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.
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?
I think I need to do more research first….