Thanks to a shift in the way we think of sparkling wine—from an exclusively special-occasion indulgence to a versatile, everyday presence on the dinner table—sales are surging. This is a hot category, and some of the evidence is right in our own backyard, with a number of Washington wineries launching new sparkling wine projects using innovative production methods. Further evidence: Last year marked the 16th consecutive year of growth in sparkling wine consumption among Americans, with overall consumption up more than 50% over the past decade.
For many years, the bubbly scene in Washington was small and stable. There was Woodinville mainstay Chateau Ste Michelle’s sparkling wine house, at various times called Domaine Ste. Michelle or just plain Michelle. There was Wapato-based Treveri Cellars, a midsize winery offering sparkling wines in a range of varieties and styles. Then there were a handful of boutique players whose sparkling products were not widely distributed. Almost across the board, the production method was the same: méthode champenoise.
This is the same method used to make Champagne, whereby a still wine is bottled with an extra mix of sugar and yeast, causing a secondary fermentation in the bottle (that’s where the bubbles come from). Eventually, that yeast plug is removed (or “disgorged”), and the now-sparkling wine is resealed under cork and is ready for sale.
Méthode champenoise is not the only way to make a wine sparkle, however. There is “pét-nat,” short for pétillant naturel. With pét-nats, the initial fermentation (of grape sugar into alcohol) is artificially halted with some amount of residual sugar still remaining in the base wine. That base wine is bottled and sealed under a crown cap, and then the remaining yeast acts on the remaining sugar, fermenting some or all of that yeast into alcohol and CO2. Some pét-nat producers disgorge the yeast plug and wind up with a clear sparkling wine; others leave the plug in and end up with a cloudy, hazy bubbly (which often tastes a little funkier, too). Matt Austin is the winemaker for the recently launched Walla Walla winery Grosgrain Vineyards, which features a pair of pét-nats in its lineup. He noted a desire to make wines with less intervention, calling pét-nat “about as minimal as it gets when it comes to sparkling wine.”
Luke Bradford of Lyle-based Cor Cellars recently launched his Ago label, which includes a sparkling wine made by directly injecting CO2 (a process similar to that used to make SodaStream). This method, which Bradford calls “méthode moderne,” allows him “to produce this wine in an accessible price range.” He notes that when Cor pours sparkling wine into a taster’s glass, “There is an unquantifiable freedom of speech and entertainment; they feel liberated to share their opinions and love for wine and life. It’s like opening a valve on joyfulness.”
NV Townshend Cellar Brut ($13)
In 2011, Townshend Cellar purchased neighboring Spokane winery Mountain Dome, which had specialized in sparkling wine for years. Townshend still has some of the old Mountain Dome material available, like this nonvintage beauty, which is composed of surprisingly old vintages: 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. It’s a blend of Chardonnay (60%) and Pinot Noir (40%), and features a fruit core of apple and lemon curd complemented by complexities of croissant and mineral.
PAIRS WITH: A brunch of bagels topped with chive-studded cream cheese, shredded smoked salmon collar, and dots of cucumber and caper.
NV Treveri Cellars Blanc de Blancs Brut Zero ($15)
Father and son Juergen and Christian Grieb of Wapato-based Treveri Cellars, which produces sparkling wine exclusively, have dialed the addition of sugar (called “dosage”) all the way back to zero for this bone-dry thriller. The palate is positively alpine, austerely fruited and mineral driven. It’s refreshing as can be.
PAIRS WITH: A bowl of stovetop popcorn with plenty of butter.
2018 Ago Sparkling Wine ($28)
Luke Bradford’s 2018 sparkling wine comes entirely from Columbia Gorge fruit and is driven primarily by Gewürztraminer, which makes up 86% of the blend (the remainder is Pinot Gris). The Gewürz shines aromatically, with its alluring mix of tropical fruit, exotic flowers and spice. PAIRS WITH: Takeout paneer makhana, with a wedge of saag naan and a drizzle of raita.
2018 Grosgrain Vineyards Lemberger Pét-nat, Kiona Vineyard ($26)
Winemaker Matt Austin loves that “there are fewer preconceived notions of what grapes are appropriate for pét-nat, or even what they should look or taste like, which allows for quite a bit of experimentation.” This one is a rosé from old Lemberger vines on Red Mountain. It pours into the glass as a pale salmon color and comes roaring back out with an expressive nose of red fruit, blood orange, exotic spice notes, and a deep and abiding sense of minerality. It smells refreshing, and sure enough, the dry, juicy palate delivers.
PAIRS WITH: Black lentils with roasted carrots and golden beets, finished with goat yogurt.
2014 Analemma Blanc de Noirs Sparkling, Atavus Vineyard ($59)
With méthode champenoise, the more time the wine spends in contact with the yeasts, the more the finished wine develops the bready complexities prized by Champagne lovers. One winemaker playing with extended time on yeasts is Steven Thompson of Mosier, Oregon–based Analemma Wines. For this sparkling wine, he uses all Pinot Noir from Atavus Vineyard, an old site on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge AVA, and gives it a full 42 months of yeast contact. That extended aging provides wonderful bready richness to the aroma and palate of the wine, capably complementing a core of Pinot Noir–driven notes both fruity (black cherry especially) and earthy. The fine mousse offers textural elegance and an easy glide path along the palate.
PAIRS WITH: A tuna poke bowl with brown rice and plenty of wasabi mayo.