Planting grapes in Sonoma County in the late 1800s was a stroke of good fortune for Francis Korbel. He was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia experienced in making cigar boxes, but he had property in the Russian River Valley and wanted to know what would grow well. One of the crops he tried was grapes. When he discovered that grapes from the area were perfect for making wine, he took the leap, planted vineyards and went into business. More than 100 years later, Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville is still going strong and continues to please palates with its lovely effervescent wine.
Paul Ahvenainen, director of marketing, describes Korbel’s California Champagne as fresh with a fruit-driven style. “We want to emphasize the fruit that California provides,” he says. He explains that grapes for sparkling wine need to mature slowly, so they require a cool growing area, and the Russian River Valley is ideal because it’s on the cooler end of the spectrum. “One of the tricky things is that you’re going to pick the grapes earlier than normal,” he adds, which means the harvest is usually in August. To get the wine’s bubbly quality, Korbel uses méthode champenoise, which requires a second fermentation in the bottle. “When yeast comes into contact with wine, you get better integration of flavors and small bubble size,” he explains. “It gives the wine a creamy texture. It’s about subtlety and integration of flavors.”
Although Korbel is diligent in its efforts to keep its house style consistent, the wine changes a little bit every year because every vintage is unique, says Ahvenainen. Differences are slight, so most people don’t notice them. Nonetheless, he believes that quality has improved since he arrived at Korbel in 1985. “Everybody’s level of quality has risen in the past 30 years,” he says.
Ahvenainen encourages people to visit the winery to try Korbel California Champagne at its source, where guests can take a winery tour. “We have a wonderful history. It’s worth coming to the winery just to see the museum in the old winery,” he says. In addition, Korbel offers events, such as barrel tasting weekend in March, a bubbles and bags corn hole tournament in the summer and flavors of fall, which pairs selected Korbel bubbly with small bites and offers a trip to the vineyard aboard a tram.
To serve Korbel at home, Ahvenainen recommends chilling the bottles in the refrigerator, leaving them overnight if possible. “An hour or two isn’t enough,” he says. Its bright flavors go well with light foods, and he finds that appetizers are wonderful with sparkling wine. “It makes the wine much more enjoyable if you pair it with food,” he says.
When Korbel first started making sparkling wine, it opted for a European style—à la Champagne—and brought in a winemaker from Europe. While the use of the name is usually prohibited for wine produced outside France’s Champagne region, a trade agreement between the United States and 26 European Union member countries in 2006 grandfathered in Korbel’s use and allowed the winery to continue using it for domestic purposes. Sparkling wine or Champagne, it’s this year’s winner. “We appreciate it. It shows support from the local community,” says Ahvenainen. “That’s awesome!”
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