half as much dosage. Her 2018 Brut Rosé has a berry-forward vibe brightened by citrusy notes. The 2019, from a cooler year, is more refined with touches of stone fruit. She's holding back 80 cases of her 2020 vintage to disgorge in 2025. "I'm hoping, because the wine has been of exceptional quality, that I can get away with zero dosage and still get those toasty brioche notes reminiscent of Champagne," she said. 

Mendocino's new Sparkling Wine Trek
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

As climate change warms up even this northern valley, riper grapes make foregoing dosage more possible. "But we still get that diurnal swing. Even during harvest, it's 38 degrees in the mornings and 85 during the day," McMahan explained. "We have less of a problem than, say, Napa where you get that jamminess. Our grapes retain the minerality that's the Anderson Valley's regional identity. You get earthiness and elegance."

Even in the AVA's warmer spots, the sparkling wines have verve. At Pennyroyal Farm on the valley floor at the southeastern end, the Blanc de Noir offered a bright, clean sip to refresh my palate as I sampled cheeses made from the charismatic goats and sheep that visitors can meet on a farm tour. 

The electricity in the area's sparklers might be nowhere more pronounced in its Brut Natures and Pét-Nats. Foursight Wines pours a zero-dosage Brut Nature that  contains Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier from Sonoma in a blend with estate Pinot Noir, but it's deliciously herbaceous with that crispness you expect from the Anderson Valley. Cloudy and apricot-hued, Maggy Hawk Winery's wild-fermented Pét-Nat is a bright, fresh fruit salad of wine, with candied peach nose and a bittersweet jujubee flavor.

At Handley Cellars, winemaker Randy Schock goes for fruitiness, too. "I'm not trying to make a French-model sparkling wine. My neighbors are so damned good at it, why would I make one just like Roederer?" he asked as we sat on the terrace overlooking the vines and the forested mountains. He explained that his bubbles are "very fruit forward, very dry, lower in acid, with less time on the lees." Schock followed the style of the very first sparkling wine made in the Anderson Valley in the modern era, in 1981 at Scharffenberger Cellars, a house now owned by Roederer that makes a fuller, more American-style sparkling. His 2016 Brut Rosé tastes like candied apple tempered by earth. 

Mendocino's new Sparkling Wine Trek
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Mendocino County

But though the Anderson Valley has long been an exceptional place for growing fruit, it's not the only AVA in Mendocino where sparkling wine is produced. I drove inland where, near the dusty town of Ukiah, Parducci, the county's longest-lasting winery (established in 1932) makes a Brut Reserve with a green apple snap and lemony juiciness. Down the highway at the boutique winery Rivino, owner Jason McConnell was recovering from one of the frequent parties he throws to lure visitors to Mendocino's interior.

"Last night was Bacon, Boujee, and Blues. Boujee is our fanciful name for bubbles," he said. Although daytime temperatures along the Redwood Highway where he's located climb into the hundreds during the day, acid develops well in grapes here because mornings are chilled by the nearby Russian River; ocean breezes course in through mountain gaps in the early evening. A Brut Nature with a bittersweet orange pith flavor, his 2018 Boujee Blanc de Blanc is a bright summer pounder.

I ended my sparkling wine trek just outside the old railroad town of Hopland, where Terra Sávia hosts the Mendocino County Sparkling Wine Festival, which happens on August 6th. But any time of year, this certified-organic winery is a chill place to sip "and just be," as owner Yvonne Hall puts it. She's decorated her soaring tasting room in comfortable furniture and big, exuberant paintings to reflect her Dominican roots. "We do like color," she said. 

With 48 months on the lees and several years in the bottle, Terra Sávia's 2010 Blanc de Blanc had had the time to develop a winning personality. It started off exceptionally bright with a mineral austerity and finished with friendly, toasty, caramelly edges. At $40, this aged méthode champenoise wine was a bargain find from a county that deserves a premium reputation for its sparkling wine.

"Our old-school Mendocino winemakers still see themselves as poor cousins to Napa," said Hall. "I keep trying to tell them all, "Guys, you have to get that chip off the shoulder. We are a hidden gem.'"