Summer 2011

Northwest bubbly: Experts shine in our blind tasting

Sparkling wine is undoubtedly a specialty wine. It isn't easy to produce -- and to craft it well, you need to be an expert.

These facts were backed up in our comprehensive judging of Northwest sparkling wines, which included 38 examples. A quick glance at the top wines shows that those who specialize in sparkling wines tend to make the best, including Treveri Cellars and Domaine Ste. Michelle in Washington and Argyle Winery and Soter Vineyards in Oregon.

But there's also room for newcomers in the category, with Washington's Westport Winery continuing to show its diversity in winemaking by crafting the No. 3 wine with an unusual grape for bubbly.

The history of sparkling wine goes back to the Champagne region of France, where the method of doing a second fermentation in a bottle of wine to capture carbon dioxide and, consequently, its bubbles was developed centuries ago. While the Dom Perignon did not actually discover Champagne, the Benedictine monk did make significant contributions to its development.

Today, most fine sparkling wine is made "methode Champenoise," meaning the second fermentation takes place in the bottle, though other methods also are used.

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In our judging, the No. 1 wine was the first release from a new Yakima, Wash., winery, though owner/winemaker Juergen Grieb is no stranger to bubbly or Washington. He learned his craft in his native West Germany, earning his winemaking degree there and studying sparkling wine production. He emigrated to Washington in 1983 to work for Langguth Winery on the Wahluke Slope. That winery closed in 1987, and Grieb has since worked at Coventry Vale, a custom-crush facility in the Yakima Valley, for nearly two decades. He opened Treveri Cellars last fall, with a focus on sparkling wines, and his expertise has quickly helped him rise to the top.

While sparkling wine is traditionally made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, we found a fun array of grapes being used in the Northwest, including Gewuerztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and even Mueller-Thurgau.

Our judges for this competition were Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, director of Washington State University's viticulture and enology program; Jay Drysdale, a British Columbia wine consultant and sommelier; Ken Robertson, a Wine Press Northwest columnist and hobby sparkling winemaker; Dave Seaver, a retired scientist and member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel; and Bob Woehler, the dean of Northwest wine writers. The judging was conducted under blind conditions on April 21 at the Clover Island Inn in Kennewick, Wash.

On to the results.

Outstanding

Treveri Cellars NV Blanc de Blanc Extra-Sec Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley, $15: Juergen Grieb learned how to make sparkling wine in his native Germany and has honed his winemaking skills in Washington for nearly three decades. The first release of his own winery is a stunner with expressive lemon and pear aromas that invite further exploration. On the mouth, this opens with creamy, intense flavors of honey and fresh-off-the-tree orchard fruit. It's a beautifully crafted bubbly. (500 cases; 12% alc.)

Soter Vineyards 2005 Estate Brut Rose, Oregon, $48: Tony Soter first gained fame as a top Napa Valley winemaker. Today, he is the man behind Etude in Carneros and his eponymous winery in Oregon's Yamhill-Carlton AVA. His sparkling wine has been a hit since its first release, and this is from estate Pinot Noir. It stands out for its beautiful and delicate aromas of strawberries, blossoms and even a hint of flintiness. On the palate, it reveals elegant flavors of cherries, strawberries and apples. It's plush on the palate and is loaded with flavors on the midpalate through the lengthy finish. It's a wonderful example of a great Northwest sparkler. (500 cases; 12.9% alc.)

Westport Winery 2009 Going Coastal Sparkling Gewurztraminer, Washington, $35: Dana Roberts continues to craft first-rate wines for his family winery on the Washington coast, and this bubbly made from an unusual variety for the style is impressive. It opens with classic Gewuerztraminer aromas of cloves, grapefruits, lychee and ripe apples. At 3% residual sugar, this shows a bit of sweetness along with flavors of rose water, orange zest and big apple notes on the finish. It's a charming and fascinating bubbly with a great name. (222 cases; 11% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Blanc de Noirs, Columbia Valley, $12: As head of Domaine Ste. Michelle, Rick Casqueiro is the king of Northwest bubbly, producing nearly 300,000 cases of sparkling wine at the Columbia Crest facility in Paterson, Wash. Consistently, this has been his finest wine, winning four Platinum awards in our annual best-of-the-best judging. This wine relies on Yakima Valley Pinot Noir. It opens with aromas of freshly baked bread and gorgeous berries, followed by bright flavors of pears, apples and strawberries. (20,081 cases; 11% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Blanc de Blanc Demi-sec Gewuztraminer, Columbia Valley, $17: Owner and winemaker Juergen Grieb turns to his German roots for this off-dry wine that uses an unusual variety for a sparkling wine -- and it's magnificent. It opens with gorgeous and classic aromas of rose water, lychee, tropical fruit and candied orange peel, followed by flavors of grapefruit, lemon zest, cloves and lychee. It captures the essence of the grape without giving up any acidity. (500 cases; 12% alc.)

Argyle Winery 2006 Knudsen Vineyard Brut, Dundee Hills, $50: Oregon's best-known sparkling wine producer is Argyle, on Highway 99W in the town of Dundee. Rollin Soles has been Argyle's winemaker since the beginning, and he uses classic varieties. This vintage-dated effort from estate fruit is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, and it is superb, with aromas of lemons, limes and apples, followed by plush, creamy flavors of freshly baked bread and rich, ripe orchard fruit. It's beautifully balanced from first sip through the delicious finish. (500 cases; 13.5% alc.)

Argyle Winery 2007 Brut, Willamette Valley, $27: Rollin Soles uses mostly Chardonnay (63%) with Pinot Noir from two estate vineyards to craft this dry and delicious sparkler. It opens with aromas of big tropical fruit, tart apples and lemons. On this palate, this opens with beautiful flavors without being overbearing. It reveals harmonious notes of fresh bread and rich orchard fruit, all backed with great acidity. (11,620 cases; 12.5% alc.)

8th Generation Vineyard 2010 Confidence Frizzante-style Rose, Okanagan Valley, $23: This winery north of Penticton, B.C., is one of the Okanagan Valley's most exciting young producers. It is operated by Bernd and Stefanie Schales, whose family winemaking history goes back eight and 10 generations respectively. This pink sparkler is 75% Pinot Noir and 100% delicious. It opens with aromas of strawberries and raspberries, followed by flavors of delicious fresh fruit that is beautifully balanced. It is superb with great length. (418 cases; 12.1% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Blanc de Blancs, Columbia Valley, $12: Domaine Ste. Michelle -- affectionately known as DSM -- is a remarkable operation, producing hundreds of thousands of cases of sparkling wine in the classic methode champenoise method at affordable prices. That winemaker Rick Casqueiro can craft fine wines at such a value means we have no excuse to not drink more bubbles. This wine, made from Chardonnay, opens with aromas of cream soda and apples, followed by flavors of apples, lemons and fresh, yeasty bread. (32,640 cases; 11.5% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Blanc de Blanc Sec Mueller-Thurgau, Columbia Valley, $16: Juergen Grieb again turns to his European roots for this bubbly from the second-most-planted grape in his native Germany. Mueller-Thurgau is a "new" variety that is a cross of Riesling and Silvaner created in the 19th century in Germany. This sparkler opens with aromas of pineapples, peaches and apples, followed by delicious flavors of tropical fruit, peaches and limes. It's off dry at 2.3% residual sugar. (110 cases; 12% alc.)

Gray Monk Estate Winery 2007 Odyssey White Brut, Okanagan Valley, $27: The Heiss family operates one of British Columbia's oldest and most beloved wineries. This fantastic sparkler is crafted from a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, and it opens with creamy aromas of grapefruits and tart apples. On the palate, it reveals a creamy entry followed by delicious flavors of apples and lemons, all backed with a full mouth feel and bright acidity on the finish. (840 cases; 12.1% alc.)

Excellent

Blasted Church 2008 OMG, Okanagan Valley, $25: Behind the fun-loving names and whimsical artwork at this winery near Okanagan Falls, B.C., are some seriously good wines, including this sparkler made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It opens with beautiful aromas of apples, pears and grapes, followed by delicious flavors of bright orchard fruit and even a hint of caramel on the midpalate. It is a tight-knit wine with plenty of aging potential. Text your friends about it. (77 cases; 12.7% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle 2004 Luxe, Columbia Valley, $23: While most of Rick Casqueiro's wines are not vintage dated, Luxe is -- and is made much differently. Grapes for the base wine are from select vineyards, then the wine is barrel fermented and aged on the lees before going through the second bottle fermentation and aged five years before release. It's a splendid wine with aromas of toast and caramel that intermingle with apples and pears. On the palate, it's beautifully balanced with a plush mouth feel and classic tiny bubbles that show off flavors of lemons, limes and orchard fruit. (2,400 cases; 11% alc.)

Cave B Estate Winery 2009 Cave B Vineyards Blanc de Blanc, Columbia Valley, $25: This destination winery near the Columbia Basin town of George, Wash., uses Chardonnay for this classically made sparkler. It reveals aromas of apples, baked bread and apple butter, followed by flavors of pineapples, lemons and apples. The ample flavors are backed with bright acidity that will help this pair with seafood, chicken and more. (263 cases; 12% alc.)

Silvan Ridge 2009 Semi-Sparkling Early Muscat, Oregon, $14: Silvan Ridge crafts a delicious bubbly made in the style of Moscato d'Asti, a sweet, semi-sparkling wine crafted from Muscat grapes. And this is a classic example, thanks to its high residual sugar (12%) and low alcohol. It's light, refined and refreshing, a perfect sipper on a warm Northwest afternoon. (4,221 cases; 6.5% alc.)

Tru Cellars NV Blanc de Blanc, Washington, $47: One of the few wines not part of the Walla Walla Valley legacy is bubbly, but Chad Diltz is going out of his way to change that, making sparkling wine his signature. This opens with gorgeous aromas of orchard fruit and toast, followed by an entry of creamy flavors that lead to notes of Granny Smith apples and a long, robust finish. (200 cases; 12% alc.)

Pacific Rim NV White Flowers Sparkling Riesling, Yakima Valley, $16: Winemaker Nicolas Quille has had a lot of fun making this sparkling Riesling, and it has been an incredible hit for the West Richland, Wash., winery. This opens with classic aromas of lemons, apples and pears, followed by pure flavors of citrus and orchard fruit. There is just a hint of toasty, yeasty flavors to provide a sophisticated finish. (4,200 cases; 11.5% alc.)

Sumac Ridge Estate Winery 2006 Steller's Jay Brut, Okanagan Valley, $27: Perhaps British Columbia's most noted sparkling wine, the Steller's Jay Brut is named for the provincial bird. This wine opens with aromas of fresh-off-the-tree apples and hints of vanilla, followed by bright flavors of starfruit, apples and lemons. (6,000 cases; 13% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Blanc de Blanc Demi-Sec Riesling, Columbia Valley, $17: This off-dry (3.4% residual sugar) sparkler from Washington's No. 1 grape provides classic Riesling notes, including aromas of apples and melons and flavors of pears, apples and a hint of lemon. (500 cases; 12% alc.)

Ste. Chapelle NV Sparkling Riesling , American, $9: Idaho's largest and oldest winery also is its leader in sparkling wine, and this is made from the Gem State's signature grape. It offers aromas of bright apples, white peaches and oranges, followed by flavors of pears and tropical fruit. Its ample acidity balances the 3% residual sugar, leading to a beautiful and memorable finish. (3,000 cases; 11.5% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Brut, Columbia Valley, $12: DSM's most popular wine is a classic, with aromas of apples and yeasty bread, followed by bright, delicious flavors of fresh orchard fruit and citrus. It's a mouth-filling wine with a lengthy finish. (191,540 cases; 11.5% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Extra Dry, Columbia Valley, $12: In the mysterious world of Champagne terminology, "extra dry" actually means sweeter, and this is a perfect wine to serve at parties and weddings. It's bright and delicious, with aromas of caramel apples and rich, creamy, plush flavors of citrus and tropical fruit. Thanks to its ample acidity, the 2.3% residual sugar is perfectly balanced. (51,900 cases; 11.5% alc.)

Summerhill Pyramid Winery NV Cipes Rose Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley, $30: Owner Steve Cipes ages his wines in a scale model of the Cheops Pyramid in Giza, and the energy coming from this bubbly reveals aromas of strawberries and cherries and bright, expressive flavors of berries and fresh bread. (750 cases; 12% alc.)

Ste. Chapelle NV Sparkling Brut, American, $8: Winemaker Chuck Devlin uses Chardonnay from the Snake River Valley for this dry sparkling wine. It reveals aromas of spices, minerality, oranges and lemons, followed by gorgeous flavors of orchard and citrus fruit. It's a harmonious wine that is full flavored. (3,000 cases; 12% alc.)

Argyle Winery 2008 Black Brut, Willamette Valley, $30: In the United States, it is rare to find a red sparkling wine (they're much more common in Australia), but don't ever expect winemaker Rollin Soles to be entirely conventional. He crafts this entirely from estate Pinot Noir, and it is as beautiful in the mouth as it is in the glass. It opens with fascinating aromas of cherries, raspberries, violets, lavender and sage, followed by bold flavors that are expertly balanced between tannin, sweetness and acidity. This is a rare and wonderful treat. (506 cases; 14.5% alc.)

Recommended

Tru Cellars NV My Tru Love, Columbia Gorge, $50: Owner/winemaker Chad Diltz traveled to the Columbia Gorge for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to craft this truly delicious wine. It opens with aromas of baked pears, followed by flavors of crisp apples and pears. (300 cases; 12% alc.)

Camas Prairie Winery NV Sweet Sparkling Wine, Washington, $17: Unabashedly sweet at a crowd-pleasing 7% residual sugar, this Idaho winery uses Washington grapes to craft a wine with aromas and flavors of melons and apples. It's smooth and dangerously delicious. (30 cases; 12% alc.)

Township 7 Vineyards & Winery 2008 Seven Stars, Okanagan Valley, $30: Township 7 started in the Fraser Valley and has since expanded to British Columbia's Interior. Sparkling wine was one of its early hits, and this continues to please, thanks to aromas and flavors of apples, pears and orchard fruit. It's a bright wine with a rich finish. (55 cases; 11.8% alc.)

Camas Prairie Winery NV Sparkling Wine with Natural Raspberry Flavor, Washington, $20: This Moscow, Idaho, winery has never been afraid to explore, and this is another crowd pleaser, thanks to its unmistakable aromas and flavors of raspberries. It is surprisingly dry, which allows the luscious flavors to elevate in the mouth to a superb finish. (30 cases; 12% alc.)

Moonlight Sparkling Wine Cellar NV Cafe Metropole Blanc de Blanc, Columbia Valley, $20: Allan Pangborn worked at California giant Korbel and also was Domaine Ste. Michelle's first winemaker. Today, he crafts sparkling wine in small amounts at his Kennewick, Wash., winery. This is a fresh, delicious style with aromas and flavors of apples, backed with creamy texture and just a hint of sweetness. (550 cases; 12% alc.)

Mountain Dome Winery NV Cuvee Forte, Washington, $30: Founder Michael Manz passed away in 2006 and leaves a legacy of delicious and whimsical sparkling wine. This opens with classic aromas of fresh-baked bread, followed by a creamy entry and bright, delicious flavors. (250 cases; 12% alc.)

Neck of the Woods Winery 2007 Backyard Vineyards Blanc de Noir Brut, Fraser Valley, $25: This is a rare wine indeed, purported to be the only bubbly made with Fraser Valley fruit. This uses estate Pinot Noir, and it reveals aromas of honeydew melon and minerality, followed by bright flavors of lemons and limes. (150 cases; 12.8% alc.)

Mountain Dome Winery NV Brut Rose, Washington, $24: This Spokane winery has been producing sparkling wines since the mid-1980s. This wine is made primarily from rare Washington Pinot Noir, as well as Chardonnay. It is a delicious wine and a tribute to founder Michael Manz. (300 cases; 12% alc.)

This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.

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