California has a compelling new sparkling winery, with bubbles that evoke a crisp coastal breeze


California winemakers love to talk about the influence of the Pacific Ocean on their wines. The cool breeze, the salty air, the mineral seashells – it’s an evocative scene that, when paired with wine, evokes something refreshing, alluring, as aromatic as a stand of live coastal oaks on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Most of the time, however, this is just marketing copy. Relatively few Californian wines actually evoke the tastes and smells of the sea, and many that claim to be grown in a “coastal” region actually come from vineyards a few tens of miles inland.

It was therefore a delicious oceanic surprise to discover the wines of Haliotide, a new label in San Luis Obispo County. Haliotide, which means “abalone” in French, produces small quantities of Champagne method sparkling wines from vineyards located between 1 and 3 miles from the coast. They show it: the Blanc de Blanc of Haliotide smells of oyster shell, the rosé smells of strawberries sprinkled with sea salt. In addition, the wines have an exhilarating freshness, with bubbles as invigorating as a shock of cold ocean wind.

It’s a unique and delicious expression of California terroir, and unlike most other sparkling projects recently launched in the state. The champagne method is arguably one of the most difficult ways to make sparkling wine, and while many designers are experimenting with non-traditional varietals like chenin blanc, Haliotode is doing something classic, more directly inspired by champagne. They stick to the proven Champagne grape varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay. They look for the complex flavors, honey and marzipan and cookie and hazelnut, which come from a long and patient draw.

And while there isn’t a lot of abalone at the moment – the winery has only released 250 cases this year, and you have to subscribe to a mailing list to get them – these sparklers are worth worth looking for.

Haliotide translates to “ormeau” in French.

Courtesy of Nicole Joy Kirckpatrick

The brand comes from winemakers Nicole Bertotti Pope and Lucas Pope, who make Haliotide wines pretty much entirely by hand, without the high-tech equipment that is common in large sparkling wine facilities.

The couple began this journey five years ago, initially assuming that producing sparkling wine would only be a hobby, in addition to their day jobs at Stolo Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County, a winery. popular with wine tourists from the central coast. Champagne method wines like these can take many years from when the grapes are harvested to when the wine is sold.

“It wasn’t like I was doing it for the purpose of making sparkling wine my full-time job, because it’s hard to imagine,” said Bertotti Pope, who was Stolo’s winemaker from 2011 to the fall 2021. “It takes a few years to even know if the wine you have made is good.

Sparkling wine begins like any wine: grape juice ferments, its sugar turns into alcohol. But the processes diverge quickly. In the Champagne method, a winemaker puts this “base” wine in individual bottles and throws in a little yeast to start a second fermentation, which produces the bubbles. Then the winemaker waits. At this point, the longer the wine sits – a step known as “tirage” – the more potentially complex it will become, as the yeast in the bottle interacts with the wine to create savory flavors that are often compared to roasted nuts and with hot brioche. .

The large established Champagne houses can afford to let the bottles stand for extended runs if they wish. For a seed operation like Haliotide with more immediate financial realities, this becomes a tricky calculation. But the 40 months during which the Popes kept their initial wine, the Blanc de Blancs 2016 – which tells you that the wine is entirely Chardonnay – were enough. It’s a rewarding wine, with a fruity touch of bitter grapefruit that peeks out those rich bread dough and nutty flavors.

Winemaker Nicole Bertotti Pope and winemaker Lucas Pope make sparkling wines using the Champagne method.

Winemaker Nicole Bertotti Pope and winemaker Lucas Pope make sparkling wines using the Champagne method.

Courtesy of Nicole Joy Kirckpatrick

In a way, Bertotti Pope has worked on a wine like this for his entire career. His first job in the wine industry was at Domaine Carneros, the Napa sparkling wine producer owned by the famous Taittinger champagne house. While she worked there, sparkling wine became her and Pope’s favorite drink, and her behind-the-scenes display at Domaine Carneros helped them develop an appreciation for this precise and elaborate winemaking process. “It’s a very technical type of wine,” said Bertotti Pope of the Champagne method. “I liked that about it.”

However, when she moved to San Luis Obispo, there were no dedicated sparkling wine winemaker jobs. Instead, she landed at Stolo, an estate 3 miles from the ocean in Cambria. She made the wines and Pope, a wine grower, cultivated the vines.

The couple developed Stolo’s reputation for reds like Pinot Noir and Syrah, two grape varieties that benefit from cooler temperatures. “We knew this was a good place to make cool climate wines,” said Bertotti Pope. They suspected that sparkling wine, which relies on the high acidity levels that a cold climate can produce, would thrive here. But no one in the area was doing it yet.

In 2016, the popes bought Chardonnay grapes from their employer and made them a base wine, storing the barrels in an unused corner of Stolo’s cellar. They chose grapes from a part of the vineyard that seemed well suited to sparkling wine: a high yielding block, less exposed to high winds, where Chardonnay ripened more slowly, giving it time to develop deeper aromas.

Nicole Bertotti Pope and Lucas Pope with their children in their small cellar in Templeton.

Nicole Bertotti Pope and Lucas Pope with their children in their small cellar in Templeton.

Courtesy of Nicole Joy Kirckpatrick

Quietly, over the next several years, they continued to pick the grapes, make base wines, and put the bottles into raffles – all the while crossing their fingers that the finished product turned into something they could sell. . This fall, after a decade at Stolo, the popes quit their jobs there and signed a lease for a small barn where they could make the wines of Haliotide themselves. (Raj Parr, a well-known winemaker and former San Francisco sommelier, took over as Stolo’s consultant winemaker.)

In addition to Stolo Chardonnay, in 2018 they started buying Pinot Noir grapes from Topotero Vineyard in Avila Beach, about a mile from the ocean. They released this wine, a brut rosé, for the first time in November, after 30 months of drawing. Unlike Blanc de Blancs, rosé has a light dosage – the French term for a sugar solution that is added to sparkling wine before release, in order to counteract a wine’s strong acidity. (If you’re wondering, the dosage for the rosé is 3 grams of sugar per liter, which isn’t much.) The result is a creamy, balanced wine that mixes salty and savory notes with juicy fruit.

These bottles stand out from other California sparklers, both for their stubborn adherence to the classic French archetype and for the complex flavors and textures that can only come with such long and patient aging.

Most importantly, Haliotide wines embody the very old-fashioned ideal of terroir – the idea that wines can express a distinctive and unique imprint of the place where the grapes are grown. In this case, that place is the sea.

Esther Mobley is The Chronicle’s primary wine critic. Email: emobley@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @esther_mobley

How to buy Haliotide sparkling wines

For now, Haliotide wines can only be purchased through a mailing list on haliotide.com. The 2018 Topotero Vineyard Haliotide Extra Brut Rosé ($ 75, 12.5%) is now available on the mailing list. The 2016 Haliotide Blanc de Blancs Stolo Vineyard ($ 85, 12.5%) will be available again this spring.



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