The use of single letters as brand identifiers on wines is not new, with Chateau Y, the sumptuous dry wine of the Sauternes producer Chateau Yquem being one notable example. So, in 1986, when Judy Jordan, daughter of Jordan Winery’s founder, decided to produce high-end sparkling wine in Sonoma County, her decision was to brand the bottles with a large stylish yellow "J," easily recognizable on the green bottles. Use of the single letter was noticeably distinct from the "bank note" labels of Jordan Winery still wines, but the decision also stirred speculation of whether the single letter was J for Jordan or J for Judy.
Initially J Vineyard & Winery, which moved into the former facilities of Piper Sonoma outside Healdsburg, produced only a brut-style Sonoma County sparkling wine by the classic Champagne method. It wasn’t until the early years of this decade that J made two major changes: the first was to add a line of Pinot Noirs, following the pattern of Champagne houses that make small quantities of still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the same grapes used to make their sparkling wines. The second move was to hire veteran winemaker George Bursick to oversee the production of J’s wines and to work with Hollis Price, assistant winemaker in charge of sparkling wine.
With the holidays upon us, many wine buying decisions include sparkling wines while other thoughts turn to which wine to have with the traditional holiday meal. Choosing a sparkling wine usually comes down to price and style. The style of a sparkling wine is based not only on the grapes used, but also a technique in sparkling wine production known as dosage. At J, the decision on dosage levels is carefully considered because the finished wine must be compatible with one or more applications that are commonly enjoyed during the holidays -- toasting the holidays and celebrating the holiday meal. Equally important is the objective of maintaining a consistent house style to avoid consumer confusion.
The amount of dosage is calculated by the quality and character of the base wine and the house style. By definition, dosage is the final step in the process where a mixture of wine (sometimes brandy) and sugar syrup is added to adjust the sweetness of the finished wine. Sparkling wines are naturally high in acidity, so a dose of sweetness is often needed to soften their sharp edge. The levels of dosage vary, with Brut ranging from .6 to 1.5% residual sweetness and Extra Dry ranging from 1.2 to 2%.
Recently Hollis Price and George Bursick demonstrated the technique of dosage and how J Vineyards handles this critical step, using the J Cuvee 1999 Brut as the base wine. “With dosage you get a free last look at the wine, so the important decision is to determine what we can do with the wine after disgorging,” explained Price. She believes that all wine coming from aging in the bottle, or en tirage, deserves a full look to determine the amount of dosage to be added. “Where is the sugar/acid balance?” Price adds.
Price lined up a row of glasses with the 1999 Brut and increasing levels of sweetness in the dosage. The first wine was sans dosage, and delivered a palate wakening jolt with warm toasty notes, ripe fruit and a dry tart finish. Increasing levels of dosage followed, starting at 1.1% sweetness to a maximum of 1.4% sweet dosage. A few tenths of a percent doesn’t sound like much, but the impression, as the dosage grew sweeter, was significant. At the top end, 1.4% tasted rich and textured, noticeably different than the sample dosed at 1.1%, but too sweet for my taste.
My preference was for the sample with a dosage of 1.2% for its creamy smoothness and ripe green apple character. The exercise was a reminder that a Brut sparkling wine usually tops out at 1.5% residual sweetness and that style (a.k.a. dosage level) is important in selecting a Champagne or sparkling wine. It also points out that sparkling wine labels tell the consumer the general style -- Brut, Extra Dry -- but not how dry or sweet a Brut is (or that Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut) since the range, based on producer preference, is from near dry at .6% to noticeably sweet at 1.5%.
Price also wanted to show that the type of dosage used can make a difference in the texture and flavor profile of the finished sparkling wine. In the 1999 Brut, the base wine is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Price formulated a dosage using just Chardonnay and another one using brandy in place of still wine. The differences were striking. The 1.25% Chardonnay dosage was noticeably sweet, with ripe apple aromatics and flavors, while the 1.1% brandy dosage had more texture and didn’t taste as sweet; I wondered if this was deceiving because the sweet fruit of the Chardonnay might have presented a kind of gustatory trompe l‘oell. I liked both samples, but thought the brandy dosage smoothed the rough edges of the sweet dosage. J Brut is finished at 1.2% sweetness while the J Cuvee 20 is sweeter at 1.5% residual sweetness.
What I took away from this somewhat esoteric exercise is that, as a consumer, care is important when selecting a Champagne or sparkling wine. Learn all you can about the wine before purchasing bubbly to assure a more pleasurable experience, either by talk to your local merchant or going onto websites such as J’s.
J Pinot Noirs
Sparkling wine, as good as is, doesn’t fit with all wine and food combinations. I’ve tried sparkling wine with red meat, but prefer a red wine like Pinot Noir (a personal favorite), especially with holiday meals. George Bursick, winemaker at J Vineyards has been making a string of impressive Pinot Noirs under the J Vineyards label. Before joining J, Bursick was the long-time winemaker for Ferrari-Carano, where he was better known for a line of red wines that didn’t include Pinot Noir. “Actually Pinot Noir closely resembles Sangiovese that I worked with for 20 years,” explains Bursick. “The fermentation techniques that I experimented with leading up to the creation of Ferrai-Carano’s “Siena” have made for an easy transition to Pinot Noir.”
Since the start of the Pinot project at J in 2007, Bursick has produced over 100 Pinot Noir lots, each representing a unique outcome from a range of variables and over 15 separate vineyard sites. The variables include soil type, grape exposure, clone/rootstock and a whole host of things that affect the character of the finished wine. In the winery, Bursick is experimenting with another long list of variables including the discovery of three yeast strains that were delivered to the United States in the 1940s but were never used. “I’m tracking and creating all these variables to find the ‘gems’ hidden within a particular vineyard, and I definitely anticipate additional wines in our Pinot Noir line.”
Good Pinot Noir ain’t cheap, and the J Vineyards pinots reflect that reality. Prices for the quartet of 2007 J Pinots range from $35 for the Russian River Valley to $70 for the Sonoma Coast. The Russian River Valley Pinots are packed with bright fruit flavors, medium intensity, good texture and length, while the Sonoma Coast Pinot shows an intriguing earthiness backed by berry and mocha notes. All four of the Pinot Noirs are finished at 14.3% alcohol, suggesting a strong coincidence, a feat of stellar winemaking, or both.
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