Sparkling Wine: The Rebels
The production of sparklers—a wine that bubbles, and if we’re lucky, delights us—has been growing and developing as a category 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 sparkling wine onto the market.
It’s not just winemakers who dig the bubbly; it’s wine lovers too. In 2019, sparkling wine consumption rose about four percent according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group. 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 OG 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? It’s a laser-focus on quality, an obsession with teasing out their terroir’s intricacies, and a love of sustainable farming and production methods. All of these come together to create utterly distinct and delicious wines that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. What separates them? Often it’s their approach, their goals, and their production method. Part Two (Find Part One here) considers the alternative approaches to carbon dioxide manipulation.
A New Terroir
Domaine Bousquet easily could have stayed where they were and had a perfectly lovely label and life in France, but, unsatisfied with the strictures imposed by real estate prices and the climate, they moved across the world and created a juggernaut of a brand. With their progressive paradigm guiding every decision, they’ve inspired countless other winemakers and eco-warriors along the way.
For four generations, the Bousquet family made wine in the South of France. In 1990, when Jean Bousquet visited Argentina, he set his sights on a remote terrain high in the Tupungato district of the Uco Valley. Here, he realized that he could not only create stunning wines from the terroir, but that they could be grown organically, sustainably, and the lower cost of living and real estate would allow them to provide excellent lives for their employees.
His daughter Anne, previously an economist, now leads the company with her husband Labid Al Ameri.
They produce sparklers in the traditional and Charmat method, from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The Brut Rosé, made in the Charmat method (second fermentation in tanks, not bottles), has raspberry-strawberry and citrus flavors. Pair this with big family brunches, bagels, smoked salmon, pancakes. Anne, who possibly takes a more sophisticated approach, pairs hers with paté and toast. Best: it comes in at a pandemic-friendly $13.
Italian Pinot Noir?
When you think of Italian sparklers, chances are you think of Prosecco. But a Champagne-style sparkler has been quietly produced by Castello di Cigognola for decades. Oltrepò Pavese has worked with Pinot Noir in Italy since the 1800s. In the 1980s, the prominent Moratti family started to make classic sparkling wines under the Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, using minimal (or no) residual sugar in dosage.
The vineyards in the historic village of Cigognola, about an hour from Milan, are incredibly steep, with clay and limestone-heavy soil, creating an ideal environment for the grapes’ flavors. For the past three years, the Moratti family has doubled down on its classical approach, to create sparkling wine that can not only compete with Champagne in terms of flavor, but is also an example of this region’s terroir.
The results in the glass are impressive. The More Brut pours a pale color, with notes of white and violet flowers, a sense of lemon-lime and buttered biscuits. Pair this with Prosciutto and melon.
We ‘Don’t Intervene.’
At Two Shepherds in Windsor, CA, William and Karen Allen are devoted Rhône enthusiasts and garagistes, exploring the most esoteric fringes of winegrowing and winemaking.
“We embrace how wines have been made for hundreds of years before chemical and flavor manipulation became the norm,” William explains. “We guide them along, but don’t intervene. We want what’s happening that year, in the vineyard, to speak through the wines.”
Wines are aged in neutral barrels, and each vintage produces at least 15 wines, many of them from micro-lots of grapes you may have never heard of. William and Karen embrace the making of low-intervention wine without chemicals and Two Shepherds’ skin-contact wines have a cult following.
But the results are fabulously life-affirming and compelling. Bucking Luna, Two Shepherds’ first canned wine, was inspired by their baby mini donkey, Luna, born four days before the pandemic started to ruin everyone’s party. But Luna doesn’t care, and quite frankly, cracking this can of Cinsault and carbonic Carignan, you won’t either. It’s a tongue-tingler; it’s dry, fresh, zingy, and peachy-raspberry keen. And at only 10.5 percent abv, you can have another. Pair this with all of the fun fried foods, ferments and funky charcuterie.
New Jersey doesn’t have centuries, heck, even decades of acclaim for its wine. But in recent years, more and more winos are finding delicious bottles emerging from the Garden State’s range of sandy loam, shale, and slate, and its moderate maritime climate. And, like many emerging regions, New Jersey is unafraid to taint its years of history with experimentation. They’re embracing styles and approaches that more rigorously controlled regions historically shy away from.
The term “funk” is divisive in the wine community. To some traditionally-minded sommeliers and winemakers, it’s the fashion equivalent of calling a black-tie gown “frumpy,” not a descriptor one aspires to. But to others, it’s an aspiration, with an edge and a subtle retort. Pét-nats are to classically-made sparklers what combat boots are to ballet slippers. They’re a statement, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious. (They are also made and consumed a year or so post-harvest, while Champagne and sparklers made in the same way often take five).
Over at Unionville Vineyards, winemaker Conor Quilty uses classic European vinifera like Chardonnay and French-American hybrids like Chambourcin to craft wines from their estate and growers across three New Jersey counties. Unionville makes one sparkler, a Riesling Pét-Nat, which is whole-cluster-pressed, then fermented between 50 to 58 degrees for three to four weeks, filtered and hand-bottled.
“The low-intervention and ancestral method bottlings give the wine a bit of a funky edge that I think make it all the more interesting,” Quilty says. “There also tends to be a little bit of bottle variation, with some coming out bone dry with lots of upfront acidity and small persistent bubbles, and others having a little bit of residual sugar that makes the wine take on an almost cider-like quality.”
These bright boys are fruity and bright enough to be paired with a sundae, or better yet, at brunch the next day with French toast.
At Cape May’s Hawk Haven Vineyard, winemaker Todd Wuerker experiments with both classic styles and pét-nats. His first Brut sparkler, the 2017 Méthode Champenoise Sparkling Brut, (66% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay) was harvested in 2017, and will debut this Spring. His first pét-nat, made from Malbec a few years ago, was such a success that he started producing Albariños and Pinot Noirs. The Pinot is lively and bold with flavors of lush strawberries and juicy blood oranges. “You can sense the terroir in our pét-nats, and I love drinking it with locally-caught shrimp,” Wuerker says.
Like still wine, sparkling wine can come in white, red, rosé, or orange. It can be sweet or dry, aggressively or subtly bubbly, with said bubbles displaying variable size and consistency. Here are highlights of regions and methods from around the world:
Champagne: The most famous region for sparkling wine, Champagne, is located in northeastern France. Typically, this wine is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and sometimes Pinot Meunier. Wine here is made in the méthode traditionnelle. The details of which vary depending on producers and desired styles, but it usually calls for a two-step fermentation process, tirage, lees contact, riddling and disgorgement. A sweetening element is usually added, in a process called dosage. Generally $50+.
Cava: Spain’s most popular sparkling wine can range in quality and price and are generally made in the same method that Champagne is, with a second fermentation in the bottle. More than 90 percent of Cava is produced in Northeastern Spain. It typically involves indigenous grapes like Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarel-lo, but can also include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Garnacha, and others.
Crémant: These French sparkling wines are also made in the traditional methods deployed by Champagne, but they hail from the other regions of France, including the Loire, Bourgogne, Jura, and Alsace, to name a few. They also often feature different grapes, from Chenin Blanc to Pinot Blanc. The quality is high, and the price is much lower than those of its more famous compatriots.
Franciacorta: Winemakers in Lombardy produce sparklers using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Bianco using the traditional Champagne method. They tend to be drier than their more well-known cousins in Prosecco.
Prosecco: Made from Glera grapes in northeastern Italy, Prosecco producers do secondary fermentation in tanks, as opposed to bottles à la the traditional Champagne method. The process, known as Charmat, is less expensive and faster. Like Cava, quality and price range widely, but it is clearly a people pleaser as it outsells Champagne.
Lambrusco: Generally sweeter than Prosecco, Lambrusco is a red sparkler that hails from Emilia-Romagna and should be paired with the salty, umami-bomb foods (Prosciutto and Parmigiano) that make the region famous. Like Prosecco, it undergoes secondary fermentation in large steel tanks. Generally less expensive, $12-$20.
Sekt: German sparkling wine, Sekt can vary in sweetness and dryness and can be made either via traditional bottle fermentation on the lees or in tank. The best Sekts are typically made from Riesling.
Other Sparklers: The sparkling wines above may all have different characteristics and production methods, but they are all known by their place of origin. Other sparklers, from England, Texas, Australia, and New Zealand can be made in various ways, but they all fall under the general rubric “sparkling wine” and must be marketed as such.