The New American Sparkling

Category: Drink

Introducing a patriotic new breed of bubbly that isn’t trying to be anything but itself. 

Sparkling wine and California: the two have been intertwined since the 19th century by way of France’s northern Champagne wine region. Then, Golden State winemakers looked to the famous French bubbly as a beverage to emulate. But today, a new generation of producers is making waves across the United States, experimenting with grape varieties and winemaking techniques to create a modern breed of American sparkling wine independent of Champagne.

These days, Americans consume about 19 million cases of sparkling wine annually — a quantity that has more than doubled since the 1970s. Almost 10 million cases of it are now made in the United States, a fact disguised by our tendency to use the word “Champagne” to talk about all of the bubbly we drink. While the word legally refers to sparkling wine produced according to specific regulations in its namesake region, some American sparklers can be labeled “California Champagne,” thanks to a loophole that dates back to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. These wines have been made in the state since the 1800s, generally in vast, mass-produced quantities of largely unremarkable flavor. But a new craft American sparkling wine movement is growing, laying the groundwork for small batches of flavorful fizz born of domestically grown grapes.

Experimentation plays a large role in this new class of vino. While Champagne is derived from varying blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, in the US, producers are searching for other grapes with flavors that might work well in sparkling form, like Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Merlot. Once a producer decides on a grape blend, he/she must then choose how to process that juice into bubbles.

Sparkling wine’s effervescence comes courtesy of carbon dioxide gas, and there are several ways to turn still wine sparkling. All wine is the result of fermentation: yeasts feed on the sugars in grapes, yielding alcohol, along with additional flavors, plus carbon dioxide. Most sparkling methods involve fermenting wine a second time. While Champagne must be made using one method only, known as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionelle — in which second fermentation occurs in individual bottles, producing a rich and creamy sparkling wine — other processes deliver equally tasty outcomes.

Longtime Champagne-style California sparkling producers like Iron Horse and Domaine Carneros (in partnership with Champagne’s Taittinger) rely on méthode traditionelle to form their well-regarded classic wines. However, that winemaking process — labor-intensive and therefore more costly — is often not an option for smaller labels.

When Winc winemaker Brian Smith set out to make sparkling wine in California’s Central Coast and Santa Rita Hills wine regions, he first had to sort out which grapes and production method would best suit his new-style sparkling. “We explored méthode Champenoise, but it was so prohibitive. There was no way to do it at a small scale for less than $50 a bottle,” says Smith. To fashion his far more affordable sparkling Finke’s Widow— 9,000 cases of which were released for the first time this past fall — he turned instead to Charmat method, which Italian winemakers use to make Prosecco. Here, that second fermentation takes place with the entire batch of wine together in a large tank; the bubbly result is then bottled. “We learned how to be really effective using Charmat method, it’s a very different way of winemaking in terms of how you access the raw materials and what flavors are amplified and maximized,” Smith explains. “You can make a fresh and exciting style of wine.”

One of the biggest names — and smallest producers — of new California sparkling is Michael Cruse, whose mid-priced Ultramarine bottles are made from grapes grown in Sonoma and sell out quickly upon release. Cruse relies on both the Champagne way and an older, less expensive method known as ancestral method to create fresher, fruitier wines. This process, which predates that of Champagne, works by bottling wine before it finishes fermenting the first time, trapping carbon dioxide in-bottle for lightly sparkling wines that are affectionately referred to as pétillant-naturel, or naturally fizzy.

Rajat Parr, a sommelier and one of California’s most well-regarded small-batch still winemakers, is working on his second pét-nat vintage made from Trousseau grapes grown in Santa Barbara under his Combe label.

Meanwhile, on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island, forward-thinking wineries like Channing Daughters are making curious sparklers, including pét-nats, with house-grown Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Made in small amounts as well, they sell out quickly, too. Further north, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, tiny sustainable producers like Lamoreaux Landing and Fossil & Till turn out bubbly wines with flavors reflective of their local fruit: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, respectively.

Studying grapes and production techniques to see what kinds of sparkling wines emerge, American winemakers are driven as much by curiosity as they are by a quest to shape this growing market’s identity.

“We ended up, through trial and error, with this vision of trying to create something new with this really vibrant, bright, fresh style of sparkling wine that’s still showing off the classic ripe California fruit,” says Smith of his first Finke’s Widow. His exploration of California bubbly’s potential has culminated in a wine made of tart, floral and earthy Chenin Blanc, and big, fruity Chardonnay — grapes picked just this year for a bottle filled with “fresh, California-vibrant taste.” Winc’s foray into bubbles joins a new cast of American fizz: elegant, mineral-driven sparkling wines from cool climates like New York, and exuberant ripe and fruity bubblies from sun-drenched locales like California.

And Smith will use ancestral method, too. PYT, a Winc pét-nat, is forthcoming. But first there is Finke’s Widow, with a name that showcases the movement’s inventive spirit while reaching back to a just-as-rebellious past. When a 19th century California sparkling winemaker named Alois Finke passed away, his winery lived on, briefly. It was renamed A. Finke’s Widow in a provocative wink to Champagne’s famous Veuve Clicquot, or “widow Clicquot.”

This time that American irreverence is turned to helping American sparkling wine make a name for itself, with quality bubbly meant for rejoicing in the way we live now. Smith concludes, “We looked at how people were enjoying sparkling wine. We loved the idea that there was celebration around opening a bottle of wine, and also that you could do that on any night.”