Sparkling wine special part three: Bobby’s bubbles

In the final article in his special sparkling wine trio, Peter Ranscombe follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson by tasting wines from Schramsberg in California.

AUTHOR Robert Louis Stevenson is famous throughout the world for his novels, including classics such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

Yet few of his readers know about the unusual honeymoon that Stevenson spent travelling through Napa Valley in California during 1880.

It’s a connection about which Hugh Davies – whose family owns the Schramsberg winery in Napa – is rightly proud.

Stevenson visited Schramsberg and joined its founder, Jacob Schram, in his cave cellar to taste “every variety and shade of Schramsberger”.

The author wrote about his journey through Napa in his travelogue The Silverado Squatters, which detailed the time he and his new bride, Fanny, spent squatting in an abandoned bunkhouse.

Today, Schramsberg is at the heart of California’s sparkling wine industry, with Davies’ parents having made the state’s first traditional-method blanc de blanc in 1965.

Yet the legacy of the founder lives on in the name of Davies’ flagship wine, the J Schram.

Davies is a proponent of producing vintage wines, in which all – or at least 95% – of the grapes must come from the stated year, as opposed to non-vintage wines, which blend wines from different seasons.

He’s keen to preserve the variations that happen between vintages, showing off the characteristics of the individual wines.

And that character was definitely displayed during a special vertical tasting of J Schram held on Monday at 67 Pall Mall, the wine-centric private members’ club in London’s swanky St James’s district.

J Schram vertical

The current release, the 2008 J Schram (£90, The Vineyard Cellars), is a blend of 82% chardonnay and 18% pinot noir harvested from three vineyards; it spent around eight years on its “lees” – the dead yeast left over from the bubble-generating second fermentation – to add texture and toasty flavours.

On the nose, it’s full of baked apple, dried apricot, brown sugar and brown bread, with fresher red and green apples and lemon joining in the party on the palate.

It was great to revisit a sparkler that I first tried last spring with Davies at his winery in Napa.

For me, Schramsberg’s wines always have deliciously-ripe fruit and here the J Schram has plenty of fresh acidity to provide balance.

And that balance was even more evident in the 2003 J Schram, which sported a similar blend of 85% chardonnay and 15% pinot noir from six sites, with about seven years on its lees and now a further eight years aging in its bottle.

The result was such intensity of flavour that it tasted slightly sweet or off-dry, with cinnamon, baked apple, crème caramel and honey crowding into the aromas and flavours.

Yet the acidity was still fresh, 15 years after the grapes were picked.

Equally as impressive was the 1997 J Schram – I was studying for my standard grades when this wine was made from 70% chardonnay and 30% pinot noir harvested across four sites.

Although the intensity of the nose was fading in comparison with the younger vintages, it still packed a sweet punch, with confectioners’ custard, green apple and pastry being joined by a more savoury salted almond note, which was replicated on the palate.

Food, glorious food

Later, during dinner, it was equally as fascinating to explore how Schrambsberg’s sparkling wines paired with food.

The 2008 J Schram brought out the lime notes in the dressing on Isle of Mull hand-dived scallops – I must check if they came from fellow Scottish Field columnist Guy Grieves – while the 1997 was lost against the dish and the 2003 J Schram would have needed some caramelisation on the scallops to match its sweeter notes.

When I saw that the main course of duck breast had been paired with a sparkling wine, I was a wee bit worried, but I needn’t have fretted because the 2008 Schramsberg Reserve (£88, The Vineyard Cellar) was more than up to the job.

Made entirely from pinot noir, its apricot, peach, caramel and tangerine flavours stood up to the spices on the duck breast and its orange sauce.

Also worthy of a special mention is the 2014 J Davies Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (£87, The Vineyard Cellar) – although the family is best-known for its sparklers, I was quite frankly blown-away by the quality, the softness and the warmth of its red wine.

After a blast of Fishermen’s Friend-like menthol, the aromas developed into blackcurrant, cassis and blackberry, never straying into green or vegetal territory.

That ripeness continued onto the palate with vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, blackcurrant and raspberry, thanks to a 17% dash of malbec and 3% petit verdot to bring richer colour and a lusher mouthfeel, rounded off by milk chocolate on the finish. Yummy.

If you’ve enjoyed the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Californian travels then check out the other two parts of Peter Ranscombe’s sparkling wine special about Exton Park English sparkling wine and Ruinart Champagne, featuring more weird and wonderful tales from the world of bubbles about lumps of chalk and the eyes of a partridge.