~ by Jenny Benzie ~
Advanced Sommelier + Certified Wine Educator, Proprietress of Épernay Wine & Spirits.
Fourth of July weekend is full of colorful fireworks, backyard barbeques and celebration of National Day of the United States. To add to this festive fun, American sparkling wine has just the right fizz to be your perfect summer drink. Not only is its provenance a part of Americana history, the icing on your picnic cupcake is that these All-American refreshing beverages are also a bang for less than a few sawbucks.
The best American sparklers are made in the same fashion as their bubbly counterparts that originate from the Champagne region in France. These are produced by the méthode traditionnelle, sometimes also referred to as méthode Champenoise or méthode classique. In order to make wine bubbly, you must take juice that has completed its traditional fermentation to make it into wine and then ferment it a second time. These aforementioned terms mean that this second fermentation has occurred in the bottle, versus being processed in a tank and then transferred to the bottle or creating the bubbles by simply adding carbonation. This time consuming and costly operation ensures that the resulting sparkling wine is similar to the elegance, structure and some amount of complexity that we admire in Champagne.
Also following in French tradition, many California producers make their sparkling wine using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier as these are the only three grape varieties allowed in Champagne production. Unlike the French, however, there are no specific laws in the United States that govern what grape varieties may or may not be used in sparkling wine. Therefore, other grapes are permissible here. The best grapes for sparkling wine are those that are grown specifically for such use and not necessarily grown to make still wine. Cooler climate regions allow the grapes to achieve higher acidity and lower alcohol content in their primary fermentation, which are both important factors when achieving a balanced final product.
Once the wine has gone through its secondary fermentation, the wine will spend some time in the bottle before it is disgorged (release of the leftover yeast from the secondary fermentation) and resealed for packaging and sale. Once again, there is regulation in Champagne as to the length and duration of this aging process in the bottle (at least 15 months for non-vintage and 36 months for vintage dated), but not for American sparklers.
The laws are the same in both regions, however, in that a sparkling wine labeled non-vintage can be a blend from several years and one marked as vintage must come from that one single year as labeled. Due to labeling laws that protect a wine named specifically from its origin, only sparkling wine produced in France’s Champagne region may be called Champagne and this word is not for use on labels for any sparkling wine outside of this region.
There are several noteworthy California sparkling-wine producers that were locally founded with the sole purpose of producing quality sparkling wine. One of the most famous is Schramsberg, known as America’s House of Sparkling Wine. This property was the first hillside winery of Napa Valley and is a registered historical landmark. The winery had been abandoned for years until it was discovered and brought back to life by the late Jack and Jamie Davies in 1965. Vineyards were replanted and their first release of sparkling wine was in 1967. The winery is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with Hugh Davies, son of Jack and Jamie, in charge of daily operations since 1996.
While they make different selections and style of sparkling wine based on grape varietals used and length of aging, their vintage Blanc de Blancs (meaning white from white and made from 100% Chardonnay) is their flagship wine. Not only was it the first sparkling that they commercially produced, it also will remain a part of history when President Richard Nixon served it at the historic ‘Toast of Peace’ in Beijing, China in 1972.
As the sparkling wine industry in California started to gain traction and recognition, several of the most notable houses in Champagne took notice. Domaine Chandon, also located in Napa Valley, is thought of as a true California sparkling wine pioneer. Founded in 1973 by Moet & Chandon, this was the first French owned sparkling wine operation in the United States. Since their inception, they aim to produce sparkling wines that express their French heritage by using traditional grape varieties and production methods, along with embracing their American spirit with new world innovation and reflecting California’s regional character of sparkling wines. They are now considered the largest producer of sparkling wine from California.
Each year, they release a Limited Edition Brut Classic non-vintage sparkling wine in which they modify the packaging a bit each summer season. Perfect for the Nantucket scene, the bottle is sporting a blue and white nautical theme that makes the bottle festive at any sandy soirée and perfect as a hostess gift. This summer marks the inaugural release of their Limited Edition Rosé non-vintage, which mirrors the stripes of the Brut Classic with hot pink and cool white. This is an eye catching visual for those celebrating a Bachelorette party weekend on island and an exceptional choice when you toast the bride-to-be with ‘Yes Way, Rosé!’
It would be remiss when discussing American sparkling wines for Independence Day not to mention one from the Commonwealth of Virginia where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Here is a story of the American dream that didn’t quite turn out as planned. Patricia Kluge, whose ex-husband was the late media magnate John Kluge, received an enormous sum of money in her divorce settlement in the early 1990s. She decided to build a winery, with the vision of creating a sparkling wine that would place Virginia on the map as a world class wine producing region. However, after leveraging her assets and taking on a tremendous amount of debt in order to pursue this endeavor, the economy turned south. She liquidated what she had left and eventually declared bankruptcy.
Enter Donald Trump, who purchased the wine estate and where now his son, Eric, manages everything from winemaking and marketing to distribution and sales. The winery, which opened under its new direction in 2011, is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a short distance from Charlottesville, Virginia.
They have more than 200 acres of vines planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, making it the largest vineyard in Virginia. The sparkling wines are all made via méthode Champenoise and showcase the crisp acidity and minerality of the grapes being grown in a cooler terroir. The also produce a fortified Chardonnay aptly named ‘Cru’ that they recommend mixing with their Blanc de Blancs to create a Cru Royale Cocktail, a perfect libation for when on the waterfront.
When planning and preparing for your picnic this holiday weekend, keep in mind to embrace what is American and all this country has to you offer. Be sure to pop that American sparkling wine while you celebrate the United States of America’s national birthday and raise a toast to our independence.