Domaine Mumm Sparkling Wines a French-American Success Story

Times Wine Writer

As you approach Domaine Mumm along the Silverado Trail east of this central Napa Valley town, you glance west and see a simple green roof and what appears to be a medium-sized winery.

What is only apparent as you stand on the main level looking down into a cavernous wine making facility is just how large Domaine Mumm really is. Or how state of the art.

Other French-American joint ventures have been far more ostentatious than this modest property. The design here belies the fact that the facility has more than 80,000 square feet of space, that it cost some $14 million, that it can make 125,000 cases without a hitch.

But of considerably more import is the speed with which Domaine Mumm has risen to the top of the sparkling wine world in America. Given that the first wines were made less than five years ago, that the first real look at Napa Valley grapes were made so recently, it's stunning that Domaine Mumm wines are as good as they are.

In my personal list of top American sparkling wine producers last January, I listed Iron Horse tops with Domaine Mumm second and Schramsberg third. I'd revise that list today, and the three would be tied for No. 1, evidence not that Iron Horse has slipped, but that the other two have risen. (More about Schramsberg soon.)

Differing, but Complementary

The reason for the success of Domaine Mumm, a Seagram property, is the working relationship between Guy Devaux, the French-trained Champagne master, and wine maker Greg Fowler, formerly of Schramsberg. The two bring differing views to the California sparkling wine scene, but both see the other's point of view.

One element in common is that neither man wants to try to duplicate the wines of Champagne. The goal is to make California sparkling wine that accentuates the fruit of the region. The result: the best French-owned American venture to date--though what's on the horizon at Maison Deutz, Roederer Estate, and Domaine Carneros (Taittinger's venture) are exciting too; more about that to come.

Devaux, possessed of an inordinately sensitive palate, is a master of creativity, constantly looking to try this or that for the sake of quality. (He has already made wine from Oregon grapes and continues to look at that region.)

Fowler, a sensible and no-nonsense scientist, has an innate sense of style for this most difficult-to-make product. Fowler noted that his job is multifaceted: "We are the only (French-owned California sparkling winery) that does both vintage and non-vintage wine, and we are the first one to do a vineyard-designated" sparkling wine.

Doing vintage-dated wine means having to get complexity from a blending of parts restricted to a single year; doing a non-vintage blend means having to hone a wine to a house style from disparate elements. The latter chore (which makes a less expensive wine) is actually the more demanding.

And no one knows how demanding it is to make a single-vineyard wine every year since no one in California has done it (though some sparkling wine producers make estate-bottled wine from grapes off the same property).

When the joint venture between Seagram and G.H. Mumm et Cie of France first rolled out its first Domaine Mumm non-vintage product three years ago, it was a hit. Succeeding offerings have been better. "The style (of the non-vintage) has to stay the same," said Fowler, "but it should improve consistently from batch to batch because we have more reserve wine to work with."

The current release of the non-vintage Domaine Mumm Cuvee Napa ($15) is a blend of five grape varieties dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But Fowler and Devaux are also using Pinot Meunier (10% of the blend), Pinot Blanc (for depth) and now they are using Pinot Gris.

This is an example of the philosophy of the place and illustrates what Devaux brings here. Pinot Gris, a spice- and smoke-leaning grape of Alsace (where it's often called Tokay d'Alsace) and Italy (there known as Pinot Grigio), once was a prominent grape in Champagne.

Fell Out of Favor

However, it fell out of favor when growers rebelled at the variety's tendency to rot and reluctance to give much of a crop.

Now, a century later, Devaux has sought out Pinot Gris, and experimental lots of Domaine Mumm wines with a trace of it are fascinating. Mumm is the only winery I know of using Pinot Gris and its plantings of Pinot Meunier are extensive.

To make wines as good as they do, Fowler and Devaux draw from vineyards in 50 different locations. This gives them about 80 lots of wine from which they blend up the non-vintage, the Vintage Reserve wine and the Winery Lake Vineyard (also vintage-dated).

Despite its youth, Domaine Mumm already has reached production figures that allow it to be sold nationally. In 1988, this sparkling wine house sold 47,000 cases and it is shooting to sell 65,000 this year. And 80,000 cases were made last year, wine to be released over the next four years. Quality has improved markedly every year.

Fowler pointed out that one secret is the reserve wine, which is stock held in neutral tanks and allowed to mature and become elements akin to those in a spice rack. There may be some overripe wine, some underripe wine, some neutral wine. Each adds a note of depth or fills in a hole.

The reserve wine rarely exceeds 10% of the non-vintage, but it permits the non-vintage to achieve a consistency rare in this industry.

Faintly Toasty Aroma

I love the depth of the non-vintage. The Pinot Noir in the wine gives it its slight raspberryish tone, and the broad, faintly toasty element in the aroma carries through in the mouth with more depth than any wine at its price made in the United States.

The 1986 Winery Lake (released in June at $23) is an utterly remarkable wine for a number of reasons. Before its release, I was skeptical, prepared to be bored with it. I expected the wine, because of its advance billing, to be big, heavy and clumsy.

The fact is that it is a great example of delicacy and brilliant blending, notably because the cuvee is composed of 79% Pinot Noir, but the first thing you smell is the spice character so reminiscent of the Chardonnay growing on the property.

The creamy aroma that also is reminiscent of a golden delicious apple carries through on the palate, a most enticing wine and one that lures you back for more. The wine recently got a gold medal at the San Francisco Fair and Exposition wine competition.

The 1985 Vintage Reserve ($21) has a floral and berryish tone to its intriguing aroma and clearly has improved in the year since I first had it. Another year should make this an exciting wine.

No 1986 Vintage Reserve will be released because the wine was too similar to the non-vintage, so it was "declassified," and will be sold as the non-vintage. There will be no way to tell from the label which wine it is.

Most Difficult of All

French-method Champagne may be the most difficult of all wines to make because it requires making it backwards. Wine makers don't want a base wine that tastes like table wine, so they have to pick the grapes much earlier and less ripe than for table wine.

Then they have to put it through a first fermentation to preserve elements (such as low pH and high acid) that no self-respecting table wine producer would want, and then comes the second fermentation followed by the addition of a dosage, a dollop of a wine-sugar syrup to take the rough edge off the final product.

Domaine Mumm's team has mastered this method in a new region faster than could have been expected, and the work in progress looks even more exciting.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Greenwood Ridge White Riesling ($7)--Delightfully fresh wine with an apple spiciness and slight mint aroma that's wonderful matched with brunch. The light sweetness of the wine (1.6% residual sugar) is offset by high acidity, making the final taste fairly crisp.

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