Imagine the pop of a flying cork followed by a foamy spray. Picture tiny bubbles flying up a flute. Savor the lively sensation of effervescence spreading across the tongue.
Call it Champagne, cava, sekt or spumante — there’s nothing quite like sparkling wine.
“Sparkling wine is probably the most fun wine (since) it’s associated with parties,” said Lood Kotze, winemaker and vineyard manager at Cass Winery in Paso Robles. “It’s the only wine that can wake you up in the middle of the night.”
Here on the Central Coast, a handful of wineries produce bubbly beverages perfect for a birthday, anniversary or New Year’s Eve bash.
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According to Dave Hickey, sparkling winemaker and vice president of production at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery in Arroyo Grande, most local winemakers follow the traditional French method for making bubbly, known as “method Champenoise.” (Real Champagne, of course, only comes from that region of France.)
High-acid, low-sugar grapes are picked early in the harvest season and pressed. Laetitia uses two wooden Coquard presses, manufactured in France in 1984 and 1987, to provide gentle, even pressure that Hickey said produces high-quality juice.
The resulting juice, or cuvée, undergoes a primary fermentation process similar to still wine. It’s then bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast, triggering the all-important second fermentation stage that gives sparkling wine its characteristic bubbles.
Bottles are placed in riddling racks, where they are methodically shaken and turned — causing the lees, or dead yeast cells and other particles, to settle in the neck.
After removing the lees in a process known as disgorging, the winemaker adds a dosage of fresh wine and sugar syrup to adjust the sweetness level.
Allotting time for aging, the whole process can take anywhere from 18 months to two to five years, Hickey said.
“When I make the wine I’m putting it out (on the market) at a time in its life when I feel it’s ready to be enjoyed,” he said, although it’s not unusual for aficionados to hold onto bottles of bubbly for a decade or more.
Laetitia produces seven different kinds of sparklers: Brut de Blancs, Brut Coquard, Cuvée M, Brut Cuvée, Brut De Noirs, Brut Rosé and XD. Made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes, they range from extremely dry to subtly sweet.
According to Hickey, Laetitia’s sparkling winemaker since 1999, the winery produces about 7,500 cases of sparkling wine a year — compared to 30,000 bottles of bubbly in its heyday. About 10 percent of the winery’s production is dedicated to sparkling wine.
Other Central Coast winemakers offer their own spins on sparklers.
Chronic Cellars of Paso Robles introduced Spritz & Giggles sparkling wine, a blend of mostly pinot and chardonnay grapes, to “fill a gap that we were missing in our portfolio,” said Josh Beckett, the winery’s co-owner and winemaker.
“We wanted something fun, and a wine for all celebrations throughout the year,” explained Beckett, noting that the winery is in its first year of sparkling wine production. It has produced about 2,000 cases so far, a 10th of total production.
Cass Winery’s sole sparkling vintage started out as a 2005 experiment designed to showcase the diversity of Rhone varietals, Kotze said.
“I was content with making something completely nontraditional,” said the South African native, who initially experimented with grenache noir before settling on marsanne.
“These kinds of projects keep the job interesting.”
Kotze said Cass makes a base wine using its own grapes before shipping it off to undergo secondary fermentation at Rack and Riddle in Hopland in Mendocino County. The winery limits annual production of its sparkling marsanne to a couple hundred cases; bottles are mostly reserved for wine club members and special events.
Vin De Pomme, a sparkling apple wine produced by Domaine Le Mieux in See Canyon, goes even farther afield by substituting Arkansas Black, Braeburn, Heaven Sent and White Pearmain apples for grapes.
“The blend of apples is really the key. You want to balance the sugar and the acid, and you want to have some structure,” explained winemaker Karen Le Mieux, whose family purchased a small See Canyon apple orchard in 2006.
They gradually graduated from sweet cider to “apple Champagne,” cabernet, tempranillo and sparkling viognier, sourcing their grapes from Bella Collina vineyards in Paso Robles.
“As a micro-winery, we produce between 200 (and) 300 cases of each varietal per year,” Le Mieux said, as well as about 3,000 gallons of hard cider. That’s a dramatic increase from previous years, she added.
Although many people reserve sparkling wines for holiday celebrations, Hickey said sparklers deserve a regular place at the dinner table and dessert buffet. In fact, he claims that the acid and effervescence of sparkling wines whet one’s appetite.
“You experience and enjoy the food that much more because of it,” said Hickey, whose son, Eric, is Laetitia’s president and head winemaker.
Dinner hosts should follow the same rules for food pairings that apply to still wines, Hickey added. He suggests serving a pinot noir-based sparkler with beef and raspberry sauce, or drinking a chardonnay-based bubbly while dining on a creamy poultry dish.
Le Mieux, meanwhile, prefers pairing sparkling wine with Thai chicken curry or cranberry brie.
“I like to have a bottle at the beginning of the meal and move onto other wines during the course of the meal,” she said.
However one serves sparkling wine, Hickey stressed that sparkling wine is suitable for all settings.
“People miss out when they think it’s only for special occasions,” he said. “There’s no reason to wait for a special occasion to open this bottle.”
Want to mix it up? Here are a couple of recipes for sparkling cocktails.
- 3 or 3.5 ounce Brut Cuvée
- 1 ounce of Chambord black raspberry liqueur
- 1/8 ounce of St. Germain elderflower liqueur
Stir Chambord and St. Germain into sparkling wine. Garnish with a lemon peel.
— Laetitia Vineyard & Winery
- 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce of simple syrup
- 1 ounce of gin
- 1-2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- 3 ounces of Domaine Le Mieux Sparkling Apple Wine, Vin De Pomme
Combine 1 ounce gin, 1/2 ounce of lemon juice and 1/2 ounce of simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Add 1-2 dashes of Angostura Bitters, strain into a Champagne flute; top with Domaine Le Mieux Sparkling Apple Wine, Vin de Pomme. Garnish with thin slice of apple or lemon twist.
— Domaine Le Mieux