Triumph of Old, New World Taste and Style : French Launch a Winner With Santa Barbara County Sparkling Wine

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

The French Champagne firm of Deutz has launched a winner in its first Santa Barbara County sparkling wine offering, Brut Cuvee, Maison Deutz. Made in the classic methode champenoise technique, the wine is a superb triumph of Old and New World taste and style.

Its greatest asset is its clean, dry style, which hits the palate with an austere, virtually bone dry character that closely parallels the firm's French version. At 0.75% sugar and a higher acidity than other California brands, this sparkler, if blind tasted, could easily be mistaken for a French bubbly, especially for its masterfully done, dry, spirited, refined effervescence.

When earlier French-California Champagnes were premiered, such as Domaine Chandon, Piper Sonoma and Domaine Mumm, their respective tastes appeared slightly sweeter in deference to the industry-wide belief that Americans opt for sparklers that are rounder, softer edged and slightly sweet, although still qualifying as dry. The Brut Cuvee apparently is the driest and shows no hint of the fruit or yeast generally identified with competing labels. Unquestionably, Deutz has taken the concept of a dry brut seriously.

A Blend of Vintages

To be released in October, only 1,900 cases have been produced, with 2,300 expected in 1987. Ultimate production is expected not to exceed 10,000 cases. Made from a blend of vintages, 75% from the 1983 and 25% from the 1984, three different grape varieties were used: Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Priced at $15, the wine will find favor among the many who have summarily rejected California sparklers that are labeled brut but drink sweet.

Fashioning clean, dry characteristics is a direct result of the supervision and style preference of Andre Lallier, a fifth-generation Deutz proprietor who is also the chef de caves. He is a firm believer in classic, small-vat vinification and in blending of grapes from different vineyard parcels and from so-called unique crus , with each contributing, as in Champagne, a distinct accent.

Eventually, 40% of production needs will come from Deutz-owned vineyards in Santa Barbara County, while the balance will be selected from the region's better vineyards. A long aging program is planned for the future, with bottles not to be released for three to five years. Although this wine was released after 18 months on the yeast, it still is considered a lengthy period by California standards.

Lallier's California project began in 1978, when he decided to conduct a search for the best region here to make sparkling wine in the tradition of Deutz. After tasting and traveling throughout the state, he elected to bypass the obvious choices of Napa and Sonoma counties and settled on a cool site in Santa Barbara County, three miles south of Arroyo Grande.

Eight hundred acres, with prominent exposure to the maritime influences of the Pacific Ocean only four miles away, were purchased and named Piccho Vineyards. "By planting here on limestone soil," Lallier said, "I felt we would have the acidity and flavor to make exceptional California sparkling wine.

"I expect to hold back reserve wines in much the same way that I do in Champagne and make them part of a final cuvee selection, which I will always do myself. My first release, of course, is from the wines of 1983 and 1984 but my second in 1987 will be wines from 1983 and 1985 and so on. I feel this is the best way to ensure a continuum of style and quality."

A strong emphasis at Maison Deutz is placed on hand-made craftsmanship. "I like doing things that way," Lallier said, "because it is part of traditional Champagne philosophy. We pick our grapes by hand and place them into small, custom, 30-pound lug boxes and then transfer them by hand into our Coquard press, the first to be imported to the United States in the last 20 years and the only one currently in use here. It is a time-consuming press in that it is labor intensive to operate and requires the hands-on supervision of an experienced Champagne maker. The advantage is that the pressed juice is extremely low in solids and is clear, requiring less handling than the juice pressed from faster, more mechanical means. Also, we hand riddle and hand disgorge, practices which even in some traditional Champagne houses are presently being curtailed in favor of mechanical devices."

The hand-customizing Champagne methods have paid off for Lallier, both here and abroad. He has not yet used grapes from his own vineyards, which are only 3 years old, but has relied principally on contracted grapes from local viticulturist Dale Hampton for the 1983, 1984 and 1985 vintages. Preferring older vines, he does not expect to use his own grapes (planted in 1982) until the vineyard is in its eighth to 10th year. From each vintage he will take small selected lots of wine to guide his decision.

The House of Deutz is a welcome addition to what is now an ever-increasing line of French-made California sparklers. Founded in 1836 by William Deutz in partnership with Pierre Gelderman, it is located in the small Champagne town of Ay, where there are 18 Champagne houses. The best known are Deutz, Bollinger and Ayala.

Not as well-known as it once was in the 19th Century, most of the wine of Ay is dispatched into blends, a far different practice than in earlier days. The name Ay was a fashionable label designation, so much so that such historic figures as Pope Leo the Magnificent, the patron of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and England's Henry VIII called for the wines of Ay rather than simply requesting Champagne.

If any Champagne house could be described as boutique in nature, style and size it is Deutz, which has not grown appreciably since its founding, while still clinging to a limited annual production of just 70,000 cases.

No Expansion Planned

"We are one of Champagne's smaller houses," Lallier said. "If we grew we would have to buy wine, which would mean we would lose our high percentage rating of quality grapes and control over them from vineyard to bottle. We have not come into California to expand so much as to prove that we can extend our style to America."

Whereas the new Maison Deutz represents an excellent extension of style when compared to French Deutz, it is by no means the same. It approximates the French Deutz Non-Vintage Brut, which sells for about $20 and interestingly shows refined, delicately assertive flavor, a style for which Deutz is noted. The comparison is fascinating and worth examining just to see how close Lallier comes to approximation. Of all the French-made California sparklers, the Maison Deutz comes closer to the style of its French counterpart, which generally strives for reduced varietal character and increased acidity for crispness and longer aging.

French Deutz, like many of its Champagne competitors, also produces a luxury top-of-the-line sparkler that best personifies its style and quality. Cuvee William, named for Lallier's great-great-great grandfather, may be the most underrated of all such zenith Champagnes. The 1979 sells for from $35 to $40 and displays a big-bodied style that is described by the Champagne cognoscenti as big flavored. What is meant is that it is big flavored for Deutz because it does not emphasize flavor as much as flavor integration and subtleties, leaning toward austerity and lovely flourishes of effervescence. One of the best made of all big names, it well reflects Lallier's attempt to incorporate the best of many vineyards utilizing the same techniques lavished on his Maison Deutz. For American sparkling wine lovers, these wines represent an interesting and exciting moment designed to savor the best of both wine worlds.

Los Angeles Times Thursday October 2, 1986 Home Edition Food Part 8 Page 12 Column 4 Food Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction FOR THE RECORD: Maison Deutz winery, featured in this column in the Sept. 18 Food Section, is located in San Luis Obispo County, not Santa Barbara County.
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