What gives these wines their sparkle?: Uncork the Forks

Our Lenn Thompson led Roanoke Vineyards wine club members through a tasting of several sparkling wines, including those made in the pétilliant naturel style. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Our Lenn Thompson led Roanoke Vineyards wine club members through a tasting of several sparkling wines, including those made in the pétilliant naturel style. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Last weekend, as part of a series of “Locations” wine salons I’ve been leading at Roanoke Vineyard every couple of months, I guided 34 of the winery’s wine club members and friends through a tasting of eight sparkling wines. All but one was from New York, the outlier being an albariño pét-nat from Mid-Atlantic newcomer Old Westminster Winery in Maryland. These tastings typically focus on a single region-grape combination, like Finger Lakes riesling, or a variety across multiple regions, like when we explored cabernet franc made across New York.

This time, we did something a little different. Instead of focusing on a region or even an individual grape, we took a look at some of the myriad styles of sparkling wine being made.

Many regions on the East Coast are either searching for or have already found what they consider to be their signature grape. Here, many think it’s merlot. In the Finger Lakes, it’s almost certainly riesling. And in Virginia, they seem to be trumpeting viognier as the grape, for example.

But while that’s going on, there’s a style of wine that can be made, and made well, consistently, all over the Eastern seaboard: sparkling wine.

Because the grapes are picked earlier than those for still wines, there’s less risk of early frosts, and a cool season doesn’t mean under-ripe wines. And because sparkling wine can be made in a variety of ways from just about any grape you can grow, the possibilities are endless.

There are four main ways to make sparkling wine, three of which we tasted Saturday night.

First and best known is méthode champenoise, or the Champagne method. In this approach the base wine is fermented completely, then some sugar and yeast are added to the bottle — a practice called dosage. That sugar is converted by the yeast into additional alcohol and CO2, which creates the carbonation. That process is known as secondary fermentation.

We tasted Wölffer Estate Vineyards 2013 Cool as Well Blanc de Blanc and Château Frank Célèbre Sparkling Riesling from this category.

There’s also pét-nat, which is short for pétillant-naturale and also known as méthode ancestrale. It’s an ancient style that is quite trendy right now. Basically, you bottle the wine before its primary fermentation is complete, so as it continues to ferment, it becomes fizzy. These wines can be a little unpredictable, and they change over time. When one is first released, it can still be a bit sweet and not all that carbonated. But a year or two later, the same wine might be bone-dry and very fizzy.

The majority of what we tasted were examples of this style. In addition to the albariño, I poured Red Tail Ridge Vineyards 2015 Riesling Pét Nat and a trio of pét-nats from Channing Daughters Winery. These included winemaker Christopher Tracy’s 100 percent Tocai Friulano version; one of his two pink ones, made from cabernet franc and refosco; and then his rosso, which is mostly petit verdot with refosco, merlot, cabernet franc and syrah as well.

For a third way, the Charmat method, the same second fermentation as Champagne method, is done in large tanks, which is a bit less elegant but also far cheaper. Prosecco is made this way, and that’s one reason prosecco tends to be more affordable than traditionally made sparkling wine.

The last way to make sparkling wine is for a finished wine to be put into a large, pressurized tank where CO2 is infused into it, not unlike soda is carbonated before going into a can or bottle. Southold Farm & Cellar 2015 Chasing Moonlight, made with 100 percent Lagrein, was our example of this style.

The takeaways for me and for the attendees, I think, were simple. We all need to be drinking more sparkling wine — and there are some great local options.

The wines I liked best were the Red Tail Ridge, the Lagrein and all three of the Channing Daughters wines. Some of my wine writer friends think I’m a bit too into pét-nats these days, but the Channing Daughters examples are deftly balanced, low-alcohol and the kind of wines I just love having around the house to pop open with whatever I’m eating.

These aren’t wines to contemplate; they are wines for drinking. Check them out before they’re gone — though fortunately, Tracy made more this year than he has in the past.

Lenn Thompson