A Taste of American Bubbly

We can’t get enough of love this week, so here, as supplement to our Valentine’s Day package, is a tutorial in some of the best American bubbly.

Sparkling wine–not to be confused with the traditional bubbly made in northeast France–is made in basically the same way as traditional Champagne, and American sparkling winemakers are popping up in surprising places around the country. One such maker is Gilbert Gruet, of France’s Gruet et Fils. After visiting the United States in the 1980s, Gruet decided to plant an experimental vineyard in New Mexico. With its sandy loam (poor soil with good drainage) and microclimate (warm days and cool nights), the hills of the Southwest soon proved to be a prosperous grape-growing region. At over 4,000 feet (1,200 meters), Gruet Winery is one of the highest-elevated vineyards in the country, but the soil and climate make it the perfect place for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, both commonly used in making sparkling wine. Winemaker Farid Himeur moved with the Gruet family from France to New Mexico and told us what to look for when buying sparkling wine.

Gruet Winery uses the traditional méthode champenoise when making its wine. What is the difference between méthode champenoise and the charmat method of making sparkling wine?

Methode champenoise [the method used in Champagne as well] means that you use Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, hand-picking, slow whole-cluster pressing, and of course, a secondary fermentation in the bottle (which creates the bubbles by adding yeast and sugar at bottling). The yeast creates sediment that needs to be removed through the riddling process (turning bottles until they are upside-down). Once the bottle is upside-down with the sediment in the neck of the bottle, we freeze the neck (along with the sediment) and remove the crown cap. The pressure that has built up in the bottle will pop the ice cube (again, along with the sediment) and then we add the cork and wire hood, which is called the disgorging process.

The charmat method is the actual fermentation of a whole tank (be it 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 gallons) instead of a single bottle at a time. The wine is then bottled with bubbles (CO2). This process creates much bigger bubbles that do not last long in the glass.

What qualities should one look for when tasting sparkling wines?

One should look (as with regular wine) at color, effervescence (mousse), and the wine should really be clear (sparkling). But most importantly, the glass should have a ring of mousse along the edge of the wine (called an aura) and against the wall of the glass–the smaller the size of the actual bubbles the better. One of the common mistakes that people make (as opposed to regular wine) is that one should not smell champagne, as all you get is CO2 in the nose. One should swirl the wine in his or her mouth and discover all the flavors of the wine.

Many people tend to drink sparkling wine during a celebration, but don’t often consider pairing it to the food they are eating. What particular sparkling wines go well with certain foods?

Sparkling wine goes well with anything, but particularly with spiced food, due to the wine’s high acidity. It also goes well with delicate white fish and a light sauce.

Are there any differences between traditional Champagne and sparkling wine?

Champagne from France is unique due to its terroir–the soil in which the grapes are grown (about a foot of top soil and then the rest is chalk). The soil in New Mexico is different and therefore creates different flavors in the wine.

Aside from sparkling wines, you also produce regular wine as well. Can you tell me a bit about the Rhône-style Syrah you produce in the spring?

Yes we have not only a Syrah, but also a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay. When we made the decision to produce a Syrah we took the same approach that we took when we made all of our different wines–letting the grapes speak for themselves. We did not want to make a fruity Syrah, but a more traditional Côtes du Rhône, which has less fruit and more vegetable flavors. The same goes for the Pinot. It does not have an overpowering fruit flavor, nor is it velvety. It is subtle, light, and clean. Our Chardonnay does not have an overpowering butterscotch flavor, but it is a rather clean, crisp style of Chardonnay. Most importantly, we need a good balanced wine.

You’ve had several wines win national and international awards. Of the wines you produce, which is your personal favorite?

My favorite at this time is the Blanc de Blancs 2004. I like this wine because it is delicate, light, and yet has a long finish with good acidity and balance. I would describe the flavor profile as such: honeycomb in the front and hazelnut in the back, but all the flavors blend together on the tongue very well and have a long, lingering finish.

Gruet Winery
Tasting room open Monday-Saturday; tours given daily. 8400 Pan American Freeway NE; Albuquerque, NM 87113; +1 505 821 0055.

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The price of sparkling wine varies from vineyard to vineyard, from about $10 per bottle (at Gruet) to $100 (Schramsberg). Most vineyards offer cellar tours and tastings. Call ahead for schedule.

Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard
The 2003 blanc de blancs sparkling wine is made from Chardonnay grapes in the traditional méthode Champenoise. It is best paired with seafood and Asian cuisine. 100 Grand Cru Drive; Charlottesville, Va. 22902;
+1 434 977 3895.

L. Mawby
L. Mawby’s Mille–a dry, vintage-dated sparkling blanc de noir–won Best Sparkling Wine at the Michigan State Fair Wine and Spirits Competition. Tasting room open Thursday-Saturday. 4519 S Elm Valley Road; Suttons Bay, Mich. 49682; +1 231 271 3522.

Chateau Chantal
The winery’s best-selling “Celebrate”–formerly called “Carpe Diem!”–is made from both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Tasting room open year-round; tours offered in summer. 15900 Rue de Vin; Traverse City, Mich. 49686; +1 231 223 4110.

Korbel Champagne Cellars
The official champagne of the past five presidential inaugurations offers tastings and tours of its cellars. Tours offered seven days per week. 13250 River Road; Guerneville, Calif. 95446; +1 707 824 7000.

Schramsberg Vineyards
The oldest sparkling winemaker in the United States offers tours by appointment only. Every year the winery also hosts “Camp Schramsberg”–multi-day events allowing guests to participate in the winemaking process. 1400 Schramsberg Road; Calistoga, Calif. 94515; 800 877 3623.

Photos: AnnaBee and Amorimur via Flickr

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