Sparkling wines are enjoyed in celebration of events throughout the calendar year, but never so much as to welcome the new year. “Champagne toasts” will be raised at midnight Saturday throughout Central Oregon — even though relatively few glasses will actually contain champagne.
To be clear: Champagne is a sparkling wine, but unless it was produced in the Champagne region of northeastern France, is cannot properly be called a champagne. In many countries, and in some American states including Oregon, it is illegal to label any other sparkling wine as “champagne.” Federal regulations allow the term to appear on labels in use before 2006, and then only if the term appears next to the actual place of origin.
The Korbel winery has been producing its “California champagne” in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley since 1892. Other noted U.S. champagne houses in California, boosted by French investment, include Domaine Chandon (owned by Moet et Chandon), the Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer) and Domaine Carneros (Taittinger).
Each of these wineries employs the traditional “methode champagnoise,” which calls for secondary fermentation of the wine induced by the addition of yeast and sugar. The carbon dioxide produced during supplemental aging of 18 months or longer creates the effervescence released when the bottle is uncorked.
Sparkling wine was first created by French Benedictine monks in the 16th century. Modern rules of production specify that it must be made from white chardonnay grapes or from pinot noir or pinot Meunier, both dark-skinned “red” grapes. (The latter lend little of their color to the champagne juice, as there is no skin contact during fermentation.) Many sparkling wines, including rosés, are made from a blend of these grapes, although any wine labeled “blanc de blanc” is 100 percent chardonnay.
In Oregon, no one has been producing sparkling wines longer than Dundee’s Argyle Winery. Rollin Soles started the company as Grower First in 1987, pioneering the “methode champagnoise” in this state. At Argyle’s beautiful new Tasting House on Highway 99 West, I took the opportunity to sample a “pop flight” of several of its vintage sparkling wines.
I started with the 2012 Argyle Blanc de Blancs ($50), its chardonnay grapes harvested from the Knudsen Vineyard, largest and oldest (planted in 1990) in the Dundee Hills AVA. In this bubbly, aged in neutral oak, I distinguished light citrus flavors and a certain nutty quality.
Its counterpart, the 2012 Argyle Spirit Hill Blanc de Blancs ($50), had its Dijon Clone chardonnay grapes sourced from the Spirit Hill Vineyard, planted in 2008 in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA northwest of Salem. This was the smoothest sparkling of those I sampled, and the creamiest on my palate.
The blush-colored 2012 Argyle Brut Rosé ($50) was made with a Willamette Valley AVA blend of 75 percent pinot noir grapes, 15 percent pinot Meunier and 10 percent chardonnay. Its “brut” designation guaranteed that it would be a dry wine, with less than 0.5 percent residual sugar. This sparkling had a distinct minerality assuaged by suggestions of rose petal and anise.
More moderately priced is the 2013 Argyle Vintage Brut ($28), a blend of 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent chardonnay grapes. Bottle-fermented and released in small batches, it has the rich flavor of honeyed peach balanced by acidity and a mineral edge. It’s a wonderful, and modestly priced, bubbly for welcoming 2017.
Argyle is not the only Oregon winery that offers sparkling varietals. Another in the northern Willamette Valley is Kramer Vineyards of Gaston, producing not one, but four, sparkling wines. Two of Kramer’s sparklings are somewhat traditional. A 2014 Brut ($30) — made with 65 percent chardonnay grapes, 20 percent pinot noir and 15 percent pinot Meunier — has notes of citrus and stone fruit, with a crisp finish. The 2015 Celebrate Rosé of Pinot Noir ($26) was produced from a Gamay Beaujolais clone. Kramer’s 2015 Celebrate Pinot Gris ($26) was whole-cluster pressed before carbonation, while its 2015 Celebrate Muller-Thurgau ($22) is a sweeter bubbly with tropical fruit tones and 1.9 percent residual sugar, giving it a “demi-sec” rating.
Rallison Cellars on Parrett Mountain, near Sherwood, makes single-vineyard sparkling wines in a Burgundian style. It is presently offering a Blanc de Noirs ($45), made with 100 percent pinot noir grapes; a Blanc de Blancs ($100), made with 100 percent chardonnay; and a Brut ($45) with both chardonnay and pinot noir.
St. Josef’s Winery in Canby makes three sparkling wines under its “Lilli” Label: a chardonnay, a riesling and a syrah. Rather than methode champagnoise, they are made by the Italian charmat method — also employed in Prosecco wines — by which the wine is fermented and aged in steel tanks, together with sugar and yeast, and naturally carbonated.
Elsewhere in Oregon, you can find brut rose of pinot noir at Anne Amie of Carlton, Lundeen of McMinnville, Maysara of McMinnville, Ponzi of Sherwood, Raptor Ridge of Newberg, Sokol Blosser of Dayton and Soter of Carlton. Sparkling wines are also made from chardonnay at R. Stuart & Co. (McMinnville), pinot blanc at Apolloni (Forest Grove) and riesling at Coeur de Terre (McMinnville).
Season Cellars (Roseburg) has an off-dry sparkler called Transparency that blends Muller-Thurgau, riesling and early muscat grapes, while Sokol Blosser has a white sparkling blend in its Evolution line. Valhalla Winery (formerly Domaine Meriwether), west of Eugene in Veneta, offers several sparkling wines in the brut cuvée style.
—John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com .