My Biggest Bias: Bubbles

I have been around the wine industry for many years now and I hear a common refrain:

“Those who spend more than $25 on an American sparkling wine need to have their head examined.”

Never heard that? Well, you need to hang around me more often because I say it all the time. And I am not the only one. There are many in the wine world that apparently agree with me (I will not cite them here, but check the scores on champagne vs. American sparkling and you will see that I am right….).

Why do I feel that way? Simple. Champagne has marketed themselves very well. Quite simply, most people associate champagne with luxury, quality, opulence, and, well, “the good life.” While some might argue that it is all marketing, I would disagree. There is a reason that champagne has ascended to its rather lofty status: it is good. Very good. Outstanding, even.

For a long time, I have pontificated that American sparklers must compete not only on quality but also on price. In other words: Why buy a bottle of domestic wine unless it is both better and less expensive than its counterpart from the more prestigious region?

For me, that is the question when it comes to domestic sparkling wines.

Last summer, I attended a sparkling wine tasting seminar at Argyle Winery with some of the best sparkling wine producers in Oregon, to sample through some of the best domestic bubbles the region has to offer, and I forced myself to keep an open mind.

Not a bad way to start a Thursday morning.

In attendance were Tony Soter (Soter Vineyards), David Adelsheim (Adelsheim Vineyard), Nate Klostermann (Argyle Winery), and Rollin Soles (ROCO Winery). Just moments into the tasting, I felt as though Rollin (founder and longtime winemaker at Argyle) were reading my mind when he stated:

“There is a glass ceiling when it comes to American sparkling wine that writers refuse to rate US sparkling wines higher than champagne.”

Uh oh. This could get ugly.

According to David Adelsheim, though, sparkling wine production in Oregon currently finds itself in a bit of a “sweet spot” for several reasons, and he was confident that opinions were poised to shift.

First, place matters. Sparkling wine is made all over the world, but in many areas, it is simply too warm. In Carneros, for example, the grapes are picked shortly after going through verasion—when the grapes change color. This is necessary in order to preserve the high levels of acidity that is crucial in sparkling wine production, but it severely limits the development of flavors that elevate wines from mediocre to spectacular.

Second, viticulture has greatly improved and growers know what clones to plant and how to better cultivate them. Global warming has also helped, as the grape crop has become more consistent and predictable (at least for now).

And third, the rise in popularity of grower champagne (most champagne is produced with purchased grapes, but many believe that the best champagne comes from those who grow their own grapes), has emboldened more growers and producers in Oregon to “get into the game.”

Before me were eight wines from four producers, each with a suggested retail well north of $50, and once again I was confronted with my bias: Why spend, say $65, on an Oregon sparkler when I could get a vintage champagne for that price?

First were two wines from Napa legend, but Oregon native, Tony Soter. Soter only makes one sparkler, a rosé made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from his Mineral Springs Vineyard.

2011 Soter Brut Rosé Mineral Springs: Retail $65. 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay. Pale salmon. Completely dry brilliant bubbles and acidity. Vinous and serious as a wine. Brilliant. 91-93 Points.

2012 Soter Brut Rosé Mineral Springs: Retail $65 More pink than orange. Similar style to the ‘11 but clearly more fruit here. While the first was clearly made for food. This is more buoyant and juicy. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.

The next two wines came from Adelsheim Vineyard, and Dave intimated that “even as late as 2010 sparkling wine did not seem to make sense [to produce for Adelsheim].” They did not know what clones to use and did not understand how to make a blend without the bubbles and without the aging (sparkling wines, generally are blended as still wines, then the bubbles are introduced via a second fermentation, and then aged on the lees to add complexity). And there was the cost—sparkling wine is perhaps the most expensive wine to produce (particularly those produced in the same manner as champagne).

Initially, he was looking to do a joint venture with a grower in Champagne, but eventually forged ahead alone, and the results thus far are impressive. The two wines he brought were disgorged only for the tasting and will not be available for another year or so.

2014 Adelsheim Vineyard Blanc de Blanc: Retail ??? 100% Chardonnay. Great fruit and bracing acidity. This clearly needs more time on the lees but the brilliance of the fruit is impressive. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.

2014 Adelsheim Vineyard Rosé: Retail ??? Pale salmon. Better fruit here as the Pinot really comes through (a good thing for me). Wow. Lovely. With more lees time? Look out. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.

There is not much I can say about Rollin Soles that has not already been said—he is basically the father of Oregon sparkling wine. He had many memorable quotes during the tasting, but this was perhaps my favorite since I think it applies to both production and consumption:

“Once you start in sparkling wine, don’t stop. It’s hard and expensive, but once you get over the learning curve it is worth it.” 

2013 Rocco RMS: Retail $65. 67% Pinot, 33% Chardonnay. 520 cases. Crazy fruit with mango notes. Wonderful balance and a hint of creaminess. Rich and full Whoa. 93-95 Points.

Last was the host of the tasting and Oregon sparkling wine stalwart, Argyle. I can say without any hesitation that I have consumed more Argyle than any other sparkling wine producer. The prices of their entry-level wines have crept up recently, but they remain one of the best values in American bubbles.

2012 Argyle Brut: Retail $30. 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir. Argyle sets the standard for Oregon sparkling and this is why. Very nice. 88-90 Points.

2005 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut: Retail $75. 65% Pinot Noir. Creamier and richer due to the additional seven years on the lees, this is gangbusters. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

Right before we left, Nate pulled out this older bottle, the second vintage ever produced, and made, of course, by Rollin.

1996 Argyle Brut: Retail ??? Just disgorged the day before. Barrel fermented. Blanc de Blanc. A bit of funk on the nose, but fresh as a daisy. Really amazing that this is 20 years old. Whoa. 94-96 Points.

In the end, my paradigm certainly had shifted—these wines would more than hold their own in a showdown with my beloved Champagne. There is no doubt. The question, though, is am I willing to pay $65-75 for an Oregon sparkler?

Maybe.

I think I need to do more research first….

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Chardonnay, Oregon, Pinot Noir, Sparkling Wine, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to My Biggest Bias: Bubbles

  1. I certainly dig American sparkling wine. The Roederer L’Ermitage and Iron Horse are top of mind favorites. At a high quality level the difference between Champagne and American bubbly is very subtle (I think across the board there tends to be more minerality in Champagne, but there are certainly exceptions). I’ve struggled myself with the Champagne “cachet” vis-a-vis the prices for comparable American sparkling. Haven’t had much Oregon (hoping that will change when I visit in August) but the California sparkling producers have definitely upped their game. Decisions, decisions…Cheers my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great experience! I agree that the Argyle is a great sparkler for the money and will keep an eye out for the others; like you, if I am going to spend $40 and up I tend to go French.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We lived in Madrid for 17 years until recently and I would buy a good reserva Cava weekly for us to enjoy on the weekend for under 15 to 20 Euro depending on the vinyard. I would say that compared to Champagne at twice the price it tasted great. Prior to that when we lived in Texas we used to drink Korbel and that certainly stacked up against the best of the Cavas. Very interesting post thank you. Sally

    Liked by 1 person

  4. amybsherman says:

    I’m a big fan of grower producer Champagne in the $40 range. But I also like Domaine Carneros Brut Rose Cuvee de la Pompadour which is north of $30. Would love to see your top picks under $25!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blogger Daily – 23rd March 2017 – New Series, Book People, The Drunken Cyclist and Joan Frankham | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  6. Jill Barth says:

    I’m so friendly with so many wines, I fear I lost any sense of a discriminating nature. It all looks wonderful, and there is room for all the bubbles at my house!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s great to see Oregon producing such fantastic sparklers!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this! I too have lots of wine biases, but the west coast has been shattering them for me lately too!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Tom Riley says:

    Love the use of the Soles quote: “Once you start in sparkling wine, don’t stop. It’s hard and expensive, but once you get over the learning curve it is worth it.” Such great justification to dig constantly deeper into the bubbles. I don’t think I’ve ever had an Argyle sparkler. Time to change that. Thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. SAHMmelier says:

    Love, love, love RMS. He’s such a great winemaker and person.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. ComputerBook says:

    It is tough to get past those entrenched biases, but baby steps, right? Yeah, I definitely think that American sparkling is catching (has caught?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I went on a ‘sparkling wine’ tasting session in South Africa at J.C. La roux and I instantly fell i love with it! If you ever go to South Africa you have to try the wine route! Stunning scenery, cheap tastings and the drinks are amazing! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    If you have time, please check out my latest post about Brick &Liquor Cocktail bar – https://tootinghustle.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/brick-and-liquor-in-review/ and let me know what you think!

    Happy blogging! x

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Computer says:

    It really was one of the best sparkling wine tastings I have had recently. Thank you for sharing 🙂
    If you have time, please check out my latest post about Brick &Liquor Cocktail bar – <a href="https://tootinghustle.

    Liked by 1 person

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