Most people associate sparkling wine with holidays and celebrations, but no day is too ordinary for a little bubbly. Champagne obviously wears the most sparkly crown—indeed, most sparkling wine was simply referred to as Champagne until the EU gratified the French with strict locale-label regulations. Hence, sparkling wine in Spain is called Cava, Prosecco in Italy and so forth.
The myth surrounding the discovery of sparkling wine starts with the monk Dom Pérignon in the 1600s. The winemaker-monk had just finished fermenting a batch of wine, or so he thought due to an unseasonable cold snap in the region that put all of the yeast to sleep. He bottled the fermented wine, stashed it in his wine cave and took a long winter’s nap. When the weather warmed, it turned out the awakened yeast wasn’t yet finished eating its sugar snack and so began again in earnest, creating carbon dioxide as it gorged. The corked bottles prevented the CO2 from escaping, so the wine absorbed it as carbonation, and voilà: bubbly was born.
Some sparkling wines are made by adding carbonation to the nearly finished product, but méthode Champenoise refers to the traditional method of carbonation via a secondary fermentation in the bottle. When the fermentation is complete, the bottle is inverted so the remaining yeast (lees) and other sediment are trapped in the neck, which is then dipped in a freezing liquid. Once a frozen plug develops, the cap is removed and the lees literally shoot out of the bottle. A sugar mixture, known as the dosage, is added at this point to bring the wine to the desired sweetness level.
Sparkling wines range from dry to sweet (brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra dry/sec, dry/sec, demi-sec, doux). Traditional French Champagne is often made from aromatic cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Burgundy, Willamette Valley) leading to a lean, zesty experience. These are usually labeled brut nature, extra brut, or brut. Most Cava also falls into this category. Sparkling rosés and Prosecco utilize fruity, floral components in grapes like Pinot Grigio or other red grapes grown in warmer regions (Napa, Columbia Valley). They tend to be labeled brut and extra dry. Dry, demi-sec and doux sparkling wines are sweetened during the dosage step or sweet grapes like Muscat are used as the base (Asti Spumante, Dolce, etc.).
Rich, creamy sparkling wines are made with a different method—sometimes fermented in oak barrels (imparts a nutty quality) and left on the lees for an extended period of time (creamy quality). This style is the most expensive method to produce and therefore to purchase. Look for vintage Champagne, Reserva and Gran Reserva Cava, American bubbles and Italian metodo classico.
Washington and Oregon winemakers have stepped up to the sparkly plate in recent years, producing great bubbly in a variety of styles. A few wineries specialize in sparkling wines (and have purchased the specific equipment necessary), while other wineries have added one or two sparkling wines to its lineup (usually outsourcing the disgorgement element to a winery with the proper equipment).
WASHINGTON BUBBLE SPECIALISTS
Perched on a hillside a few miles outside of Yakima, Treveri Cellars boasts both an impressive view and sparkling wine selection. Varieties range from an extra brut blanc de blancs (meaning white wine made from white grapes) to a very sweet sparkling Gewürtztaminer, all made using méthode Champenoise. Creative base wines like Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and even a Syrah ensure customers do not lack for interesting options.
Recommendations: NV Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs (Yakima Valley; $15) 100% Chardonnay—zero dosage on the extra brut means a dry, lean citrus zest on the palate; NV Syrah Brut (Yakima Valley; $20) 100% Syrah—festive red in color, light and refreshing with dark fruit undertones.
This Chelan winery has so much to offer—still wines, great food, an inviting outdoor patio—but four méthode Champenoise–produced sparkling wines make Karma a bubbly specialist.
Recommendation: 2011 Brut (Columbia Valley; $50) 56% Pinot Noir, 41% Chardonnay, 3% Pinot Meunier—dry and enticing with white flowers and mango fruit on the nose giving way to creamy tropical fruits on the palate.
OTHER WASHINGTON RECOMMENDATIONS
2014 Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir (Columbia Gorge; $38)—freshly baked brioche bread pops on the nose followed by classic cherry and strawberry notes on the palate.
2015 Brut Viognier (Columbia Valley; $32)—warm bread on the nose followed by white peach and citrus on the palate, refreshing and crisp on the finish.
Michelle Sparkling Wine
NV Brut (Columbia Valley; $14)—perfectly balanced between dry and sweet with citrus and pineapple on the nose and creamy pear on the finish.
OREGON BUBBLE SPECIALISTS
Farming some of the Willamette Valley’s oldest vines, Argyle Winery is also one of the region’s first sparkling wine producers (since 1987!). Argyle produces high-end vineyard-specific still wines in addition to a lineup of eight méthode Champenoise sparkling wines. Expensive 2009 vintage bottles (up to $150) are balanced by several options under $50.
Recommendations: 2013 Vintage Brut (Willamette Valley; $28) 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay—not overly sweet, but with honey and peach sensations balanced by a mineral edge on the mid-palate. 2012 Vintage Black Brut (Willamette Valley; $35) 100% Pinot Noir—strikingly elegant dark red color bearing red fruit and spice on the palate.
Family-owned and now in its second generation, Kramer Vineyards began making sparkling wines in 2001 from sustainably farmed fruit grown in the Yamhill-Carlton region of the Willamette Valley. Kramer sparkling wines are force carbonated. The vintage Brut is accompanied by three sparkling wines in its Celebrate series featuring wines made from Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris and a rosé of Pinot Noir.
Recommendation: 2014 Celebrate Müller-Thurgau (Yamhill-Carlton; $22)—tropical fruits along with orange blossom and apricot with a hint of Asian pear.
OTHER OREGON RECOMMENDATIONS
Evolution by Sokol Blosser
NV Brut (AVA not available; $20)—vibrant and dry, green apple and pear aromas are followed by a slightly creamy citrus finish.
2011 Mineral Springs Brut Rosé (Yamhill-Carlton; $65) 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay—a slightly salmon rosy color, this rosé is pleasantly dry with just a hint of sweetness. Cherry and cranberry aromas lead to a creamy texture that finally gives way to a dry finish bright with acid.