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Oregon and Washington Sparkling Wines

by Cole Danehower

Any Season is the Season for Northwest Sparkling Wine!

The Pacific Northwest sparkles with great wine... and great wines that sparkle! So why do we save it all for the holidays?

"The American public just doesn't drink that much sparkling wine," says Rollin Soles, winemaker at Oregon's Argyle Winery, and maker of one of the Northwest's most respected sparkling wines. "I don't know what's up with Americans that we don't embrace sparkling wines like other cultures."

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have fantastic climates for sparkling wines, and plenty of good producers in Washington and Oregon who make tasty sparklers... and yet most of us don't think about popping open a bottle of bubbly until, well, during the New Year holidays!

Part of the answer lies in the unusual nature of sparkling wine. The tickling effervescence and coldly crisp flavors somehow seem to say "celebrate!" more than a still wine. Even so, great sparkling wine is great any time of the year... not just the New Year!

"Wine drinkers don't fully appreciate the versatility of sparkling wine," says Jack Bagdade of Domain Meriwether in Carlton, Oregon. "They don't yet realize it's much more than just a beverage of celebration."

Michael Manz, whose family has been making Mountain Dome sparkling wine in Spokane since 1984, agrees. "Sparkling wine needs to be viewed as a food beverage - people need to realize it's an everyday wine."

Sparkling Wines go Well With Food

Indeed! Sparkling wines from Washington and Oregon are amazingly food friendly, and fun to drink. The relatively high acidities and fresh feel of these wines give them many applications, from simple sipping with cheese and nuts to more considered pairing with seafood or poultry.

After all, it is good to remember that most sparkling wines are made from two of the Northwest's most popular varietals: Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Hence, sparkling wines from these grapes can be confidently drunk in many of the same circumstances where the still wines would be consumed.

And yet, with all the simple satisfaction that sparklers offer, we still seem to save them for special occasions. Another reason for this is the relative perceived expense of sparkling wines. I say "perceived" because when you actually compare prices, the best Northwest sparkling wines are no more expensive (and usually cheaper) than the best Northwest still wines. It strikes me as odd that many of us will not hesitate to pay $40 for a top-notch Washington Cabernet or Oregon Pinot, and yet we'll invariably think twice about paying the same for a bottle of sparkling wine.

Of course, the process of making sparkling wines is generally more expensive and involved than making still wines.

How Sparkling Wines are Made

Sparkling wines start out as a low sugar and high acid dry wine - called a "base wine." Even great Champagne begins as a tart, acidic, and fairly flavorless base wine. To create the sparkling wine, winemakers add a dose of sugar and yeast that is calculated to produce a predictable second fermentation of the base wine in the bottle.

As the yeast in the bottle eats the sugar, carbon dioxide is forced into the wine causing the bubbles (for more on this process, see below). But, the more pressure that builds up in the bottle, the harder the yeasts have to work. So, the lower the potential alcohol (sugars) the winemaker starts out with in the base wine, the more latitude they have in controlling how the secondary fermentation proceeds.

As a result of this technical hurdle many sparkling winemakers pick their grapes at lower ripeness levels then they would if they were making still wines. Some producers, however, have focused on using grapes with somewhat more ripeness.

Oregon's Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards, for instance, emphasizes the quality of the grapes that go into his base wine. "I want our sparkling wines to taste like they are grown first and made second," he says. To achieve this, Tony farms his grapes for sparkling wines with the same rigor and attention to detail that he brings to growing his prime Pinot noir.

While many sparkling wine producers in other regions will pick 6-8 tons of grapes per acre, Tony and others in the Pacific Northwest aim for less... for Tony it is two tons - dramatically less than the norm. And while other winemakers may pick their grapes at 17-18 degrees Brix, Tony lets his grapes mature longer, going for harvest sugar levels of 20 or 21 degrees Brix - significantly riper than the average.

The smaller yields and riper grapes gives Tony much more flavor expression in the base wine. It also means he adds less sugar later on in the sparkling wine production process.

Similarly, Rollin Soles and other producers like Washington's Mountain Dome pay careful attention to the vineyard quality of their grapes - in keeping with the adage that the wine, including sparkling wine, is ultimately made in the vineyard.

After the base wine is fermented, and after the initial dosage (liqueur de tirage) is added to induce the in-bottle fermentation, the nascent sparkling wine is left to age on its lees. Much of the final wine's character is developed at this stage as it picks up flavor nuances from the yeast cells. During this time the individual wine bottles are periodically turned and angled upward in order to gently move the sediment (dead yeast cells) toward the neck of the bottle.

When the winemaker deems enough time has passed (it can be 3 to 5 years, or more) - and when the sediment is properly positioned at the neck of the bottle - the wine is designated ready for disgorgement. At this point the dead yeast cells are removed and a final dosage of sugar is added to finish the wine by balancing its natural acidity (and determining the final level of sweetness). The bottle is re-capped and left to rest before being offered for sale.

Needless to say, all this time and attention is expensive, and that's why wines made in the true Méthode Champenois manner (rather than the high volume bulk or charmat method) cost more... and taste better.

Try Them and You'll be Happy You Did!

It is simply too bad that the perceived added cost (which includes a higher federal tax, as well) of sparkling wines inhibits people from enjoying them more often. The rich fruit flavors of Northwest sparklers, combined with vibrant and high-toned acidity, make them rewarding companions to all kinds of food ingredients and cuisines, as well as ideal complements to different moods and manners.

So go ahead and buy a few bottles of Northwest bubbly for New Year's Eve... but add a few more to your order to enjoy whenever you want a brisk and satisfying white wine!

Domaine Meriwether Sparkling Wines Celebrate the Lewis & Clark Expedition

A Wine By Any Other Name... Still Would Not Be Champagne!

You can call it "bubbly," or you can call it "sparkly," but don't ever call it "Champagne" - unless it is a méthod champenoise wine from the French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, la Champagne.

Neither Oregon nor Washington make Champagne (with or without the capital "C"), and neither does California, no matter what it may say on the bottle.

We Americans are a casual lot. We see nothing wrong with calling any sparkling wine "Champagne" because that's what we're used to.

We Americans also have little sense of place - of origin. Stuff just is what it is, and we make no fuss as to where it came from. Most of us can't see why the French get so upset at our using their name "Champagne." Hey, the British don't howl about our calling it "Cheddar," do they?

But us wine lovers know better - or should know better! We understand that a Pinot noir grown in the Red Hills of Oregon is different from one grown along the Russian River in California. We understand that a Merlot from Klipsun Vineyards will have a very different character from a Napa Merlot. And we should realize that a Champagne from Reims will not be the same as a "champagne" from Lodi.

Through the agency of a World Trade Organization agreement (to which the United States is a signatory) the name "Champagne" cannot be used in relation to a wine that does not originate in la Champagne region of France.

Some American producers don't care; they'll call their wine "Champagne" (regardless of what method they use to induce bubbles) and to hell with the WTO.

Most American consumers don't care; we'll call it "Champagne" no matter where it came from (or how it was made).

But we should care. Origin is important and should be preserved. Calling a sparkling wine "Champagne" that does not deserve the title - no matter how casual the conversation - isn't just lazy, it is a cheat and a counterfeit - so there!

AND, there is no shame in calling a great Washington or Oregon sparkling wine just that: sparkling wine - that is, after all, exactly what it is, and calling it Champagne is calling it what it is not!

Argyle's Riddling Room
Argyle's Riddling Room

Who Put the Sparkle in Sparkling Wine?

OK class, we all remember our physics don't we? We recall that Henry's law says that the amount of gas dissolved in a liquid (wine, for instance) is proportional to the pressure of the gas with which it is in equilibrium (the pressure of the gas between the wine and the cork - about 6 atmospheres - which is why there are no sparkles in a sealed bottle of sparkling wine)

... and that the pressure released by removing the cork suddenly causes the dissolved carbon dioxide to want to get back into equilibrium with the new outside pressure (a normal one atmosphere of pressure)

...but that van der Waals forces linking the molecules of the liquid in which the gas exists tend to inhibit the carbon dioxide from leaving the wine, thereby restricting bubble formation ...except at those places where enough carbon dioxide gas accumulates (usually around cellulose molecules clinging to the inside of the glass - not imperfections in the glass surface as is commonly thought) to form a submicron pocket (usually around 0.2 micron)

...when Laplace's law comes into affect, which says that the inside pressure in the gas pocket is inversely proportional to the radius of its curvature - meaning that the smaller the bubble the higher the pressure inside of it - until such pressure becomes strong enough to cause the bubble to release from its formation spot and start rising through the wine

...gathering as it goes additional carbon dioxide as well as aromatic and flavor molecules from the surrounding liquid, all of which are released at the surface (and you don't even want to know about the Rayleigh-Plateau instability) in a veritable storm of tiny capillary jets that give pleasure to the nociceptors in our nose and taste buds in our mouths.

What's that you say? You don't remember your physics? Well, neither did I ... which is why I am so thankful for a timely article in Scientific American by Gérard Liger-Belair, associate professor at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, and consultant to Moët & Chandon, from which all the above was extracted and summarized

... lest you think I'm some kind of physics prodigy or something!

NW Wineries That Make Sparkling Wines:

Argyle, Domaine Meriwether, Secret House, Soter Vineyards, and Van Duzer.

Buy the Wines Mentioned in This Article!

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