Whether in a festive or celebratory mood or simply looking for a sipper to help relax you on a warm summer afternoon, sparkling wines have become a beverage for all seasons.
Across Pennsylvania, there are a growing number of producers perfecting several styles of sparkling wine, known in general for its lightness, its low alcohol, and most notably for its never-ending stream of bubbles. Not that the practice of making sparkling is new across the state; several wineries were offering sparkling wine for sale as far back as the 1970s.
Sparkling Wine Becomes a Staple
But what’s most commonly known as Champagne (to be legally correct, it should only be called that if it comes from the Champagne region of France) has found an increasing number of fans, both nationally and internationally. Per a national story published in January on six potential wine trends to watch in 2022, the movement of sparkling wine from something attached to a holiday or celebration to an everyday staple is expected to continue. The story noted that according to off-premises sales data from Nielsen, the sparkling wine category expanded by more than 13 percent among American drinkers over the past two years.
Méthode Champenoise, Charmat Method, and Beyond
Perhaps the most famous way to make sparkling wine is the méthode champenoise, in which the wine undergoes a secondary “carbonating” fermentation after it’s bottled. The Charmat method is similar, but the secondary fermentation takes place in large stainless-steel tanks rather than in the bottle.
A third technique is forced carbonation, in which carbon dioxide gas (i.e. the bubbles) is injected directly into the wine under pressure. Still another option is pétillant-natural wines, or pét-nat, which is a French term that roughly translates to “naturally sparkling.” The wines are simply bottled before primary fermentation completes, so bubbles are already present. The oldest method of making sparkling wine, it produces a cloudier, more rustic product that tends to make use of a wider variety of grapes.
It All Starts in The Vineyard
Of course, making great sparkling requires more than expertise in the cellar. Like all great wines, the process begins in the vineyard with special attention given to where the grapes are planted and when they are picked.
The soils and climate in many wine-growing areas of PA can yield grapes with higher acidity and brighter flavors. Grapes that have higher acidity are exactly what’s needed to make compelling sparkling wine, so more wineries over the next few years could leverage artisanal sparkling production to raise their profiles and reputations.
Pennsylvania winemakers have been experimenting, particularly over the past decade, on the best places in their vineyard for vines that will produce grapes for sparkling. Areas with cooler soils tend to slow the ripening process, which is key to the moderate sugar production that growers are seeking. Some grape clones, or variations of the same grape, naturally produce lower-alcohol grapes, again ideal for sparkling wine production. Finally, these grapes usually are picked earlier in harvest, while the sugar level in the grape is low and the acid is still high.
Sparkling Wine Takes Time & Attention
The amount of time, labor, and (specialized) expertise is very different for a sparkling wine than it is with a still wine. A still Chardonnay could be harvested, fermented, filtered, fined, bottled, and labeled within three to six months of the harvest date. A sparkling Chardonnay, on the other hand, can undergo primary fermentation, fining, and filtering, all before bottling to then undergo a second, or secondary, fermentation. Add in several more months as the bottles are stored upside down and rotated slightly, allowing gravity to push the sediment that’s created toward the cork and produce the clear beverage that consumers are used to seeing and drinking. A single bottle of sparkling can be touched as many as 100 times from bottling (tirage) to labeling.
Traditional Practices vs. New World Experimentation
While some wine regions are married to historical regulations and practices, that’s not the case in Pennsylvania or elsewhere across the country or other New World wine regions. Instead, winemakers can experiment and determine what is best for the wine based on the vineyard site, the processing facility, and what is driving the consumer’s interests in the tasting room.
Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir are the varieties historically accepted and grown for the traditional methode champenoise method in Champagne. Chardonnay is a variety that grows well across Pennsylvania and throughout the world. It’s a variety that takes on characteristics representing the terroir of the area and allows for versatility in the winery.
Pennsylvania’s Answer to the Call for More Bubbles
But the aforementioned experimentation also involved the types of grapes that Pennsylvania winemakers and others are turning into sparkling, particularly as the popularity of pét-nat grows. On the white side, that includes Grüner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Riesling, Albarino, Cayuga and Moscato. Among the reds, in addition to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, are Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc.
Sparklings and pet-nats tend toward dry and off-dry, although can extend further on the sweetness spectrum.
Bottom line, as their popularity grows, what could simply be called bubblies are turning every day into a holiday for wine drinkers, whether it’s a weekend during the summer or a Monday or Tuesday night with dinner. Pennsylvania winemakers, seeing that trend, are responding with more offerings to meet that demand.