Domaine Chandon continues sparkling tradition

Domaine Chandon is in Yountville, California

Domaine Chandon has celebrated 40 years in California’s Napa Valley. (Photo courtesy of Domaine Chandon)

YOUNTVILLE, Calif. – For more than a half-century, Moët & Chandon has kept its gaze globally.

The owner of such revered Champagne houses as Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Moët & Chandon began expanding into the New World in 1959, when it established Bodega Chandon Argentina in 1959. By 1973, it set its eyes on the emerging Napa Valley of California – three years before the region shocked the world in the now-legendary Judgment of Paris.

For 24 of those 40 years, Tom Tiburzi has been making wine for Domaine Chandon, now head of Chandon’s sparkling wine program.

“I came on board as part of a research program,” Tiburzi told Wines Without Borders. “Before that, I wasn’t a winemaker.”

But growing up in an Italian family in Southern California, Tiburzi had been making wine as a kid and helping out at his dad’s liquor stores. He went on to earn a degree in environmental studies and biology from the University of California in Berkeley before arriving at Chandon in 1989. He was part of a research project involving vine replanting after the infestation of phylloxera, a root louse that has devastated vineyards around the world.

“I was a technical winemaker,” he said. “I came in to make wines for scientific evaluation.”

Domaine Chandon winemaker passes on traditions

Tom Tiburzi is sparkling winemaker for Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California.

Tom Tiburzi heads the sparkling wine program at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Domaine Chandon)

It turned out he had a knack for it and has remained ever since, being appointed head of Chandon’s sparkling wine program in 2005. Through the years, Tiburzi has learned winemaking from past winemakers at Domaine Chandon as well as those from the winery’s related Champagne houses.

Today, he is passing these traditions on to assistant winemaker Pauline Lhote, who grew up in Champagne. He brought her to Yountville in 2006 as a harvest coordinator, then found her a permanent position in 2007. She now handles the winery’s day-to-day operations.

“Being French, she’s really great,” he said. “She can talk to our winemakers at Moët. We do a lot of collaboration and sharing of information.”

While his fellow sparkling wine producers in Champagne had a difficult vintage, harvest could not have gone much smoother for Tiburzi. He started picking Aug. 3 and was finished Sept. 3 – before many in the valley even began to harvest their first fruit.

“It went really great,” he said. “It was fast and furious. Usually, we get our first few blocks, then there’s a lull as things trickle in. This year, there was no lull.”

Tiburzi explained that he has a narrow window for picking grapes for sparkling wine because he wants to bring in the fruit within the range of 18 to 20 brix.

“Below that, the flavors aren’t there,” he said. “If you go above that, the alcohol goes too high. We’re so lucky in our climate here that we can get our grapes in before the rainy season. In Champagne, the rainy season often starts before the fruit is in. It reminds us that we’re farmers.”

Tiburzi and his wife, a former pastry chef at Etoile – Chandon’s on-site restaurant – will enjoy this New Year’s Eve the way they usually do: with fresh crab.

“Our tradition at home is Brut with crab,” he said. “We spread out newspapers, bring out crab, butter and lemon, then roll up our sleeves and go at it.”

Here is a selection of Domaine Chandon sparkling wines we’ve tasted recently. All wines were evaluated under blind conditions.

Domaine Chandon NV Limited Edition Holiday Sparkles Blanc de Noir, California, $24

Chandon’s special holiday bubbly is made primarily with Pinot Noir (95%), along with a touch of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier using grape from Northern California. It opens with aromas of apple, dried pineapple, apricot and baked bread. On the palate, it reveals flavors of orange, fresh-cut Fuji apple and kiwi. Pair this with spicy cuisine from Mexico, Thailand and India.

Rating: Excellent

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV Extra Dry Riche, California, $22

Winemaker Tom Tiburzi crafted this off-dry sparkler using grapes from Northern California. It is a deliciously frothy and richly structured bubbly with aromas of pear, cotton candy and honey-drizzled baked apple. On the palate, it shows off flavors of tropical fruit, citrus and Golden Delicious apple, all backed with a hint of sweetness with nice crispness in the finish.

Rating: Excellent

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV 40th Anniversary Cuvee Rosé, Sonoma County, $40

This pink sparkler marks Chandon’s 40 years in California. It is a blend of Chardonnay (50%), Pinot Noir (42%) and Pinot Meunier using grapes primarily from the 2006 vintage. It offers aromas and flavors of poached cherry, baked bread, strawberry jam and minerality. It’s beautifully crisp across the palate.

Rating: Recommended

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV Etoile Rosé, North Coast, $50

Using grapes from Napa and Sonoma counties, winemaker Tom Tiburzi has crafted this reserve-level sparkling wine from Chardonnay (49%), Pinot Noir (45%) and Pinot Meunier. It opens with aromas of pomegranate, baked apple, dried cherry and red currant. On the palate, it offers flavors of cranberry, raspberry jam on toast and chocolate chip. It’s a crisp and pretty on the finish.

Rating: Excellent

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV Rosé, California, $22

This delicious pink bubbly opens with beautiful aromas of Bing cherry, dried strawberry and ripe raspberry. On the palate, if reveals explosive flavors of pomegranate, white strawberry with a bit of citrus on the zippy finish.

Rating: Outstanding!

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV Brut Classic, California, $22

This blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier reveals aromas of apple, peaches in cream, freshly baked bread and strawberry, followed by smooth, elegant flavors of white strawberry, citrus and crisp apple.

Rating: Excellent

Alcohol: 13%

Domaine Chandon NV Etoile Brut, North Coast, $40

Winemaker Tom Tiburzi uses equal amounts of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a bit of Pinot Meunier from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. Extended aging (since 2003) gives this superb depth and complexity. It opens with aromas of butterscotch, apple and pear, followed by flavors of coconut, pineapple, fresh bread and a sprinkle of cardamom.

Rating: Excellent

Alcohol: 13%