Fall 2019

Northwest sparkling wines continue to pop out with delicious diversity

Sparkling wine tasting results.
Sparkling wine tasting results. Wine Press Northwest

For those of us who appreciate the simple pleasures that an artful glass of wine provides, each day is worth celebrating.

Today, there is more delicious, expertly crafted sparkling wine than ever. Let’s hope that this is one trend that never ends.

Some of it, crafted along the classic lines of Champagne from France, is intended for special occasions. Fortunately, there also are many delicious examples in the Pacific Northwest priced for everyday enjoyment.

All of those listed below will pair marvelously with an amazing, almost unending assortment of food. That’s because the best examples of bubbles are low in alcohol, backed by brightness and carry tantalizing descriptions ranging from strawberry-rhubarb, watermelon, Asian pear, Granny Smith apple and tangerine to brioche and puff pastry.

Typically, sparkling wines are crafted with a bit of witchcraft and in a dry style, meaning there is little residual sugar, and they require time, patience, skill, stronger glass and special equipment. That’s why any quality bottle of bubbles for less than $25 is an affordable treasure.

The starting point for these wines is quite different than for still table wines. Pinot Noir grapes for Champagne-style wines made in the Northwest often are harvested in August at sugar levels of 17 to 21 Brix — a month earlier — rather than when the sugar level hits 23 to 24 Brix.

Winemakers seek brightness over ripeness because they can adjust the sweetness later in the winemaking process with the dosage. The base wine, fermented to complete dryness, receives a small addition — the dosage — of sweetened wine with specialized yeast to facilitate the secondary fermentation.

It’s that organic reaction of yeast consuming sugar that builds alcohol and creates carbon dioxide — those bubbles. There’s little margin for error when it comes to getting the chemistry correct. For example, say the dosage is loaded to 24 grams per liter of residual sugar (2.4% RS) with a post-fermentation target of 10 grams (1% RS). On the back end, there’s some math and chemistry involved to get the finished bottle with a pH of around 3.2 and total acidity of 9 grams.

The physical nature of injecting the dosage is another matter. It means handling each bottle and sealing it, typically with a crown cap — the same closure as a bottle of beer. Then, carbon dioxide builds in each bottle. Because sparkling wine is a low pH product, the creation of C02 makes it more difficult for the yeast to do its job.

Disgorging is the final winemaking step that’s especially tricky and often performed using proprietary methods. It involves freezing the dead yeast cells in the neck of each bottle to create a wad or plug that quickly shoots out once the crown cap is removed. Some winemakers use a special tool, but there’s still some quick dexterity required to limit the amount of wine and bubbles that get lost in the process.

A year ago, Domaine Ste. Michelle toasted its 40th anniversary as a brand. During that span, there have been a few changes to label since its first wines were released, starting with wines from the inaugural vintage of 1974.

And yet, there have been just two head winemakers at DSM since 1996. In 2015, Spokane native Paula Eakin took over for California-trained Rick Casqueiro, who spent two decades overseeing that massive cellar in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills.

Based on the results of this tasting, Domaine Ste. Michelle continues to be in skilled hands.

Meanwhile, family-owned operations in Washington and Oregon also stood out in this judging of 83 Northwest sparklers.

Juergen Grieb and his son Christian have made sparkling wine the focus of their program in the hills above Washington’s Yakima Valley. Their attention to detail was on display with three entries receiving our top rating of “Outstanding!” A pair were produced using traditional Champagne-style varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, while a third serves as a tribute to the Grieb family’s ancestral home of Germany by featuring Müller-Thurgau in a fun and frothy style.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Anne Amie Vineyards also checked in with a trio of premier sparkling wines, led by their Alsatian-inspired and affordably priced Cuvée A Amrita. And anyone with a passion for bubbles should keep an eye out for the 2020 date of Bubble Fest, which is staged at Anne Amie near Valentine’s Day. In five short years, it has blossomed into a two-day consumer tasting that shares the grounds with more than 20 Oregon sparkling wine producers.

Unanimously Outstanding!

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Brut Rosé, Columbia Valley $13Best Buy! A pink ‘56 Thunderbird is how one judge described the top sparkling wine of the tasting, and fortunately more than 200,000 of these beautiful bottles roll off the production line each year. Paula Eakin, who celebrates her 25th year with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, dazzles with this cross-vintage melange of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. She creates a lovely pale salmon wardrobe with creamy Hermiston watermelon and brioche aromas as the spectacular mousse carries along bright strawberry and cherry flavors. There’s brilliance to the balanced structure that dances around the 1.6% residual sugar. Suggested pairings reflect the broad appeal of dry sparkling wines, ranging from jalapeño and artichoke dip, a salad of mixed baby greens with fresh squeezed lemon, coconut shrimp drizzled with sweet chili sauce or a plate of Southern comfort food — waffles and fried chicken. (20,000 cases, 11% alc.)

ROCO Winery 2015 RMS Brut, Willamette Valley $65Rollin Soles and his wife, Corby, opened their winery a decade ago, branded as a mashup of their first names (pronounced ROCK-oh). It was back in the ‘80s when the tall Texan set the standard for Oregon sparkling wine and became a category leader in the Pacific Northwest as the founding winemaker of Argyle Winery in Dundee, where he developed the state’s first sparkling wine production facility. His methode Champenoise work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from 2015 remains a Northwest classic for vintage bubbles, starting with bright aromas of dusty Asian pear, honeydew melon and Gala apple. On the palate, it’s loaded with hints of Comice pear, Golden Delicious apple and Rainier cherry. There’s a fleshiness to the midpalate that leads out with a long finish of pear and honey croustade. (120 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Anne Amie Vineyards 2017 Cuveé A Amrita Sparkling White Wine, Willamette Valley $15Best Buy! Two decades ago, Portland businessman/publisher/philanthropist Robert Pamplin purchased Chateau Benoit, and winemaker Thomas Houseman soon transformed the winery — rebranded as Anne Amie — into a showcase for sparkling wines. They took their devotion to another level in 2015 by launching Bubble Fest, an annual February consumer tasting that now involves more than two dozen Oregon producers. Houseman’s work with his wide-ranging and wildly aromatic Amrita blends Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris with estate Müller-Thurgau plantings that reach back to 1979. Aromas of nectarine, apple and POG juice make their way onto a palate that continues to reach out with fruitiness and underlying complexity of fresh-cut grass. A wealth of citrusy acidity is joined by Granny Smith apple peel to more than balance the 1% residual sugar. One judge described it as “freaking wonderful,” and that was prior to learning about the price. (1,900 cases, 12.9% alc.)

Outstanding!

Canned Oregon NV Pink Bubbles, Oregon $14Best Buy! Several of the Oregon wine industry’s leading producers have joined the can category, and the Stoller Wine Group entered the game last year. Here, associate winemaker Ben Howe doubled up on the fascination for sparkling wines and rosé to create Pink Bubbles. The gorgeous light pink color sets the stage for a rather stunning sparkling rosé made with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and splash of Riesling. It’s no blush, and the mousse nicely brings the aromas of strawberry-rhubarb pie and Hermiston watermelon to life in the mouth. There is a lovely creaminess to the mouth feel, backed by a bone-dry finish that’s akin to pink strawberry and red currant. In order to get a better sense for the equivalent to a 750-milliliter bottle of wine, the $12 listed here is for two cans. However, consumers can find a single can in the Northwest at grocers such as Fred Meyer, Safeway and Whole Foods going for $6.99. (10,000 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Castillo de Feliciana Vineyard & Winery 2017 Brillánte Sparkling Wine, Columbia Valley $37Walla Walla Valley producer Chris Castillo, a graduate of the Walla Walla Community College wine program, shows flair with this lot of Chardonnay off historic Airport Ranch in the Yakima Valley, farmed by the Miller family behind Airfield Estates. Fun aromas of marzipan, lime and pineapple upsidedown cake lead to flavors of lemon curd and pear. Pleasing bubbles make for a charming structure and lengthy finish that dances deliciously. (269 cases, 10.5% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Limited Release Series Müller-Thurgau Sec, Columbia Valley $25Perhaps no one has made as much wine over a longer period of time in the Pacific Northwest than Juergen Grieb, who trained in Germany and arrived in 1982 on Washington’s Wahluke Slope. In 2010, he launched Treveri Cellars near Yakima, Wash., and turned it into the state’s largest family-owned and operated sparkling wine house. He and son, Christian, work with Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain for their sparkling Müller-Thurgau, a German cross of noble Riesling with Madeleine Royale, a table grape. The family takes a German “ sekt” approach to these bubbles, leaving room for more sweetness, nearly 2% residual sugar in this case. The result is a fun wine redolent of orchard fruit, offering layer upon layer of ripe peach and Bartlett pear. Its lovely mousse and persistent bubbles lead to a finish of apple pie crust and a rub of orange peel. (200 cases, 12% alc.)

Left Coast Cellars 2015 Estate Brut Rosé of Pinot Meunier, Willamette Valley $55Wine merchant-turned-winemaker Joe Wright has been part of the Left Coast move to a completely estate program. Pinot Meunier is planted across their two youngest vineyards — Field of Dreams and High Acres — and Wright spotlights the rarely showcased red variety with this program that features two years en tirage (aging in the bottle after the second fermentation is started with the addition of yeast and a bit of sugar). It offers light strawberry, cherry juice and clove aromas, followed by a mouthful of Rainier cherry flesh, candied orange peel and perfect lemony acidity. The mousse is delicate, as is the presence of sweetness, less than 1% residual sugar. (67 cases, 12.1% alc.)

Lundeen Wines NV Brut, Willamette Valley $30Boutique producer Michael Lundeen focuses on Burgundian varieties, and four of his offerings are crafted methode Champenoise. This nonvintage Brut is his entry-level sparkling wine, and he creates it in a classic style, blending Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from three vineyards and across four vintages, but primarily from 2016. It spent 24 months en tirage, and yet this slightly pinkish wine is bursting with hints of orange, Meyer lemon, kiwi fruit and toasted English muffin. Bold bubbles and an exquisite finish of Bosc pear and clove easily tackle the 0.7% residual sugar. (250 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Limited Release Series Equinox Brut, Columbia Valley $28The Grieb family blends Pinot Gris (60%) from the higher-elevation Naches Heights American Viticultural Area to the west with Pinot Noir for this classic approach. It results in an elegant bottle with hints of lemon meringue pie and stone fruit, backed by a creamy mouth feel with Granny Smith apple pie crust and a hint of Queen Anne cherry, capped by a lingering finish. (200 cases, 12% alc.)

Domaine Ste. Michelle NV Brut, Columbia Valley $13Best Buy! The largest production sparkling wine in the tasting also ranked among the best - regardless of price. Floral notes of orange peel and lime zest come with a sense of toastiness as the creamy mousse leads out with a touch of tropical fruit. It’s an expertly crafted wine that checks in with 1.5% residual sugar and won’t cost much at checkout. (115,000 cases, 11.5% alc.)

Karma Vineyards 2014 Blanc de Noir, Lake Chelan $70The Pittsingers have moved into their second decade of Karma Vineyards, and their winery overlooking the south shore of Lake Chelan has become a destination for bubbles and celebrations — thanks in large part to the winemaking of Ivy League grad Craig Mitrakul. The Cornell-trained winemaker produces a high-end sparkling wine using estate Pinot Noir (83%) and Pinot Meunier plantings managed by Julie Pittsinger, and the three years en tirage makes this remarkable. Orchard blossom, Bosc pear and apple pie spice are joined by a fascinating hint of wet slate. Inside, the wealth of mousse carries along flavors of pear, Meyer lemon and candied ginger, making for a mouth-filling and delicious finish. (150 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Patterson Cellars 2017 Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir, Columbia Valley $40Few in the Pacific Northwest juggle so many responsibilities as skillfully as John Patterson, whose production facility provides winemaking for more than 40 wineries in the Woodinville area. And while he’s not broadly known for bubbles, this sparkling rosé proves that he deserves to be. Aromas of strawberry shortcake and apricot are matched on the palate, which is dry, bold and balanced. In the finish are baking spices and dried cherry. He operates four tasting rooms across the state, so there probably isn’t a lot of this to go around. (200 cases, 12.4% alc.)

Treveri Cellars NV Blanc de Noirs Brut, Columbia Valley $20When someone claims there is no award-winning Pinot Noir grown in Washington state, here’s a cheeky way to correct them. Juergen and Christian Grieb deepen their work with Marchant Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with this nonvintage, 100% bottling of Pinot Noir that quickly became a core offering in their picturesque tasting room near Union Gap. There’s a charming delicacy to these light-colored pink bubbles, which propel hints of strawberry, watermelon and peach yogurt. Once again, the texture of the mousse shows skill, and the touch of strawberry-kiwi in the finish comes across as rather sexy. (2,000 cases, 12% alc.)

Elk Cove Vineyards 2015 La Bohème Estate Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton $50Second-generation vintner Adam Campbell ranks among the best in the Northwest with cool-climate varieties, so his Midas touch with bubbles from Pinot Noir is no surprise. La Bohème is produced from Pommard clone vines planted near the tasting room in 1985, and this release — just the second vintage of their bubble program — is superb. Cherry, strawberry-rhubarb compote, caramel and orange peel aromas are mirrored with a fantastic structure of persistent bubbles and layered acidity to balance the dosage, which comes from their Riesling-based Ultima dessert wine program. (484 cases, 12% alc.)

Gran Moraine NV Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton $50Idaho native Shane Moore, a product of Washington State University’s winemaking school, took over the high-end Gran Moraine and Zena Crown programs in 2013 for Jackson Family Wines. The deft touch with Pinot Noir (56%) and Chardonnay that he honed while working for the Sonoma Coast giant comes to bear here. The lots spent two years en tirage before disgorgement in spring 2018, and the results rank alongside the most elegant and inviting brut rosés in the Pacific Northwest. Complex aromas of strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus are ushered out by bright and tight bubbles. Underneath those red fruit tones is a squirt of lime and fleck of minerality, making for terrific balance and remarkably long finish. (210 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Anne Amie Vineyards 2012 Marilyn Brut Cuvée, Chehalem Mountain $60There’s a fair bit of pressure to get this bottling right because of the investment — six years en tirage — and the fact that it carries the name of owner Robert Pamplin’s wife. Fortunately, bubbleman Thomas Houseman delivers. It’s a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Twelve Oaks Estate in the Chehalem Mountains. There’s remarkable brightness despite its age, opening with a nose of lemon/lime and honeysuckle with some minerality. Inside, there’s body and depth as pleasing bubbles and a creamy mouth feel allow for a long appreciation of the Bosc pear and Uncola flavors, making for a crisp finish that ushers out the Granny Smith apple. (300 cases, 12% alc.)

Argyle Winery 2008 Master Series Extended Tirage Brut, Willamette Valley $80This reserve-style expression already was 5 years old when founding winemaker Rollin Soles handed the baton to longtime assistant Nate Klostermann — a Minnesotan taking over for a Texan in Oregon. There have been no bobbles during the 11 years of life for this blend of Pinot Noir (63%) and Chardonnay. Classic aromas of marshmallow, fresh-baked brioche and dusty Golden Delicious apple are met by persistent bubbles and a creamy mouth feel. In the background, there’s a spoon of meringue, a scrape of minerality and a long finish of toasted pear and charming acidity. One judge who collects Grower Champagne described the grande dame of the tasting as “simply a beautiful wine.” (300 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Karma Vineyards 2015 Blanc de Blanc, Columbia Valley $70The slogan at Karma Vineyards is “do good,” and New York-trained Craig Mitrakul is living proof of that with this sparkling Chardonnay that spent two years en tirage. The juicy theme of pear, Granny Smith apple, lemon and toasted filberts comes with a dash of celery salt and minerality that framed by tremendous mousse. Enjoy this paired with the Hot and Spicy Steamers, a garlicky serving of clams served up at on-premise 18 Brix Restaurant at Karma. (180 cases, 12.5% alc.)

Westport Winery NV Rapture of the Deep Carbonated Cranberry Wine, Washington $31The Roberts family lives near Washington’s “Cranberry Coast,” and Dana Roberts produces a wine with regionality and typicity. It’s a perfect and pure expression of cranberry that combines fun frothiness, plenty of juiciness and pleasing tartness to adroitly balance the 10% residual sugar for a great finish. Enjoy this with that holiday bird or Swedish pancakes. A portion of each bottle sold benefits the Harbors Home Health and Hospice. (424 cases, 12% alc.)

Anne Amie Vineyards 2015 Estate Marilyn Brut Rosé, Chehalem Mountain $45The estate Twelve Oaks Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountain is the source for this Brut-style from Pinot Noir by Thomas Houseman, who studied winemaking at Fresno State a decade after earning a performing arts degree at the Central California campus. The dark pink color sets the stage for cherries, strawberries and rose petal aromas. Think of watermelon and raspberry on the entry to the palate, which is capped by a bite of strawberry-rhubarb pie, making for a really long and tasty finish with spot-on acidity. (200 cases, 12% alc.)

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