Much like a bottle of bubbly, the holiday season contains a lot of pressure.
However, sparkling wine has the kind of pressure I can live with! The result of a process that Dom Perignon spent years working on, bubbles are created by the yeast cozying up to the sugars in a closed environment. After this second fermentation, carbon dioxide is dissolved in the wine and held under pressure until the cork is popped. The wine is converted from still to sparkling and the occasion is transformed from ordinary to special.
Almost all sparkling wines have one thing in common. They go through two fermentations, one to make the alcohol and one to make the bubbles. The significant difference between the two fermentations is the first allows the gas to escape which produces the alcohol and the other traps the gases in the bottle and Voila! tiny bubbles!
Sparkling wines vary significantly. They can be white, pink or red. They can be bone dry (brut), sort of dry (extra brut), off dry (demi sec, semi secco) or sweet (doux or dolce). It can have varying degrees of alcohol (5.5% to 13%). The size and persistency of the bubbles and the foam differ significantly too.
The most famous sparkling wine comes from a region in northeast France called Champagne. Champagne produces about a tenth of the world’s sparkling wines. It’s the gold standard for sparkling wines.
According to the rules, Champagne must be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. With the addition of a little yeast and a little sugar, the second fermentation occurs in the bottle with a crown cap to trap the gases. After remuage, where the dead yeast cells are shaken down into the neck of the bottle that are stored neck down in racks, the plugs of dead yeast cells are quickly expelled in a process called dégorgement. Disgorging involves little more than removing the crown cap and watching the plug fly, propelled by the pressure in the bottle.
The final steps are to top up with wine and a teaspoon to a quarter cup of simple syrup called dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines whether the wine is brut, extra dry, demi sec or doux. The cork, bale and foil are put in place, the label pasted on and it is boxed for shipment.
Other regions in the world also make Champagne-like wines. California is an outpost for Champagne firms who have run out of space in Champagne. You may have seen or sipped Roederer Estate (Roederer), Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Maison Duetz (Duetz), Piper Sonoma (Piper Heidsieck) and/or Mumm Napa (Mumm).
The presence of these French Champagne houses certainly sets a high standard, however, there are challenges. Champagne is a cooler region than many of the California AVAs. Carneros and Anderson Valley tend to be cooler than say, Napa or the San Joaquin Valley. The French have adapted their methods to produce wonderful sparkling wines that are a quarter of the price of their French cousins.
The trick is to be cool like some parts of Oregon or harvest the grapes earlier than grapes used for a still wine. Oregon’s premier producer is Argyle winery in Dundee. And Soter Vineyards. Argyle has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since 1987 and Soter started in California in the 1990s before moving to Carlton, Oregon. Both make wonderful Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé.
Washington has some great premium sparkling wines even without the presence of a “Champagne outpost”. One of my favorites is Treveri made by a couple who have been on the Washington wine scene since the early 80s.
Juergen Grieb was born and raised in Trier, Germany. He perfected his winemaking skills in the Ruwer Valley. After moving to the United States, he made wine for Langguth Winery in the early 80s.
The Juergen and Julie Grieb opened the doors to Treveri in 2010. All their wines sparkle and are made from traditional French and German grape varietals. The grapes are picked early at around 19 brix, which is fairly typical when making a sparkling wine in a warmer region, any higher will result in too high an alcohol content with two fermentations.
They make a Blanc de Noir, Blanc de Blanc, a Rosé which is aged 24 months, and a Gewurztraminer which has extended tirage. It’s disgorged on demand to keep the product fresh. Like many of the Australian “Black Bubbles” Treveri Cellars’ Syrah is a deep red color from the Syrah.
They have a Bubble Club too. Members get 2 bubblies 3 times a year and complimentary glass of sparkling wine during release parties. This would be a perfect gift for that sparkling wine lover.
Other Washington sparklers include Domaine Michelle and Mountain Dome out of Spokane which produces sparkling wines in the “Méthode Champenoise” or the traditional method. Mountain Dome is a family operation in a geodesic dome in the shadow of Mount Spokane. They’ve been making bubbles since 1984.
Other regions to explore are Burgundy, Alsace, Spanish cavas,
Prosecco from Italy, New York’s Finger Lakes and don’t forget those
black bubbles from Australia.
Share a little sparkle with your family and friends this holiday season! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!