In 1979 French Champagne house G.H. Mumm began its quest to find the ideal winegrowing area in the U.S. After a four year search the winery opened in 1986 in the Napa Valley. Armed with a thorough understanding of méthode champenoise production, Ludovic Dervin completed his winemaking studies in his native Champagne, France and worked harvests with Champagne houses Charles Heidseick, and G.H. Mumm, as well as California’s Piper Sonoma. Prior to joining Mumm Napa, Dervin polished his non-bubbly winemaking skills at Russian River wineries, Hartford Court, and Gary Farrell.

Champagnes and sparkling wines are always touted as being the most food friendly of wines. Is this true?

Yes, sparkling wines can be paired with almost any meal. It is essentially due to the fact that they have a lower alcohol content compared to most still wines, a high level of acidity and carbonation. They also offer various levels of sweetness like brut or demi-sec.

Acidity is probably the most important taste component for food pairing because it brings out flavors in food. It penetrates the richness of sauce ingredients like cream or butter and refreshes the palate. It perfectly mirrors the tartness of food components like vinaigrette, lemon, tomatoes or capers. It mitigates the oiliness in foods like anything deep fried. Wines that are low in acid are actually very difficult to pair with food. Quite often, a wine that could appear too acidic on its own becomes a perfect wine with food. Acidity in wine cuts saltiness, which explains why sparkling wines are great to pair with finger foods like pretzels and peanuts. Acidity is also a contrasting counterbalance to sweetness in food. Sparkling wines have some of the highest natural grape acidity because they are harvested much earlier than still wines.

While alcohol gives wine a sense of body and weight, as well as a perception of sweetness, above a certain level, alcohol will also deliver a hot burning sensation. So it is very hard to pair salty and spicy dishes with high alcohol and tannin content wines. Sparkling wines usual range is in the 11.5 % to 13% alcohol. It gives just enough body and weight to the wine without the heat. Carbonation acts like a natural "fire extinguisher" to a spicy dish. It is one of the primary reasons why beer is often a beverage of choice for spicy ethnic foods. Carbonation also reinforces the perception of acidity in wines. Chinese and Indian dishes for example are often difficult to pair with wines. But sparkling wines work very well for all spicy ethnic foods. And since sparkling wines are available with a variety of residual sugar sweetness, it is also easy to mirror the sweetness of desserts, or foil the heat of ingredients like cayenne or red peppers with a slightly sweeter sparkling wine. Our Mumm Napa Cuvee M sparkling wine is a perfect example.

Born in Champagne and having worked there, why the need to migrate to the U.S. and make wine here?

Champagne is undoubtedly the Mecca of all sparkling wine lovers, with a rich history. But it has also become one of the most regulated wine regions of the world. What I enjoy the most about the U.S., and more particularly California, is the freedom of creativity. No other wine region in the world has been able to achieve in the same timeframe the level of growth and worldwide recognition that Napa Valley has achieved in the past 30 years. If I stayed in Champagne I would probably be able to craft some outstanding wines today, but only by duplicating its history by following strictly controlled production methods. In California, it’s much easier to think outside of the box and create new and exciting wines. One of my favorite Mumm Napa sparkling wines is our Blanc de Blancs. In Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs wine could legally only be made with 100% Chardonnay grapes. At Mumm Napa, we typically blend 10% to 25% Pinot Gris with the Chardonnay. We really like the fruit tones and body that it brings to the blend and our consumers love it too. You could be crucified in Champagne for doing something like this. In California, we get glorified! But at the end of the day, I still drink a lot of Champagne, even if I chose to make sparkling wines in Napa Valley!

For those unfamiliar with the process, briefly explain the fundamental differences between “regular” Champagne and Méthode Champenoise.

Sparkling wines should only be called “Champagne” if they are produced in the French viticultural region of Champagne. And these wines must be made in accordance with the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) regulations. In most countries worldwide, the name “Champagne” is legally protected under the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1891, and then reaffirmed in the post World War I Treaty of Versailles in 1919. At that time the U.S. was entering the Prohibition era and no international agreement was ratified back then. It was not until 2006 that an international agreement was reached. Only wineries that had approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine's actual origin, like California. It is why we can still find bottles of “California Champagne” on the shelves today.

Méthode Champenoise refers to the method used to create carbonation in the bottle by fermenting a certain amount of sugar added to the still wine before bottling. The yeasts transform sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and since the fermentation occurs in a closed bottle, the newly formed carbon dioxide is trapped inside the wine and slowly builds up pressure.  English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation and presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 in which he detailed what is now called “Méthode Champenoise.” Champagne was for a very long time made by the “Méthode rurale,” where the wine was bottled before the main primary fermentation had finished. Champagne did not use the “Méthode Champenoise” until the 19th century, approximately 200 years after Christopher Merret documented the process.

The term “Méthode Champenoise” is also protected today, and reserved for the production of “Champagne wines” exclusively. The term “Méthode traditionnelle” is now used worldwide to designate sparkling wines produced by secondary bottle fermentation.

Much has been written and debated concerning the 100 point rating scale. Some say it has empowered consumers, others claim it has distorted wine prices, while still others say it has actually changed the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as being the long term impact of the 100 point rating system?

The 100 point rating system is nothing more than a tool to evaluate wines. Its beauty is that it is a very simple communication tool to translate the extremely complex and subjective issue of wine quality. After it was introduced, I think it did a lot of good to the wine industry by promoting wine quality and encouraging healthy competition between all producers. But then it slowly became a victim of its own success. Now that so many critics use it, we see the same wine ending with major point variations from one critic to the next. So the simple tool now becomes complex to understand, subjective and confusing to the consumers. I think the natural evolution of the 100 point scale will be to transfer from the single wine judge number to the average number generated by the consumers themselves. In a way the same thing that happened with eBay and Amazon web sites. What made their strength and success is their ability to keep track of supplier’s performance scorecards and communicate it instantly to the customers. I can see the 100 point scale system slowly evolving form the “voice of the wine Guru” to the “Vox Populi.” The technology and social media support is definitely in place to make it happen. The difficulty remains that wine quality evaluation is still very personal and subjective and it is not because one person likes a wine that another person will also like it. The challenge will be to effectively be able to do palate profiling and group consumers into relevant categories. If a web site could create 100 points wine scorecards based on actual categorized consumer groups, it would be a hit. 

Rising wine alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are an important topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Alcohol is only one of the many components in wine. The real question is not about the rise in alcohol content, but whether the wines are still in balance or not after the rise in alcohol content. I have tasted wines above 15% alcohol that are perfectly balanced and others at 13% alcohol that were disjointed and felt “hot.” Some ports and late harvest wines have always been high in alcohol content and nobody complains about it because it fits the style and personality of these wines. One of the issues I have with high alcohol wines is that they are more difficult to pair with food. I also often see high alcohol wines lacking freshness and acidity to the benefit of plump ripe fruit tones and heavy tannins. But I guess it is simply due to the current prevailing culture of instant gratification.

Still considered a “special occasion” wine, what holds the public back from having Champagne/sparkling wine as part of their weekly/monthly wine routine?

I think it will simply take time. Champagne/Sparkling wines have been historically associated with nobility and royalty. And through traditional advertising and packaging, most producers sought to associate their wines with luxury, festivities and rites of passage. I think the public is only now slowly discovering the fact that these sparkling wines are just another kind of wine with bubbles and that they taste great with food.

I always tell people that they shouldn’t try to keep a bottle a sparkling wine for a special occasion, but that they should instead open a bottle anytime to make any occasion special. We can all find a good reason to celebrate life every day. Where I grew up, giving a bath to our dog was a reason good enough to celebrate with Champagne!

It is just hard to break the old habits, and as we say in France, “Rome wasn’t built in one day.” I think we are on the right path, but it will take time to get there.

Why is it that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most widely used varieties for making Champagne? Can other grape varieties work as well?

It is just that historically they delivered better wines through the years and became the preferred varietals in Champagne. They also seem to age better in the bottle and longer than most other grapes, keeping more freshness and brightness after the secondary bottle fermentation. But don’t forget Pinot Meunier, close cousin of Pinot Noir and third varietal authorized to make Champagne. One third of the Champagne region is planted to Pinot Meunier, with most of it in the Valley de La Marne where I grew up. And maybe it is the reason why I am so fond of it. I love the flavors and aromas of this varietal. It can deliver bright orange and rhubarb tones during primary fermentation, and evolves toward fresh bread dough and brioche characters during yeast aging in the bottle. It just doesn’t always have the same bottle aging potential as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We actually produce a winery exclusive sparkling wine at Mumm Napa that it 100% Pinot Meunier. It is one of our most sought after wine and is available only at the winery.

The 2010 version of the Champagne appellation regulations lists seven allowed varieties. Arbanne, Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. But Pinot Gris has completely disappeared from the area and cannot be planted anymore. Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot blanc represent only 0.02% of the current Champagne appellation acreage all together, and might still be found in modern cuvées from just a few producers.

You arrived in 2002 as winemaker at Mumm Napa. But if wine were not part of the equations, what career path might you have chosen instead?

Most likely another path that involves artistic creativity, social interaction and the flexibility to travel. Maybe videographer or photographer.

Having made both sparkling wine and non-sparkling wine, what are the unique differences between the two processes?

From a viticulture standpoint, it is a complete reverse philosophy. For still wines, we try to optimize farming in order to produce small clusters with small berries in order to increase skin to juice ratio to optimize fruit, color and structure concentration.

For sparkling wines, we are looking at producing big clusters with big berries in order to have a slow maturation of juice and pulp characters. After making both still and sparkling wines for the past ten years at Mumm Napa, it is still very interesting to go back and forth with our growers between still wine blocks and sparkling wine blocks, as we just do one thing and right after its exact opposite.

For still winemaking in the cellar, the most challenging and specific task is skin contact and fermentation cap management, in order to extract just what we want in terms of color, flavors and structure, and leave the rest away.  For sparkling wines, of course, the most challenging part is adding pressure inside the bottle. It adds a whole new set of challenges. It is like winemaking in 3D. Each bottle holds approximately 92psi of pressure. It is 3 times the pressure of your car tires. And every bottle is also a miniature fermentation tank before it turns itself into a storage and maturation vessel. Every year we have around 3 millions of these fermentation vessels to bottle. There is absolutely no room for mistakes at that point.

You routinely “bless” the grapes at harvest. Explain this ritual and how it has evolved as part of your yearly routine.

The blessing of the grapes is an old tradition that signals harvest is underway. Harvest season is a very critical and stressful time, where we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature and it just seems like a good idea to try to convene all higher spiritual powers to collaborate with us during that time to ensure that all will go well.

It is also the time to celebrate the passage of the grapes from the hand of the farmer to the hands of the winemaker and celebrate the end of a year cycle in the vineyards, as well as the beginning of a new cycle in the cellar. A bottle of wine is always the result of the work of many hands, so we gather all the troops around our press pad when the first truckload full of grapes arrives at the winery, and we take a few minutes to reflect on the previous year’s achievements. We read a few notes from our founder winemaker Guy Devaux, so we never forget what our mission of “family, pride and tradition” is about. Then we saber a bottle of our sparkling wine, symbol of victory made popular by the hussar soldiers of Napoleon, and sprinkle the wine on top of the first load of grapes to be pressed for that year, to bring good luck.

Last but not least, each employee grabs a small baby sparkling wine bottle and we try to do one big cork popping in unison, to remember that while harvest is a lot of hard work, it is also meant to be fun!