Wine Tasting on the Road: Domaine Chandon

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Bubbles. Lots of bubbles. Domaine Chandon offers classic bubbles, premium bubbles, and pink bubbles. It offers still wine with a story. The history of the winery and a tour through the winemaking process culminates in a taste of Domaine Chandon’s wines to sample the literal fruits of the winery’s labor. Domaine Chandon was the first stop on our tour of Napa Valley. Reports from five other wineries follow this posting.

True Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France. Domaine Chandon produces sparkling and still wines. Moët & Chandon Cellars in Epernay, France, established Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California, in 1973. While the method of making the sparkling wine is the same as in Champagne – méthode champenoise – our guide, Elena Macias, told us the winery does not use that term “out of respect” for genuine Champagne.

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One of the first things you notice about the winery is its inconspicuous architecture. The roofs are modeled after wine barrels, and the buildings are designed to blend into the environment. Before entering the winery, Macias walked us through the Demonstration Garden, which was planted with the three main grapes used in Champagne and sparkling wine production: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Macias explained some of the sustainable agricultural practices the winery uses, including sniffer dogs – or Labrador retrievers turned loose in the vineyards to find potential pests – and the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which certain pests don’t like, as a sort of decoy grape around the perimeter of the vineyard. The pests don’t bother crawling further into the vineyard to snack on their prized Chardonnay and Pinot grapes. An unintended consequence of this planting strategy is that Domaine Chandon now produces Cabernet Sauvignon that sells out each vintage.

Domaine Chandon’s grapes are grown at three vineyards in the Los Carneros, Mt Veeder, and Yountville AVAs, each with different terroir (soil, elevation, water, wind, sun/rain/fog), to produce qualities in the grapes that allow for production of their wines.

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We entered the Tank Room and were immediately dwarfed by the more than 100 14,000-gallon tanks that disappeared around a bend. Macias explained the room was designed with that curvature so as not to overwhelm the staff who work in that room by having all 100+ tanks visible at any one time. Macias explained that more than 36 tanks of wine are sampled per bottle to create the non-vintage (NV) flavor profiles consumers expect in Domaine Chandon NV sparkling wines.

Macias reviewed the process of making Champagne and sparkling wines. First, the grapes are put through a bladder press for gentle extraction of juice. Yeast is added to this grape juice and left to ferment for 7-10 days. Next, the fermented juice is placed in bottles with yeast and sugar then sealed with a plastic cap for a second fermentation in the bottle. The wine in tanks is typically about 11% alcohol; after spending time in bottles the alcohol level rises to 13%.

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Madame Veuve Clicquot created a tool to aid in the next step in the process: riddling, or turning the bottles on a regular basis to eventually coax all of the dead yeast to settle in the neck of each bottle. In Madame Clicquot’s day, human beings turned each bottle on a riddling table designed by Madame Clicquot. Today, a gyropallet that holds 4,000 bottles rotates the bottles in a VLM or Very Large Machine. Following the second fermentation, the necks of the bottles are frozen and the plastic caps and collection of dead yeast removed (disgorging). Base wine and additional sugar are added (dosage) and the bottles are recapped with the familiar cork and basket closure.

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Our group then headed down to the Barrel Room in the cellar. The musty, organic, earthy smell of aging wine is delicious! Stacks and racks of French oak barrels were aging the still wine. Domaine Chandon ages three vintages in a barrel before selling it to another winery.

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The bottling line was on this level. It was interesting to see how one employee lined up empty bottles to lift dozens of them at a time to the conveyor belt. After the machine filled each bottle, another employee stood along the line topping off bottles that needed a higher fill (no, she was *not* tasting the sparkling wine as it went by!).

Next stop, the private garden for a taste. A table set beautifully with stemware awaited – elegant from start to finish. Macias poured selections from the Classic Tier, Étoile, and Still Wines. Marcias described how Domaine Chandon is promoting wines in the Classic Tier for use in wine cocktails, which are available in the main tasting room.

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Classic Tier

* Brut Classic – flavors of citrus, pear, and green apple. This wine is made from Chardonnay grapes and offers good acidity.

* Blanc de Noirs – flavors of strawberry, cherry, and currant. Made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this wine is food-friendly and fresh. It is served at White House receptions.

* Rosé– made of 100% Chardonnay, it offers flavors of strawberry. Pinot Noir is added to the wine for color.

Étoile Prestige Cuvée

* Étoile Brut – almond and honey dominate the palate in this wine made from equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with 6% Pinot Meunier. Light and elegant.

* Étoile Rosé – plum and nutmeg entice the palate, with a cocoa powder-finish. It has a rich salmon color and was more earthy and complex than the Classic Tier Rosé.

Still Wines

* Chardonnay – still wine with a pale straw color and a nose of caramel corn (really!). It was refreshing and straightforward in its citrus and green apple notes.

* Pinot Noir – a clean balance of dry fruit, herbs, and good acidity makes this a great food wine.

* Pinot Meunier – unusual wine similar to a Pinot Noir but with hints of mushroom and earth. Good acidity makes it another food-friendly wine.

Dessert

* Extra-Dry Riche – apricot and honey. The subtle sweetness in this wine would pair well with dessert or Thai or Indian food.

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Our tour of Domaine Chandon was fantastic. It was the perfect way to begin our Napa Valley adventure. Thank you again, Elena Macias!

Domaine Chandon offers a number of tours, including an Étoile Prestige Tour + Tasting, Vintage Tour + Tasting, and Private Tour + Tasting, which includes tastes of 5 sparkling and 3 still wines. Domaine Chandon has a wine club that offers limited releases, including the popular sparkling red wine, which sells out for the holidays. Domaine Chandon Classic Tier and Étoile sparkling wines are available at wine and liquor stores across Colorado and the nation.

Until our next adventure in wine and food…

Domaine Chandon
1 California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599

Napa Valley

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