November 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Domestic Sparkling Wine Finds Its Identity

Winemakers on both coasts of the U.S. describe their processes in producing méthode champenoise wine

by L. M. Archer

While many in the wine trade consider Champagne the “king of wines and wine of kings,” more consumers increasingly regard sparkling wine as its equally regal offspring.

Astute Champagne houses long ago foresaw the future of stateside sparkling wine, with notables such as Taittinger Champagne (Domaine Carneros), Moët & Chandon (Domaine Chandon), G.H. Mumm (Mumm Napa) and Louis Roederer (Roederer Estate) investing in California vineyards and wineries in the 1970s and 1980s.

Domestic wineries also joined the noble fizz fray. While Ohio lays claim as the first state to see successful American sparkling wine production in the 1800s, California grabbed international attention in the 1970s. Today, U.S. bubble makers abound from Oregon to New Jersey.

This report analyzes six classic and non-traditional sparkling wine producers: three in California, two in Oregon, and one in New Jersey. All winemakers interviewed for this feature follow the méthode champenoise process of sparkling wine production. Unlike Champagne, which must follow strict production guidelines for everything from planting to pressing and aging, American sparkling wine production allows for greater latitude.

A tale of terroir
Champagne views terroir in terms of villages and regions, rather than the Burgundian concept based upon specific lieux-dits (named sites) or climats. The art of the blend trumps individual vineyard expressions. The United States embraces both approaches, according to winemaker inclination. But some wine regions lend themselves to sparkling wine production better than others.

Many view California’s Anderson Valley as America’s grande dame of sparkling wine production. Consulting winemaker and sparkling wine specialist Tex Sawyer said the valley is on the 39th parallel, the same as Spain, but enjoys a significant coastal influence. “This results in grapes with the same pH and total acids as Champagne due to the cool temperatures, but fully ripe grapes at harvest with potential alcohols of 11% due to the long, sunlit days,” Sawyer said. “Pretty spectacular situation, in our opinion.”

Scharffenberger Cellars, founded in 1981, ranks among the first American Anderson Valley sparkling winemakers, and the winery is now owned by Maisons Marques & Domaines. “We feel that Mendocino County is an unmatched appellation for sparkling wine. Sunny, yet cool. Due to our proximity to the Pacific Ocean and a narrow valley where cool air settles, we have a large diurnal temperature shift, at times up to 50° F,” said winemaker Jeffrey Jindra. “This helps retain the natural acidity required for premium sparkling wine, while also providing plenty of sun for good fruit flavor.”

The Carneros AVA, which spans parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, shares equal stature in the making of sparkling wine, attracting the likes of the Spanish company Codorníu Raventós Group. The family opened Codorníu Napa in 1991, later rechristening it Artesa Vineyards & Winery where Ana Diogo-Draper is the director of winemaking. The sprawling 350-acre estate includes 200 acres of intricately planted blocks designed to match varieties, clones, rootstocks and trellis systems to appropriate soils, topography, sun and wind exposures.

Farther south, the mountainous, sea-breeze-buffeted Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Peninsula find favor, too. Barry Jackson left a lengthy winemaking career at Paul Masson to found Equinox in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1989. Jackson produces his own sparkling wine and consults for 17 area bubbly producers, too.

Another burgeoning sparkling wine region is the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where Rollin Soles and Brian Croser founded Argyle Winery in 1987, the first winery in the area dedicated to sparkling wine production. Today, Oregon boasts more than 88 sparkling wine producers, and hosts an bi-annual symposium on sparkling wine at Chemeketa Community College Northwest Wine Studies Center in Salem, Ore. In 2018, the conference’s keynote speaker was Champagne expert Peter Liem, who is the author of “Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers and Terroirs of the Iconic Region.”

Many credit Andrew Davies of Radiant Sparkling Wine Company as the catalyst for Oregon’s current sparkling wine revolution. Davies’ company provides the specialized equipment and technical savvy for small producers lacking the infrastructure to launch their own in-house sparkling program.

R. Stuart & Co. of McMinnville, Ore., is one such successful in-house small producer, which also uses Radiant’s services when needed. The winery started sparkling production in the late 1990s. “Our partner Frank Blair approached me in 1999 to start a pilot project for sparkling wine,” said winemaker Rob Stuart, who told Blair he was out of his mind to think they could do it profitably, “but we both believed that Oregon, specifically the Willamette Valley, was the place that one could make not Champagne per se, but something as complex, very uniquely Oregon, and with the same quality parameters as a very good bottle of Champagne.”

Stuart produces two sparkling wines: Rosé d’Or, a tête de cuvée non-vintage, and Bubbly, a blanc de blancs non-vintage. Pinot Noir predominates in the Rosé d’Or blend. Stuart sources some of the fruit from organically farmed Temperance Hill Vineyard in Eola-Amity Hills, but Menefee Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton provides the main source of Pinot Noir, along with a smidgen of Roussanne and Pinot Blanc. About 20% of the Rosé d’Or is Chardonnay from Courting Hill.

“I only started to add Roussanne and Pinot Blanc to Rose D’Or in the 2016 tirage (it is still an NV). I add it because where it’s grown (cold site), and particularly the Roussanne gives the wine some very high and bright acidity. The original concept goes back to the days of Napoleon, when he thought the best sparkling wine came from the Rhone, and from Roussanne and possibly Marsanne.”

Columbia Gorge AVA’s Analemma Wines represent a more boutique approach. The winery was founded in Mosier Valley, Ore., in 2010 by Steven Thompson and Kris Fade, who set about crafting a single-variety, single-vineyard, single-vintage sparkling wine in 2013. They source fruit from Atavus Vineyard, a nearly 50-year-old high-elevation site in the foothills of Mount Adams.

But sparkling wine also spans coastlines. In New Jersey’s Outer Coastal Plain AVA, fifth-generation fruit farmers Bill and Penni Heritage established Heritage Vineyards in 1999 after converting part of their 150-acre peach and apple orchards to wine grapes.

“We set out to make sparkling as a way to utilize our Pinot Noir plantings. It became evident after some trial and error that we would be unable to produce a truly great still Pinot Noir on our property here in southern New Jersey,” said Sean Comninos, winemaker for William Heritage, the Heritages’ wine brand. “Rather than replant to something else, I noted that the fruit was just about perfect for sparkling in mid-to late August and decided to give that a go. Things went well enough that we actually reversed course on the removal of Pinot Noir (we had previously removed a few rows of Pommard clones close to the tasting room) and have expanded our plantings specifically for sparkling production.”

Despite these regional variations, the most common soil type is sandy loam. Most vineyards face south, southeast or southwest. Elevations range between 200 and 1,800 feet. Clones, rootstock and spacing vary, with VSP trellising and cordon or cane pruning most popular. Harvest Brix typically fall from 17° to 22°, harvest pH 3.0 to 3.33, and TA from 7.7 to 12.

To keep sugars down, acids up, and allow flavors to develop appropriately, Stuart said he rarely crops above 2 tons per acre. “This is a key point, in that many United States producers try to lower the sugar in their base wines by cropping at high levels like 4 to 5 tons per acre,” he said. “This just dilutes the flavor. Or they try to pick early so that the sugar is lower and the acid is higher to match French numbers. This also doesn’t work. You end up with underripe flavors.”

Traditional sparkling wine production includes pressing the fruit, base wine production, assemblage, secondary fermentation, bottle aging, collecting the sediment, riddling, dégorgement, dosage, sealing and cellaring.

Most of those interviewed perform two presses, with yields for the first press of 100 to 130 gallons per ton, and 20 to 25 gallons per ton for the second. Equinox uses the taille (final press juice) for still wine production.

William Heritage presses and then co-ferments the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend. “We only make one sparkling wine each year and utilize this technique throughout,” Comninos said. “This is sometimes due to tank space issues but is really just related to the small volumes we’re producing. At the time, the tanks we were settling and fermenting in were tall 2,100-liter SK tanks from Slovenia with the cooling jacket at center. Unless I had enough volume, we would not make it up to the jacket height. That’s why they weren’t fermented separately, and (then) blended. I continue to use this technique. I feel the wine is better balanced this way, by treating all the components as a whole.”

Comninos uses an SK Group PST 8 800-liter pneumatic bladder press to perform a standard Champagne pressing, a series of three squeezes with gradually increasing pressures up to 1.2 bar, totaling 1.25 hours for the cuvée. An additional set of three more graduated squeezes for the taille, up to 1.6 bar with three or four rotations between, adds an additional hour to the process.

After pressing, the juice is cold-stabilized and allowed to settle before the must is racked off and moved to steel tanks or barrels for inoculation with cultured yeasts to initiate fermentation.

Darren Michaels, technical consultant at Laffort USA, advises many sparkling wine producers, and recommends a set of best practices. He finds the most-used yeast strains are DV10, EC1118 and Spark, especially for tirage. Michaels advises cold-stabilizing with Mannostab and Celstab, instead of traditional stabilizing, because testing has shown that both instantly cold-stabilize when used. Mannostab is a mannoprotein-based product, and Celstab is a CMC (carboxymethyl cellulose) based product. “A lot of my clients use combination products like Polylact (casein and polyvinylpolypyrrolidone, or PVPP) and Argilact (casein and enological bentonite) to remove some of the bitter phenolics,” Michaels said.

He added that these are best when utilized on juice, rather than wine. He also notes that in Europe, many producers are moving away from animal-based products toward Vegecoll, a plant-based fining agent, which, when mixed with bentonite and PVPP, is called Polymust Press.

Primary fermentation
In his experience, Michaels said he typically finds that even though base wine primary fermentations don’t require as much added nitrogen because of the lower potential alcohol, most producers use at least a small amount of complex nutrients that are a mix of DAP (diammonium phosphate) and purified yeast components. “More and more are using organic nitrogen sources (as opposed to DAP) like Nutristart ORG for better aromatics,” he said. “Sometimes with DAP-based nutrition you will get a ‘vitamin’ aroma.”

Artesa, R. Stuart and Scharffenberger use YAN (yeast assimilable nitrogen), prefer ranges of 200 to 350 parts per million (ppm); R. Stuart prefers 140 ppm. Scharffenberger adds DAP as needed with thiamine at 58 milligrams per hectoliter; R. Stuart with Fermaid K if necessary to reach 140 ppm YAN; and William Heritage uses 0.24 grams per liter of DAP with SpringFerm at the start of fermentation, and again at one-third depletion. Maximum primary fermentation temperatures range from 51° F to 88° F.

About half the winemakers use fining agents during primary fermentation. Artesa prefers PVPP, while R. Stuart & Co. and William Heritage use bentonite. Racking is generally performed, typically at least once, and juice cold-stabilized.

Most wines do not undergo full malolactic fermentation, with a few exceptions. Artesa uses full malolactic fermentation for the 2016 Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve BARRICA and partial malolactic fermentation for the 2015 Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve Rosé. Approximately 80% of Scharffenberger’s non-vintage Brut Excellence undergoes malolactic fermentation, depending upon the vintage acid profile. Jindra notes, “The ‘malo’ style is very characteristic of the Scharffenberger Brut.”

Scharffenberger and William Heritage do not leave their wines on lees, nor does R. Stuart for its non-vintage Bubbly. Only Artesa stirs the lees for all of its wines, and R. Stuart for its non-vintage Rosé d’Or.

The assembly (assemblage) of base wines into blends takes place after completion of primary fermentation. All single-vintage wines used base wines from that particular vintage. Most include a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, except for the 2014 and 2015 Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve Rosé and the Analemma 2013 Atavus Blanc de Noirs, which are 100% Pinot Noir, and the 2001 Equinox Blanc de Blanc Cuvée de Chardonnay, which is 100% Chardonnay.

R. Stuart and Scharffenberger both employ solera systems for their non-vintage wines. “I love the NV Champagnes of France for their complexity, which I think comes primarily from the art of the winemaker blending different vintages,” Stuart said. “We cannot store many different vintages. But what we do is this: In our first harvest (1999) we made five barrels of base wine. In our second harvest (2000) we made another five barrels of wine. In the fall of 2001 we combined a portion of the ‘99 and a portion of the ‘00 and put it into Champagne bottles with yeast and sugar and some riddling aids and began the secondary fermentation.”

Every successive year and bottling, Stuart takes the older base wine, combines it with the new vintage, and bottles it.

Scharffenberger also uses a solera system based on holding one tank back in reserve each year. “Typically, 84% to 89% of a bottling is a given vintage, while 11% to 16% is the reserve ‘solera,’” Jindra said. “Every bottle of NV Brut tells not only the story of the primary vintage, but also the tale of vintages past.”

Secondary fermentation (prise de mousse)

The second alcoholic fermentation, also known as prise de mousse (seizing of the foam), occurs in the same bottle in which the wine is sold. To induce secondary fermentation, most winemakers add a liqueur de tirage composed of cultured yeast, sugar and yeast nutrients.

Most secondary yeast cultures are developed specifically to ferment under high pressure, high alcohol, low sugar and low temperature conditions.

Only William Heritage does not use a bidule, a small plastic cup inserted into each bottle neck to collect sediment; all install crown cap closures and store bottles sur latte, or stacked on their sides in horizontal rows, separated by lattes, or wooden strips. Bottle pressure after second fermentation ranged from 4 to 7 atmospheres.

Bottle aging
During aging, all of the winemakers perform some poignetage, or shaking of bottles to loosen adhered lees from the glass. Most use forklifts to move the pallets of wine around the cellar.

Equinox Wines’ sur latte duration for the 2001 Blanc de Blanc is the longest, with the first release after eight years en tirage, the second release after 11 years, and the third release after 15 years.

Bottle aging allows for autolysis (yeast decomposition), which contributes to a wine’s toasty, yeasty notes. Bottle aging also helps integrate carbon dioxide into solution, and more time helps ensure finer and more consistent bubbles.

“The longer you wait, the more toastiness you get,” Stuart said. “This is due to the yeast autolysis, not the CO2, going further into solution. These two factors happen simultaneously. And because you wait a long time, you also have smaller and more consistent bubbles in the wine. This is because the CO2 generated from the second fermentation becomes more dissolved in the wine. We actually wait three years (on the yeast), and we now wait six years on the yeast for our Rosé d’Or.”

Collecting the sediment
Dead yeast cells are collected in the bottle neck prior to removal in a process known as riddling or remuage. Historically, it was performed manually utilizing A-shaped racks, or pupitres, but modern options include mechanized, manually operated girasols and automated, computer-operated gyropalettes.

R. Stuart & Co. hand-riddles the Rosé d’Or twice daily on pupitres for as long as necessary, usually between 10 and 30 days. On occasion, Stuart employs Radiant Sparkling Wine to riddle via gyropalette, which takes about four days. Analemma also employs Radiant for riddling, but uses a girasol, while Scharffenberger transfers all tirage bottles to riddling cages, where they undergo an automated riddling program that lasts three to five days. Equinox operates a gyropalette on a 26-step, seven-day cycle.

Dégorgement and dosage
Methods for dégorgement, or disgorgement of dead yeast cells, include either à la volée (by hand) or à la glace (by ice). If the latter, the bottle neck is dipped into an icy brine, freezing the sediment into a slushy plug, then the bottle is turned upright, the temporary cap removed, and pressure inside the bottle ejects the bidule and slushy plug from the bottle neck.

R. Stuart “dry” disgorges. “We do not freeze the necks,” Stuart said. “We dry disgorge (we hold the bottle upside down and pop the bottle cap off to release the yeast). We quickly get our thumb over the opening to not lose the wine.”

Final alcohol averages fall between 12% and 12.7%, and final pH from 3.0 to 3.2. Any lost wine is topped off with a dosage, sometimes of reserves or brandy.

Sealing and cellaring
After dosage, the producers seal their wines with a cork or cork conglomerate, wire cage and foil capsule, and label before storing. Aging lengths vary according to house styles, with most wines aged for a minimum of 12 months at temperatures of 58° F to 68° F.

Despite farming demands, production complexities and lengthy aging requirements, passion for sparkling wine production continues to grow. Some see it as a way to expand existing portfolios, others as a technical challenge. But a few said they regard sparkling wine in almost mythic proportions. “It is truly the Holy Grail for me,” Stuart said. “It is probably unattainable to reach the goal in my mind, but still, it is a lifelong challenge to make something this difficult.”

L.M. Archer is a fine wine write specializing in Burgundy, bubbles and emerging wine regions. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, her work appears in numerous domestic and international publications. She holds designations in French Wine, as well as Bourgogne and Champagne Master Level. Find her on Instagram/Twitter @lmarcherml and online at

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