Taittinger and Domaine Carneros

Champagne is a sparkling wine.  If it’s really Champagne, the grapes are grown and the wine is made in the Champagne region of northern France.  Sparkling wine made in California isn’t called Champagne, with a few exceptions.  There are a few, such as Korbel and André that had been using the word historically, so they were allowed to continue using it.  (Many of us had our first taste of sparklers that come from those two producers, but if you’re into wine tasting, you probably haven’t had any of their wines for decades.)

The Taittinger visiting facility in Reims, France. 

Many of the better French producers have established wineries in California.  Among them are Moët & Chandon/Domaine Chandon and Mumm/Mumm Napa.  Taittinger in Reims developed Domaine Carneros in 1987, and the Napa Valley site is among the most visited wineries in the region.  Although the two wineries have the same ownership, they are operated completely independently.

Domaine Carneros, surrounded by vines.

For the wine-tasting visitor, there is a broad comparison between the French and American wineries.  The French winery is essentially a factory complex on an urban street.  Grape vines are nowhere to be seen.  The site was an abbey in pre-Revolutionary times, but nothing remains of it, except its cellars.  Domaine Carneros is also a factory but it looks very much like a French château.  In fact, it is modeled on (but is not a replica of) the Taittinger family manse in Champagne, nowhere near the factory.  The California site is surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, one of the most appealing vistas in Napa Valley.

The caves at Taittinger, showing the gate used by the monks in pre-Revolutionary Reims.

Both locations offer interesting tours.  At Taittinger, they walk visitors through the caves where they age their top Champagne.  You can see where the monks of the ancient abbey managed the wines in their time.  Even better, you can see a section of the cellars that were dug out by the Romans when Reims was called Durocortorum.  There’s nothing in California to beat that, but then a tour at Domaine Carneros actually gives you an understanding of how sparkling wine is made.

The tour at Taittinger concludes with a glass of Champagne; for an extra fee you can have Comtes de Champagne, their premier offering.  The California tour includes a tasting of several of Domaine Carneros’ sparkling wines, including their top wine, Le Rêve (“the dream” in French).  Better yet, even without a tour you can sit on their expansive veranda and order sparkling wine by the glass.  Sipping while taking in the view is quite a treat.

Taittinger makes only Champagnes.  Domaine Carneros also offers some excellent Pinot Noirs and have recently added a Merlot.  These still wines are also available for ordering at the winery.

The question remains: Which winery makes the better wine?  Domaine Carneros makes excellent California wines, but they’re not Champagne.  And Taittinger is one of the most reputed houses in the Champagne region.  If all you want is a loud pop and some bubbles, Domaine Carneros’ Estate Brut Cuvée will do quite nicely.  On the other hand, if you want to celebrate with the real deal, stick with Taittinger.





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