Washington state is producing sparkling wines that rival those from Napa and the Champagne region of France.
Holiday cheer is in the air, as we gather to spend time enjoying the season, complete with great food and bubbles. Sparkling wines sell nearly three times as much in December as in any other month. Lucky for us, Washington state is experiencing a golden age of producing sparkling wines that rival those from Napa and the Champagne region of France.
“Sparkling wine enthusiasts all over the world are discovering that you don’t have to pay the high price tag associated with Champagne,” says Paula Eakin, winemaker for Domaine Ste. Michelle Sparkling Wines, the bubbles division of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
More bubbly for your buck
A handful of Washington wineries are using the same traditional méthode champenoise, meaning bubbles come from a secondary fermentation in the bottle as much more expensive bottles of bubbly. You can buy a delicious local wine for under $15, while French Champagne typically costs about twice as much.
Case in point: Domaine Ste. Michelle Sparkling Wines NV Brut, Columbia Valley ($13) was recently voted the Best American Wine at the International Wines for Oysters Competition in Washington, D.C. This blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris in méthode champenoise has delicate aromas of green apple and bright citrus notes with a persistent bubble and balanced acidity.
“Our sparkling wines are made from the same varieties of grapes used to produce Champagne,” Eakin says. “But the cost of growing grapes in Washington is less prohibitive than in France.” As with all wine grapes, the terroir, or local growing conditions, influences flavor, and there are some differences in the taste of bubbly produced in the two regions.
Climate and soil conditions have a lot to do with the flavor of Washington sparkling wines. “Eastern Washington, where our vineyards are located, is similar in latitude to the Champagne region but we have hotter summer days, the peak of growing season,” Eakin says. “We also get very cool nights. The big temperature shifts allow the grapes to ripen to full maturity and help to preserve the acidity.”
The soil in Eastern Washington tends to be more dry than the rich, moister soil of Champagne. But Eastern Washington also has access to water from rivers of the Columbia Basin and underground aquifers, allowing growers to perfectly control when the grapes receive moisture. This control helps grapes ripen without diluting their sugars, so local sparkling wines are bright and fruit-forward but not overly sweet.
Champagne, France has strict restrictions on the varieties of grapes allowed to be used to produce the bubbly elixir that made this region famous. The main varieties are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. There are small amounts of pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane and petit meslier grown in the local vineyards, and they are allowed in the mix but not allowed to be replanted.
On the other hand, Washington winemakers aren’t afraid to get creative. You’ll find everything from sparkling riesling, which has a bright acidic character; to sparkling gewürztraminer, which has sweet fruity flavors; to spicy, full-bodied sparkling syrah.
Pairing sparkling wines with food
Sparkling wine adds a festive touch to any cocktail party, meal or dessert-and-wine gathering. The biggest question is not whether or not to serve bubbles, but what kind of sparkling wine to partake in.
Dosage (pronounced “doe-sazj”), a combination of sulfur dioxide to preserve wine and cane sugar, is added to sparkling wines during the last stage of production to finesse the wines. How much dosage is added determines the level of sweetness as follows (from dry to sweet): extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, semi sec and doux.
“People often think of the sweeter wines as going well with dessert, but they also complement spicy Asian foods,” Eakin says. “Brut and extra brut pair well with chicken, seafood, salad — really any main course. And brut rosé is particularly delicious with red meat or seafood steaks like swordfish.”
When it comes to serving sparkling wine with your favorite holiday snacks or meals, though, the main rule is: serve what you and your guests enjoy.
Tasteful gift baskets
What do you get for those hard-to-shop-for special folks on your gift list? We suggest a holiday basket of local specialty food and sparkling wine pairings, including:
Yakima apples, Cougar Gold cheese or Beecher’s Flagship cheese: Goes well with any sparkling wine.
Chukar chocolate-covered Bing cherries, Chukar Nuts Over Bings: The sweet and savory are complemented by a brut sparkling wine.
Tim’s Potato Chips: The sweetness of an extra-dry sparkling wine is the perfect pairing for salty chips.
Smoked or cedar-planked salmon: Pair these Pacific Northwest seafood favorites with sparkling rosé.