I write a lot about Italian wine, but I am also fortunate to be based in a great American wine-producing region: California. I live in the southern half of the state, where (aside from Santa Barbara), most people assume we have more surfers than winemakers. Thankfully there are a handful of awesome producers to champion the potential for crafting truly interesting, terroir-driven wines from as far south as San Diego. One of the most charismatic has to be Michael Christian from Los Pilares.
I met Michael recently over lunch in San Diego with a couple of friends (Georgian wine advocate Sarah May Grunwald, and Aaron Epstein of Le Metro), to taste his wines and to discuss the history of winemaking in San Diego. There is a long tradition for the the Muscat grape in southern California, which Los Pilares vinifies into a natural sparkler which is refermented in the bottle- nothing added, just unfermented juice after the first fermentation is finished, to initiate the second fermentation. Never filtered of clarified- this wine has texture and body, and a little bit of fine silt at the bottom of the bottle, made of spent lees and other deliciousness.
I think this Muscat is one of San Diego’s finest achievements in terroir. I have always loved the Los Pilares LaDona Petnat for its overwhelmingly aromatic nose and unapologetically rustic style. Jasmine, green tea laves, honey, narcissus on the nose- exploding out of the glass like any good Muscat would. There is a pretty, tart cherry fruit and a maceration on the skins that gives the wine body and structure. The grippy, tannic rub on the palate that says with no uncertainty, “yes I know I am not a typical white wine”. “No, I am not a glass of Rombauer Chardonnay”.
We also got to taste the newest creation to come out of Los Pilares cellar: sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon. Yep. PetNat for the ultimate California wine geek. Bright and sparkling and everything good about PetNat and everything weird and wonderful about Los Pilares. I believe you can order it from the winery directly. This is an oddity worth seeking out and tasting, a sign of more good things to come for sure.
On Gleaning the Fields:
Michael Christian has some really interesting philosophies about natural sparkling wine as well. I am fascinated with his ideas about a concept he calls “gleaning”. Normally, to make a sparkling with the second fermentation is initiated with some kind of liqueur d’expédition (the addition of fresh grape juice, sugar, yeast, or some combination thereof). If a winemaker decides ahead of time to use juice to initiate this second fermentation, they will press the grapes at harvest and reserve some of the must by freezing it. This juice is then added to the base wine after it has completed the first fermentation. But is there a way to eliminate the need to preserve that fresh grape juice artificially?
Michael posits the idea of gleaning the vines for nature’s own dosage:
“…I think the idea of gleaning for bubbly might actually be original. Gleaning is a beautiful and even biblical notion. And I find it very poetic that the vines could hold their grapes for us while we finish the first fermentation. This would eliminate the need for adding sugar and yeast or even freezing juice. It could be a lovely way to make the best of what nature gives, because careful hand picking can leave behind the less ripe bunches for gleaning later. That means consistent grapes for the main harvest and less waste.”
I don’t know if any other winemakers out there have tried this technique of gleaning for making bubbly, but I’d love to find out.
The name Los Pilares always reminds me of the book, The Pillars of the Earth. There is a line from this novel that describes the sensation of the victorious realization of an architect’s massive cathedral. There is a connection between the architecture (especially in the 12th century) and winemaking. Winemaking, like all farming, is also a monumental labor of passion and love. A selfless dedication of oneself to the creation of art. This sentence recalls also the way it must feel for a winemaker to taste the finished product following so much time and so much hard work. To taste the fruits of this labor must truly feel like a triumphant sunburst.
“To someone standing in the nave, looking down the length of the church toward the east, the round window would seem like a huge sun exploding into innumerable shards of gorgeous color.”
― Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Congratulations, San Diego.