Sparkling Wine: A Classical Approach
The production of sparklers—a wine that bubbles, and if we’re lucky, delights us—has been growing and developing as a category so much in recent years, it’s well-nigh impossible to cover it with any sense of completion. Every day, it seems a new producer in an unexpected pocket of the planet is loading another sparkler onto the market.
It’s not just winemakers who dig the bubbly, it’s wine lovers too; in 2019, sparkling wine consumption rose about 4 percent according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group, and while Covid-19 temporarily took the fizz out of sales, shipments of Champagne alone grew 15 percent year-over-year by August.
But for me, I’ve been deeply enjoying domestic bubbles, from my neighbors in New Jersey (don’t laugh until you try), and our dear fire-challenged wine brethren in California and Oregon, then south to Argentina, over to South Africa, up to Italy and the O.G. land of sparkling glory, France. What unites this disparate crew, aside from their successful production of wine containing micro pockets of carbon dioxide just waiting to break forth? A laser-focus on quality, an obsession with teasing out the intricacies of their terroir, a love of sustainable farming and production methods, all of which come together to create, utterly distinct and delicious bubbles that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. What separates them? Often, their approach, their goals, and their production method. Part one will consider the most classical approach to carbon dioxide manipulation.
Challenges ‘Unlike Any We Have Seen’
California. Fires have ripped through 4.1 million acres in the Golden State this year, more than doubling the acreage lost in 2018, the second-worst fire season in the state’s history. Governor Gavin Newsom has dubbed it a “fast forward” on climate change, and scientists project that it could only get worse, and jump by 77 percent by the end of the century. Wine lovers across the world watched in horror as beloved wineries and vineyards were destroyed in the blaze. As winemakers—and everyone else—pick up the pieces, the best thing we can do to support them is to drink their wines.
Frank Family Vineyards in the Napa Valley faced challenges “this harvest season unlike any we have seen before,” says Frank Rich. “It’s a shame because weather-wise, 2020 was as steady as she goes.” The Frank Family team, the winery, tasting room, and vineyards are unharmed, and while the Glass Fire approached their property on Larkmead Lane, the Chardonnay, estate Pinot Noir and Winston Hill fruit were safely tucked away. Like many of their neighbors, some fruit was still on the vine, and smoke-taint tests will be conducted to determine whether they can end up in the bottle.
Their sparkling wines, crafted from estate-grown fruit, are produced with the same traditional methods deployed in Champagne. The warm Napa weather is ameliorated in their vineyards with cool ocean breezes and fog from San Pablo Bay, which surges through Carneros and gives their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes natural acidity, locking in flavors and providing balance.
The 2016 Rouge (73% Pinot Noir, 27% Chardonnay) is a vibrant ruby color, with flavors of cherries, rose, creamy vanilla, cranberry. Serve this with roasted turkey or duck. The 2015 Brut Rosé (90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay) spent three years on tirage, and pours out like a bright coral sunset, with flavors of wild strawberries, mandarin, cherry, cream, and stones. Pair with apple or savory nut pies over the holidays.
Like the Frank Family, Schramsberg’s 2020 vintage saw some impact from the fires, the severity of which they are still determining; but the winery and vineyards emerged intact. Schramsberg is the second-oldest bonded winery in Napa, having been founded in 1862 on Diamond Mountain, but they didn’t start exploring sparkling wine until 1965. Their approach, for almost 60 years, has been Old World in the New. Winemaker Hugh Davies explains that the cuvées they produce are made the same way they are in Champagne, but that Napa’s unique terroir, and the Estate’s hand-dug caves and expansive relationship with growers across the North Coast—Sonoma, Marin, Napa, Mendocino—allow them to reflect California’s diverse and delicious range of expressions.
“These cool-climate sites provide superb acid retention while allowing them to slowly mature on the vine,” Davies says. “After producing the blends, sugar and yeast are added prior to bottling for secondary fermentation and aging. They are left to rest on the lees in our Diamond Mountain caves to develop and mature for two to 20 years.”
With more than 14 years of contact on yeast in the Diamond Mountain Caves, the flavors of the 1999 J. Schram have evolved and traveled to the most savory, nutty, creamy, and caramelized extreme of this style. It has an incredible vibrancy even now, with flavors of green apple, tangerine, stone fruit, salted caramelized pastry cream, and honey. Pair with a roast leg of lamb and au gratin potatoes.
Louis Roederer inherited his Champagne House in 1833, and he instituted a vision for success that defines the House today: putting their efforts into their own vineyards, wherever they may be. In 1982, the French house found a 580-acre patch of land in cool, fog-bathed Anderson Valley, California. Today, California’s Roederer Estate also utilizes classic Champagne methods of production, but in their case, only estate-grown fruit.
Roederer is also transitioning to organic and biodynamic growing practices. Vintner Araud Weyrich explains that the classical methods, paired with the diurnal shifts, loamy soils, and maritime influences found in their vineyards, produce an incredibly elegant, but light and fruity expression in the glass. The Brut Rosé is fermented in stainless steel, with little to no malolactic fermentation, and incredibly precise flavors of wild strawberries and white honeysuckle. Pair these with turkey and cranberry-sauce-laced mashed potatoes.
Oregon has risen to global prominence for its slow, quiet, humble approach to winemaking. Like the bookworm who everyone overlooks in high school and ends up with a ridiculously fulfilled and fabulous life 20 years later, Oregon seemed to become one of the most-awarded wine regions in the country overnight. But in actuality, after decades of hard work, consultations with Burgundy legends (their terroirs share many of the same climatic and soil characteristics), obsessive tinkering and experimentation, they emerged with understandably excellent wine. Hashtag hard work.
And with all of that fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thriving there, some winemakers have been (quietly) producing sparklers.
Forty years after pioneering world-class winemaking in Oregon, Adelsheim introduced its first sparkling wine in 2018. This year, it released four, all made in the traditional Champagne method. The vineyards growing Adelsheim’s grapes are in the Chehalem Mountains, which get influence from the Pacific Ocean winds. The 2014 Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) is elegant, with flavors of brioche, almond, and white flowers. It’s as chiseled as a marble sculpture, precise, nuanced, and complex. Winemaker Gina Hennen pairs this nouveau classic with Pacific Northwest “seafood extravaganzas around the holidays. Dungeness crab and oysters are a classic pairing.”
Remy Drabkin’s Black Heart also produced her Willamette Valley sparkler in the traditional Champagne method. “We pick a field blend of Pinot Noir clones and press it whole-cluster. My intention was to make a Blanc de Noir, though it picked up the palest of pink.” Barrel-fermented with Champagne yeast and aged for several months before going back to bottle, producing an acid-driven wine with fantastically lush mouthfeel, young wild strawberries, and cream. I’d serve this with pumpkin pie or a cranberry tart.
South Africa’s Graham Beck has been a brand to watch for decades, but until recently, few in the U.S. were really tuned in. Located in Robertson, which is renowned for its Champagne-like terroir, Graham Beck’s excellence has been pioneered by Pieter “Bubbles” Ferreira, who joined the cellar in 1990. Now winemaker, he produces wine made in Méthode Cap Classique, a category unique to South Africa, which mirrors the Champagne method but focuses on minimal intervention as well.
Ferreira’s approach and the terroir, with its wide diurnal temperature swings and well-draining limestone soils, results in low-pH and robust acidity in the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
The Blanc de Blancs 2015 (100% Chardonnay), was bottled after fermentation in barrels and steel, with 48 months of yeast contact before disgorgement. It pours bright golden with a limey hue, has flavors and aromas of apricot and tangerine with notes of brioche and lime-lemon. Drink solo as a party kick-off around the holidays.
‘Our Terroir Is Our Strength’
A lot of wine lovers believe that smaller is better. But Val d’Oca is an excellent riposte to that generalization. Set up as a classic co-op with 600 grower-members, it is one of Italy’s oldest and biggest Prosecco producers. Their top-down management style is effective. It incentivizes growers to produce organically and sustainably, harvest by hand, and grow grapes in a manner that works to preserve and conserve the landscape.
Lorenzo Rispoli, Val d’Oca’s export manager explains that “our terroir is our strength. The magnificent hills of Valdobbiadene are what make us unique, with steep hills and valleys. Shallow soils with limited water resources create ideal conditions for Glera to thrive.”
In 2019, UNESCO declared Val d’Oca’s landscape a world heritage site, and Rispoli says the winery has made its mission to “respect the biodiversity of the area and integrate that into our mission as a company and cooperative to preserve the environment.” It also can make better wine.
Prosecco DOC Treviso, sourced from there and Veneto, from Glera, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay grapes, is made in the Charmat Method. It is Light and fizzy-crisp, with notes of stone fruits, green apple, and spring flowers. Pair this with butter-poached chicken, garlicky butter noodles or crispy French fries and aioli.
Classics are classics for a reason. We return to them because they’re spectacular in any context and era, and tasted through any paradigm. Are there political winds and trends that could imperil the unflappable fabulousness of Champagne, the Eiffel Tower, or croissants? Neither can I.
Champagne Henriot was launched in 1808 by a widow named Apolline, and ever since, members of her family have been making Champagne from sustainably-grown grapes planted on 87 acres of their estate. And with a team of dedicated growers. The Blanc de Blancs tastes like captured lighting, buttered brioche, and bright citrus. Alice Tétienne, Henriot’s cellar master, recommends pairing this with Americanized gougéres. “I use aged cheddar instead of Swiss cheese, which makes them more buttery and balances the freshness and acidity of the Blanc de Blancs,” she says.
Champagne Lanson was founded in 1760 and now encompasses 100 crus, with about half of each Champagne being sourced from their vast collection of vineyards in Grands and Premiers Crus across the 319 villages of the Champagne appellation. Hervé Dantan, the House’s winemaker, believes this mosaic “contributes to the balance, freshness, and complexity of the final product.” Its incredible freshness and energy can be attributed to the non-malolactic fermentation it relies on, long cellar aging, and a voluminous collection of reserve wines, which are mixed into every blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
The Green Label is 100 percent organically and biodynamically grown. It has aromas and flavors of white stone fruits, white flowers, crispy green apple. It has an incredible structure, persistent bubbles, and stays fresh. Dantan sees “an increased interest in sustainably, organically, biodynamically grown grapes.” This is almost ridiculously specific, the Green Label works well with Wasabi Deviled Eggs, and of course, a clean conscience.
This insane year is almost over, and even amid the chaos, loss, heartbreak, and devastation everyone has faced, this time has also led many to rethink their priorities, refocus their hearts and minds, take time for a breath for themselves and with their loved ones. So there is still so much to celebrate; and just look at these bubbles!