Nicole Hitchcock, winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery, is feeling pretty bullish about the state of American sparkling wine these days, and for good reason! The perception of U.S.-produced sparkling wine has improved, with many people now viewing it as being on par with Champagne. “There is growing respect for the caliber of wines we are producing domestically,” she says. Case in point is the well-regarded non-vintage J Cuvée 20. At J Vineyards & Winery, Hitchcock and her team employ some of the same traditional methods as winemakers in Champagne, using presses, fermentation vessels, and a minimum of a 30-month secondary fermentation in the bottle (longer than the 12 months required for Champagne) to produce the wine. But this inventive California winery is known for fusing Old World techniques with a New World style to make all of its wines, from varietal to sparkling.
A Backbone of Quality and History
Hitchcock describes the flavor profile of the J portfolio as vibrant, bursting with notes of bright fruit and elegant toast, finishing with fullness and finesse. “We bottle 12 different sparkling wines, and J Cuvée 20 is our best-known,” she says. “It was initially created to celebrate our winery’s 20th anniversary, and as of this year we are celebrating our 32nd.” The grapes, sourced from the Russian River Valley, are a combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Hitchcock says that the extra time allocated to the secondary fermentation of the wine is crucial to achieving the characteristics that J Cuvée 20 is known for: a balanced mouth-feel and an approachable creaminess. “There is still more work to be done to make U.S. sparkling wines as visible on the world stage as with Champagne,” says Hitchcock. But she is confident that the quality of the wine being made at J is on par with the best sparkling wines in the world, and the future is primed for strong growth in the category.
As a California winemaker, there are fewer restrictions on what Hitchcock is able to do than there would be in France, allowing for more creativity and stylistic variety in the sparkling wine category. “California sparkling producers have had the luxury of building upon what works well in Champagne,” she says, “and then innovating beyond traditional approaches.” One result of this creative freedom is that the price of a sparkling wine like J Cuvée 20 is much lower than that of Champagne. By no means is the process of making Traditional Method sparkling wine inexpensive, but Hitchcock says that it’s important to the team at J to deliver wine of outstanding quality with a price point that customers find appealing. She believes that this lower price is advantageous because it encourages customers who might be turned off by the higher cost of Champagne to give a wine like J Cuvée 20 a try.
Winemaker’s Wealth of Knowledge
Hitchcock has worked at several different wineries throughout her career, in California and in Australia. She says that these diverse experiences have led her to become a much more innovative winemaker than she might have been otherwise. “What I’ve learned is that winemaking requires a balance of logic, experience, intuition, and creativity,” she says. But for her perhaps the most important thing is working with a team of likeminded professionals who are all focused on making the best wine possible, and she feels lucky to have found that at J Vineyards & Winery. Everyone on the J Vineyards & Winery team believes in the value of Old World techniques, fused with a New World style. “I’ve gained so much knowledge from those with whom I’ve worked with in my past. I’ve been able to bring my experiences to the table, all while continuing to learn from the wealth of knowledge that has been built over decades at J.”
This article is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery.