Grapevine & Vintner Profile, Wining & Dining

Virginia Wineries Breaking the Mold On Sparkling Winemaking

By Matt Fitzsimmons

Virginia Wineries Breaking the Mold On Sparkling Winemaking

Sparkling wine has a reputation as a ‘special occasion’ beverage – but this is changing. While higher-end sparklings will likely remain a rare treat for most consumers, a growing number of American wine drinkers are reaching for bubbly more frequently, making it one of the fastest growing segments of the market. In Northern Virginia alone, roughly a dozen wineries offer something fizzy on the menu, made either on premise or in partnership with another location.

Patricia Kluge of Kluge Estate (now Trump Winery) started the trend for high-end Virginia sparklings by inviting French winemaker Claude Thibaut to Virginia as a consultant, leading to the release of their first Blanc de Chardonnay in 2007. Today, Claude is half of the Thibaut-Janisson partnership which is one of the best-known sparkling wines in the state.

While Thibaut-Janisson is probably Virginia’s most widely-sold VA sparkling, it’s far from alone. Last year the owners of Veritas Winery opened The Virginia Sparkling Company, dedicated to sparkling wine. This will allow local wineries a partner to finish their own sparklings while avoiding the high startup costs involved in their production. Never again will it be difficult to find bubbles at your favorite Virginia winery.

Giving Sparkling Wine Its Fizz

Strictly speaking, sparkling is wine with significant levels of carbon dioxide in it. There are a number of ways to achieve this – some more complex (and expensive) than others.

Champagne is without a doubt the most famous sparkling in the world, which is why so many wish to emulate it. It’s also one of the more difficult to make, since it follows strict rules dictated by geography (only sparklings from the Champagne region of France are allowed this prestigious label), grape varietal (only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes are utilized), and method of production.

But not all sparklings need to emulate Champagne. Since sparkling can be made in many ways, a quick (but not all-inclusive) explanation of the more common methods Virginia sparklings are produced is in order:

1. Traditional Method (also known as the méthode champenoise). The most prestigious – and expensive – method of making sparkling wine you can find. Despite that, many winemakers chose it because it is difficult. According to Katie Henley of Casanel Vineyards, “If you don’t have a good foundation in traditional winemaking methods, it’s harder to execute flawless wine”.

2. Charmat Method (aka the “tank method”). Traditional method-made wines usually have more yeasty, toasty aromas and flavors, while Charmat sparklings tend to emphasize a more ‘fresh’ flavor profile. They are also less labor-intensive, as they are fermented in a large steel tank as opposed to allowing fermentation to occur in the bottle (Prosecco is a great example of a Charmat-made wine).

3. Pétillant Naturel (aka “natural sparklings”): Made in the méthode ancestrale method, Pét-Nats (as they are usually called) are usually slightly sweet with lower alcohol content – making them more of an everyday drinking wine. Pet-Nats lack the complexity of other options, but are growing in popularity as they are (relatively) easy to make and don’t hurt the wallet as badly.

Virginia Sparkling’s Coming In To Their Own

According to Claude, “There isn’t any one style” of Virginia wine. Make no mistake; a number of Virginia producers – notably Greenhill Vineyards, Thibaut-Janisson, and Veritas – produce outstanding Chardonnay-based méthode champenoise sparklings. So for those who enjoy their bubbly as ‘traditional’ as possible; Virginia has you covered.

But it would be a mistake for Virginia winemakers to copy France (or California for that matter). Even if they wanted to try, the terroir here dictates a different approach. But just as importantly, Virginia winemakers have the advantage of unleashing their creativity – something impossible in the rules-bound Champagne region. This has led to a veritable explosion of options, including the use of hybrid grapes that break the mold on what a sparkling wine is supposed to be like.

Briedé Family Vineyards’ “Sparkling Winchester” is a great example of his mixing of old and new world styles. Their sparking is made in the traditional method (and made by a Frenchman) using Cayuga – a grape that would never be found in Europe. Cayuga is a hybrid (cross between European and North American grapes) that’s easy to grow, especially in cooler weather vineyards. Its high acidity gives it the zest that sparkling requires, and it delivers a Champagne-like finish.

It’s hardly surprising that Briedé made a sparkling; owners inevitably make wine they can enjoy themselves, and owners Loretta and Paul Briedé especially love French wines. Try visiting their tasting room outside Winchester to try their Sparkling Winchester, as well well as a selection of sparklings from around the world.

Another great place for sparklings is Casanel Vineyards, just outside Leesburg. While most wineries usually decide between the traditional or creative routes, Katie decided to do both – she makes not one but three sparklings, all made using the Champenoise method. Katie LOVES talking about her sparklings, so much so she practically poured me an entire bottle of her Chardonnay-based White Spark while we chatted (note – I love visiting winemakers in their natural environment).

As much as I loved the White Spark for its nod to tradition, her Red Spark demonstrates her creativity. It’s made with Norton; in fact, she’s the first person anywhere to make this grape into a sparkling wine. She explained the idea started as something of a dare; wine drinkers can be rather snooty about hybrids, but she loves working with this grape and was convinced she could prove them wrong. The result – a sparkling with flavors of pomegranates and raspberries that’s absolutely delicious.

A third location known for its Virginia sparklings is Rappahannock Cellars, in Hume, Virginia. Currently almost 25% of its sales are sparkling – and that percentage is growing. Amongst their options is a sparkling-only flight, which includes their high-end “Prestige”, a Blanc De Blanc (Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc made in the Charmat method), Sparkling Rosé, the ‘Fizzy Lizzy’ Rosé, a sparkling Muscat, and a Charmat-made Cabernet Franc-based sparkling.

Tasting manager Kelly Knight explained most customers don’t seem to worry about how the sparking is made – so long as it’s good (I agree – it is). My favorite was the Chardonnay-based Prestige that was aged for 2 years, which had nice green apple notes and some toastiness from the lees. But the Fizzy Lizzy was a ‘fun’ wine that shows that sparklings isn’t always meant to be taken seriously.

I mustn’t forget Rosemont Winery and Vineyards, down in southern Virginia. Their 2018 Extra Brut Sparkling White hits that sweet spot of having juuust enough oak without overpowering it. Zesty, with hazelnut notes. It’s also made using the Charmat method with Chardonel, a hybrid of Chardonnay that does well in Virginia’s humid climate.

Co-owner Aubrey Rose endorsed the idea that sparklings need not be too serious, but that’s almost being unfair to this wine. While great as a summer sipper, I happily paired this with oysters for a late fall dinner.

Do you have any favorite sparklings? Let me know where to find them!

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