ESSENCE OF EFFERVESCENCE
Festive wines bubble up for holiday celebrations
BY PATTY MAMULA
Sparkling wine is the essence of effervescence. While bubbles are their hallmark, not all sparkling’s bubbles are created equally.
Méthode champenoise was developed by Dom Perignon in the 1600s — only grapes grown and produced in the Champagne region of France can legally be called Champagne. Chateau Bianca Winery, in the Van Duzer Corridor AVA of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, produces all three of its sparkling selections traditionally. Owner and winemaker Andreas Wetzel learned this method when his family owned Laurel Ridge Winery with annual production of 10,000 sparkling cases. Wetzel purchased his 87 acres in 1990, incorporating traditions from his German winemaking ancestors.
The traditional method involves making base wine, bottling it, then adding yeast and sugar for secondary fermentation. The wines are aged on their lees, the yeast particles. “Some have been on their lees for 15 years or more,” Wetzel said. The longer they age, the more expensive the wines become and the more doughy and creamy the aroma they attain.
After aging, the bottles are riddled or turned incrementally until upside down. At the end of the process, the yeast lies in the neck. The yeast plug is then disgorged and the bottle topped off with the original wine and a little sugar, followed by the cork and wire hood. “With this method, the CO2 is bound up in the liquid so it releases slowly, retaining effervescence longer,” said Wetzel.
Wetzel makes a Cuvée Blanc, a sparkling Riesling in a traditional German style to honor his grandfather who had a small winery in Northern Bavaria. The flavor is fruit-forward with some residual sugar. “We’ve found a good market in Japan because it pairs well with sushi,” said Wetzel. It’s priced at $29.
Wetzel makes Brut Rose every other year with 100 percent estate-grown Pinot Noir. “It’s probably the most widely known dry style,” said Wetzel. This sparkling ages for 18 months and sells for $30.
Chateau Bianca’s most elite sparkling is a Blanc De Blanc made with extra chardonnay. “This process is much longer, the wine is finished naturally. No dosage is added,” said Wetzel. Production is very limited, 100 cases at most — the 2001 is $50.
“Sparkling wines show every flaw in the wine. They’re sensitive to developing off-characteristics during secondary fermentation. When picking for sparkling, you don’t pick as ripe of fruit. And you definitely don’t take the decision to make sparkling after the fact,” said Wetzel.
About 15 miles northeast of Chateau Bianca is Johan Vineyards, in the same AVA and owned by Dag Johan Sundby, who purchased 175 acres in 2005. Johan offers two sparkling wines made in a totally different style known as Pet Nat, an ancestral style pre-dating champagne.
Winemaker Morgan Beck describes the process. “First we let native fermentation start. After a little skin contact, the grapes are pressed and fermented with their own natural yeast. It takes a couple months until the point when there’s a specific amount of sugar per grams. It finishes in the bottle and creates the carbonation.” The time from tank to bottle varies, depending on nutrients and pace of fermentation. In this process the lees fall to the bottom. They are not removed, disgorged or filtered, adding a creamy, tart component to the wine.
Beck makes Petillant Naturel Pinot Noir and Petillant Naturel Melon, a white grape from the Muscadet region in France. The 2018 Pet Nat Pinot is available for $23. The 2017 and 2018 Pet Nat Melon sold out but the 2019 will be released in late spring. “We determine when to release by tasting,” she said. “We want at least 96 percent of the fermentation finished. That’s what gives it bubbles,” she said. Pet Nats are usually lighter than champagne and slightly sweeter.
Beck said key components for making this type of sparkling are acidity and ripe fruit flavors. “We farm a block of Pinot Noir on our vineyard specifically for the Pet Nat,” she said. “They go to all seven of our national markets and three international ones.” Beck noted all Johan wines are certified biodynamic.
Just off Highway 14 above the tiny town of Lyle, Syncline Winery sits high on the Washington cliffs overlooking the Columbia Gorge. Sharing a close connection to the land, the winery’s name itself is a geologic term for a fold of rock layers. James and Poppie Mantone bought the 35-acre hillside property in 1996. “We came to the Gorge for kayaking and loved it,” he said. The couple was eager to start their own business in the Gorge.
Syncline’s estate vineyards are planted on native grasslands, never cultivated. For James there was no question about farming biodynamically. He carefully mapped out his soils based on its geologic characteristics. “It takes more time but the process is respective of the grapes and soil,” he said. By next spring, he plans to have a total of 11 acres of Gamay, Syrah, Mondeuse (a French red grape), Grüner Veltliner (a white Austrian grape) and Furmint (a white Hungarian grape).
While James focuses on Rhône-style wines, he also makes traditional sparklings. “I learned how to make champagne from a fifth-generation champenoise maker,” he said. James’ 2017 Gruner Veltliner Brut Scintillation was “inspired by the mountain sparkling wines of Austria,” he said. “Growing grapes in the mountains leads to wines with elevated acids since our diurnal temperature swings can vary as much as 50 degrees.”
“We’re emphasizing freshness over bready champagne characteristics,” said James. Still, he used the traditional production method. The bottles were hand-riddled and disgorged this September.
“I think wines should taste like a place looks,” said James. “The Gorge with its precipitous cliffs should produce wines that have angles to reflect the areas they’re grown in.” Bottles of Syncline’s 2016 Blanc De Blanc, produced with chardonnay grapes from Celilo Vineyard are on riddling racks now and should be available by early spring.
“We still have some 2014 Blanc De Noir that will sit for six to eight years before we bring it out to riddle,” said James. He anticipates releasing that in 2021.
From the Columbia Gorge to the cranberry coast of Washington — an area not know for grapes — sits another sparkling wine producer with a vast array of wines. Westport Winery and Garden Resort in Aberdeen, Washington is the first winery in Grey’s Harbor County on the Pacific Coast of Washington.
After moving to Washington in 1993 with their children while running the largest dive shop in Hawaii, Kim and Blain Roberts bought the 20 acres in 2007. “We wanted to buy some property near where I grew up in Washington,” said Kim, “but discovered we weren’t very good at retirement.”
Extension agents encouraged the couple to grow grapes, which they tried to do for four years before admitting defeat. In the meantime, Kim had been appointed to the Washington Wine Commission, which put her into contact with wineries and growers throughout the state.
The Roberts decided to buy grapes and make wine with the assistance of their winemaker son, Dana, who completed WSU’s wine program, and their daughter, Carrie, who finished accounting school and became general manager. Today, their Washington winery showcases 15 acres of display gardens, the winery and warehouse, tasting room and gift shop, a restaurant, their homes and newly-opened distillery. The Roberts also operate a tasting room and kite shop in Seaside.
Each of Westport’s 37 wines benefits a local charity. “We’ve donated more than $500,000 since we started in 2008,” said Kim.
Four sparkling wine choices are made by the process of forced carbonation. This method simply takes a still wine and carbonates it in a pressurized tank.
Rapture of the Deep is Westport’s most popular sparkling, made with cranberries from Ocean Spray. A sparkling Riesling called Maritime and a sparkling Gewürztraminer called Going Coastal are also featured along with a sparkling almond called Boom Runner, described as tasting like a French pastry. All retail for $29.