Feature Coverage

Report #53: American Sparkling Wine

“North American sparkling wine has come of age. Many skilled winemakers are producing elegant sparkling wines inspired by the rich fruit of the New World. These wines are not easy to make. They require extensive experience on the part of the winemaker, who must make numerous critical decisions that affect the quality of the final product. In this, our 53rd report, we examine the state of North American sparkling wine and evaluate the best sparkling wines made today in such disparate locations as New York’s Finger Lakes, Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, New Mexico’s 4300’ high mountain plateau, Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills, Sonoma’s Green Valley, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Virginia’s Monticello, and Canada’s Nova Scotia. American sparkling wine was first made in Ohio but only garnered international fame when the sparkling wines of Northern California like Eclipse California and Korbel hit the market in the second half of the 19th century. Today, 90 percent of sparkling wine is made in California, but producers in several other states of the Union also make premium sparklers. About 25 of these wineries have a principal focus on sparkling wine. This report focuses on the American sparkling wine story — how it came to be, who were the pioneers, how it is made, and who are the key producers today. To our knowledge, this is the first comprehensive look at American sparkling wine, and for that reason we provide detailed producer profiles and reviews of their sparkling wine portfolios. Readers with particular interest in how sparkling wine and Champagne are made should consult one of our previous five reports on the topic, especially Report # 34 Champagne Revisited. The report includes only those wineries and wines made using the methode champenoise.

“There are many pioneers of American sparkling wine, foremost among them being Nicholas Longworth, who made America’s first sparkling wine from the Catawba grape grown in Ohio. But Arpad Haraszthys is the father of modern sparkling wine made from Champagne varieties using the methode champenoise. Many others have followed in his shoes, most notably the Korbel brothers, Jack Davies at Schramsberg, and Eileen Crane, who helped develop Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros in the Napa Valley. A recent band of sparkling wine pioneers are working in the most marginal growing areas. While American sparkling wine was first made from American French hybrids, the vitis vinifera varieties of Champagne almost completely dominate the market today. A few Midwest wineries use newly improved hybrid strains, and a few wineries make sparkling wines from Rhone and German varieties, but they are the exceptions. Foreign winemakers and investors have played an especially important role in the development of American sparkling wine. German immigrants had an important role early on both in California and New York. French winemakers like Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Piper, Mumm, Deutz, and Roederer were especially influential during the sparkling boom of the 1970s and 1980s in California. Winemakers with Champagne-making experience like Michel Salgues, Claude Thibaut, Arnaud Weyrich, and Ludovic Dervin still play a prominent role.

“The demand for all sparkling wine in the US market continues to grow, increasing by 70 percent between 2000 and 2014, significantly higher than the growth (40%) in still table wine over the same period. The US produced share of sparkling wine has slipped a bit, increasing 52 percent between 2000 and 2014, while foreign produced sparkling wine increased 123 percent over the same period. Much of the foreign growth was inexpensive, bulk processed Prosecco. The future of American sparkling wine is bright. Stylistically, it shows rich New World fruit and a greater expression of varietal character than its French counterpart, and the top cuvées are elegant, refined, and superbly balanced.”

“Jacob Schram, a native of Pfeddersheim Germany, emigrated to New York in 1842 and twenty years later found himself in the Napa Valley, owner of a densely forested slope on Diamond Mountain near Calistoga. He planted 50 acres of vineyards and shipped his wines nationwide. After many changes of ownership, Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the run down winery in 1965 with the goal of making great American sparkling wine. They accomplished many firsts, including the first commercial use of Chardonnay in American sparkling wine. Son Hugh Davies, a UC Davis grad, worked at Möet Chandon in Epernay, Petaluma Winery in Australia, and Mumm Napa Valley before joining the winery in 1996; today he is the lead winemaker and CEO.  Their 1969 Blanc de Blancs was served to President Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai at 1972’s famed “Toast to Peace” dinner in Beijing. Schramsberg sources fruit for its sparklers from 109 different vineyard blocks in Napa, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties. Over 200 different lots of base wine are blended into Schramberg’s portfolio of sparkling wines.  Partially fermenting in oak and partial malo conversion further contribute to the complexity of the Schramsberg sparkers. Schramsberg follows no-till farming practices and is certified under the Napa Green Winery program. Their sparkling wines have a well-deserved reputation as being among the very best in America.”

Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler, November/December 2015
Report #53: American Sparkling Wine