When Pauline Lhote arrived at Chandon California in 2006, it was supposed to be only for a quick harvest internship. But three months turned into a year and one year turned into a decade as Lhote climbed her way up from intern to assistant winemaker to winemaker in 2015. In 2016, she was promoted to head winemaker and then became winemaking director in 2017.
“From the moment I arrived, I knew this was the perfect place for me,” she said. “At Chandon, I have been given immense opportunity and freedom to create sparkling wine in a way that I never would have been able to back home.”
Back home, is the most renowned region for bubbly, Champagne, where Lhote, 35, developed an interest in winemaking at an early age.
“I was always surrounded by sparkling wine; that’s the nature of growing up in the region,” she said. “At around 14 years old, I knew I wanted to be a winemaker and I knew I wanted to make bubbles. As the daughter of farmers, I have grown up around this region where grapes and agriculture are so important, and it made me so passionate about what we’re making.”
But once it was finally her turn to take the reins at Chandon, the first French-owned sparkling wine producer in the United States, she didn’t look to her roots for inspiration. She was, after all, in California now, so she set out to define a California style.
“California needed to be at the centerpiece of our wines,” she said. “When I think of my California style, I think of casual, chic, affordable, sunshine, vacation, and all of the fun that you would expect out of sparkling wine. I want to take the essence of what California is and put it in a bottle.”
On the nose, Lhote’s California style is vibrantly aromatic; on the palate, bright and fruity with a crisp acidity and long, smooth finish. Emphasizing texture over structure, she wants the wines to be lively and inviting, like a summer bonfire on a Southern California beach.
“The result has been a sparkling wine that’s crisp, easy to drink and not just for special occasions,” she said. “It’s an every day drink to enjoy with family, friends or just on a regular Tuesday night.”
Lhote’s work to refresh and elevate Chandon’s style involves a hands-on approach to winemaking. She spends ample time in the vineyards, cellar, and lab, uses the latest technology, and conducts frequent blending trials. “Blending is at the heart of what we do for sparkling,” she said.
One of the most noticeable differences to the sparkling lineup is the color of the Blanc de Noirs. Because Chandon now also produces a Rosé, Lhote decided to minimize skin contact and take the pink out of the Blanc de Noirs. “This is what I feel like a true Blanc de Noirs should be, getting white [color] from black [grapes],” she said.
Always on the lookout for doing things differently, she’s especially excited about the recent innovation to serve the winery’s Sweet Star Cuvee in single-serving aluminum bottles. “Joining Chandon California has given me the freedom to make wines my own way, while still staying true to the heritage of our amazing estate,” she said. “I can explore, be creative and innovative.”
This autonomy is a far cry from the early days of Chandon California, when the winemaker had to send samples all the way back to France for approval. While Moët & Chandon was one of the first internationally to express confidence in Napa Valley as a growing region—even before the Judgment of Paris occured—that confidence didn’t initially go much beyond the vineyard.
After two years of completing their second fermentation in bottle, Lhote’s first three sparklings as the head winemaker released this year — luckily, she’s had a lot of practice with patience — to glowing reviews. Decanter and Wine Enthusiast have each awarded 90 points for the Brut and Blanc de Noirs, respectively. The Blanc de Noirs and Reserve Brut also received gold medals at the International Wine & Spirits Competition. Moreover, The Sommelier International Challenge named Domaine Chandon Winery of the Year, a worthy celebration of the winery’s 45th birthday.
“It feels amazing to finally have all of my wines out,” said Lhote. “It was stressful because it’s the culmination of so many years and such hard work from not only me, but everyone on the winemaking team, and we didn’t know what the reaction would be. Since releasing, the community, wine club, wine critics, and customers have embraced it completely, and we couldn’t be prouder.”