California Dreaming: Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Retrospective

Early October presented the opportunity to taste through 14 vintages of Domaine Carneros’ blanc de blancs tête de cuvée “Le Rêve.”  I’d been asked to moderate the tasting, which I was delighted to do, as it’s always a pleasure to spend time with someone like Eileen Crane, who embodies fierce intelligence well-wrapped in grace.  This year has been Eileen’s 34th harvest, meaning she’s had more experience producing American sparkling wine than any other winemaker. (Eileen became the founding winemaker at Domaine Carneros in 1987 following a decade at Domaine Chandon and Gloria Ferrer.)

The reception of Domaine Carneros seems to suffer a bit in the East due to differences in taste and pre-determined orientation, privileging European wines.  (A sizable proportion of East Coast wine professionals profess to prefer more acid-driven, subdued wines than California tends to produce.  And my own experience with the Vintage Brut has been capricious.)  Thus I was eager to see how Le Rêve would be received:   The combination of 100% Chardonnay (read: more acidity and tension), plus 10 years on the lees (read: greater complexity and texture), plus bottle aging from less than two through 16 years (read: how do these wines age? and, vintage variation: how varied in a region extolling its consistency?) portended a profile more likely to be received favorably, even from a skeptical, if respectful, audience.

Champagne Taittinger’s tête de cuvée, Comptes de Champagne, is also a blanc de blancs, so all things being equal, perhaps it follows that the same should apply to its California counterpart.  But, of course, all things are decidedly not equal, as the terroir is decidedly different.  The soils in Carneros are not chalky.  Champagne has no San Pablo Bay, or fog.  Weather patterns in Carneros are more consistent than Champagne.  This latter endows Domaine Carneros with fruit worthy of Le Rêve every year, which tends to come from older blocks, in the coolest part of the vineyard, where the vines are virused.  Eileen is not the first winemaker to make a virtue out of  virused vines, and, while I remain a bit skeptical of this, I can accept at least part of the argument: viruses (mostly leaf roll) lower yield, retard sugar accumulation, and retain acidities — all quite positive for grapes destined for California sparkling wine. Viruses also retard phenolic development, but this arguably is less of  an issue for sparkling wine.  What is key is that the slower accumulation of sugars allows a longer period for flavor development.  Thus, the Chardonnay grapes destined for Le Rêve theoretically have had greater flavor development relative to sugar, and render the resulting wine denser and more complex.  (I remain skeptical because it seems to me first, that flavor development does not just take longer, but it is actually delayed.  Second, sparkling wine producers tell me that phenolics do actually have an effect on the juice quality for sparkling wines, affecting, for example, mousse quality.  And, all things being equal, wouldn’t one prefer using wine from healthy vines rather than virused vines?  Further, there are all sorts of canopy management techniques one could use to help pace the ripening.   The bottom line is that it simply may not make economic sense right now to rip out these vines.  In time, there will be replanting, and we’ll have to wait (quite a long time) to see the difference should Le Rêve be produced by 100% healthy vines. In the interim we can just say that that the grapes end up working for Le Rêve notwithstanding the virused vines.)

Chardonnay, with its higher acidity and nerve, is the spine, if not the essence, of most long-lived sparkling wines.  Le Rêve may have started out with 15% Pinot Blanc, but that has declined to 1-2%; while it added to the middle palate, I might speculate that the more assertive fruitiness of the variety did not comport with the tightly knit, more elegant style desired.

As for its finesse, one critical element distinguishing Le Rêve (and Domaine Carneros) from other California sparkling wines is the elegance of its mousse.  California sparkling wines tend to have explosive, frothy fizz, a consequence of its soils being more fertile than those of Champagne.  Crane and team isolated a proprietary, indigenous yeast for the secondary fermentation that fosters a minuscule, delicate perlage.

Le Rêve is always aged a minimum of 5 years sur lie before it is disgorged. While the dosage may depend on the vintage, it tends to be at roughly 1.2%.  The fruit is usually about 10.8-11% at picking; these wines were all at 12% alcohol unless noted otherwise.

The wines below were tasted on 6th October, at Gramercy Tavern in New York City.  As my notes indicate, the wines held up extremely well, showing remarkable complexity and freshness. Most surprising was the variation in densities and aromatic profile of the wines: while the fruit does indeed seem fine enough to make a cuvée every year, the vintages do vary in density and flavor character.  And, as there should be, there is a signature style: elegant, with fresh, vibrant, quasi-tropical ripe fruit and spice notes when young; with time, the fruit character opens out, expanding into a more integrated, well-knit drink with an earthy, biscuity, toasty character enveloping a delicate mineral thread.  This is not Champagne, this is Carneros: the fruit is riper, the density a bit broader.  But they should be different, and different in kind does not imply difference in quality.  Indeed, a tough audience was impressed by Le Rêve’s longevity, but especially by its dynamic concentration, elegance and harmonious complexity.

1992 A medium-intense nose; quite toasty.  Medium-bodied, with a mousse that was still fresh and lively; a bloom of sweet, earthy brioche character; then a segue to sweet, baked fruit: apples, a hint of caramel and baking spices (allspice, cinnamon), fresh musky razor apples offers full palate coverage, a delicate texture, and a lovely, lilting, lifted finish.  Still has a youthful character but is harmonious and well-knit. (15% Pinot Blanc)

1993 Very pale straw: medium intense, initially with more overt fruit, more complex and nuanced, but then closed down to become more subdued than the 1992.  Broader on the palate and more persistent, still with crisp acidity, but the wine seemed hard to pull apart at it was still concentrated, with considerable density. Drinkable, but should continue to improve: powerful, with notes of mineral, earth, and brioche; long finish. (12.3% abv; 5% Pinot Blanc)

1994 Medium straw, a little lemon hue; delicate mousse.  Earthier nose, subtle: almost smoky, some developed notes, then baked yellow fruits.  Full-bodied and earthier, more mushroomy: much more advanced than the 1993.  Less concentrated, with a subtle mineral sheet to the finish: a different, more open texture.  Medium finish. (8% Pinot Blanc)

1995 Pale straw, with a more overt nose; some freshness of citrus with wet stone.  Medium-bodied, round, even, open, elegant and soft, with delicacy of texture and moderate concentration.  Subtle mushroom character, with a center of gravity in the front and mid-palate, driven by crisp, balancing  acidity. (1% Pinot Blanc)

1996: AWOL (Lost in the cellar)

1997 Pale straw: fresh, lemony; vibrant.

1998 Very pale straw; with a freshly-cut green apple nose. Quiet, but lively.  Medium-bodied, long and persistent, with ripe fruit and subtle earthy notes peeking out; pretty and well-knit; crisp and vibrant. (12.2% abv)

1999 Very pale straw but deeper than the 1998.  Medium-bodied+, with the subtle intensity of the nose blooming in the palate: a bigger attack than the ’98, overall bigger, richer and denser, with more persistence of flavor, and full palate coverage. Subtle segue to finish; very complex and three-dimensional; long and subtle, with exotic fruits, floral and spicy notes. Wine of the tasting.  (12.2%)

2000 Pale lemon, with a very different nose: yellow fruits, hints of spice.  Less tension on both the nose and palate.  The palate was open, earthy, more developed than the 1999, with ripe fruits; still clean and delicate but with a shorter finish.

2001 Very pale straw. Integrated nose with brioche notes dominating underlying spicy and floral character.  Medium-bodied, with a fresh attack; even across; delicate, with fresh acidity: lightly “chalky,” with appley notes. Nervy. (2% Pinot Blanc)

2002 Pale straw, with a medium-intense nose of honeysuckle, pear, and, subtle, but unmistakable, verbena: quite dynamic.  Medium-bodied but broad and intense; mouth-filling.  Ripe and almost tropical: honey crisp apple, pear; very complex with a clean finish and a three-dimensional retronasal bloom.  Lovely now but will be extremely interesting to see how this develops.

2003 Pale straw with a lemony hue.  More tropical nose of mango, hinting at passion fruit, with lemon: very fresh.  Medium-bodied with a succulent attack; even, soft and supremely elegant, with sweet fruits, crisp acidity, with a finish driven by layers of minerality, appleskin and hints of ginger spice.  Still very youthful, almost juicy. (2% Pinot Blanc, 12.2% abv)

2004 Very pale straw. Chalky nose: pear, subtle white flowers; overall, very subtle and refined.  Nervier on the palate, with more concentration, higher acidity more acidity to the attack than the 2003.  Taut, with a long finish.  Very tight and closed, but with lots of density: not ready to drink, though hinting of flavors such as mineral, ginger and apple.  One of the stars of the tasting, but will improve significantly with aging.

2005 Very pale straw with an exciting, vibrant, dynamic nose: pear, lemon, lime (almost Riesling-like), spicy and high-toned.  Medium-bodied, with a soft, ripe attack, again with a Riesling-like bloom of lime, apricot and mineral.  Decidedly different from any of the previous wines. Vibrant but with an refined, elegant finish.

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