Tasting Notes: Washington Sparkling Wine
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Chad Diltz was just 25 when he started Walla Walla–based Tru Cellars in 2005 after years of passionate self-study, trying to decipher what made a particular champagne or other sparkling wine special, and how wineries developed their “house style” by blending fruit from different vineyards and vintages, barrels and yeasts. His interest in bubbly wines began at an even younger age. “I remember being 10 years old and being fascinated by seeing a glass of champagne being poured on New Year’s Eve,” he says. “It left a big impression.”
His tiny winery is one of the few Washington wineries that produces sparkling wines (it boasts of being the state’s “first true sparkling winery”). Given the growth of Washington’s wine industry, why so few sparkling wines? It’s partly because this style of wine requires a sometimes expensive, always time-intensive process, and perhaps it’s partly because these wines traditionally are made with Pinot Noir grapes—grown more commonly in Oregon than Washington.
One pioneer, Mountain Dome winery in Spokane, has been making bubbles since the 1980s, and has developed a strong following for its wines, which are made in the méthode Champenoise—the same way Champagne producers in France have been creating their world-class wines for centuries.
One of the many differences between making still wine and sparkling wine is that the grapes for sparkling wine are picked when they are less ripe, resulting in a lower sugar content than grapes for most still wines. This more acidic “base wine” is put through primary fermentation in which yeast is added and the juice becomes wine. The wine is often aged in barrels as well and then put into bottles with the addition of more yeast and sugar—food for the yeast to convert to alcohol and bubbles of carbon dioxide. Aging takes from three to seven years, and is followed by a complicated process that involves turning the bottles a little each day to allow yeast to gather in the neck of the bottle and form a plug; freezing that liquid in the neck via a chemical bath of glycol; removing the bottle’s crown cap to allow the yeast plug to be pushed out by the bubbles in the bottle; and finally, adding a bit more wine before corking the bottle to complete the process.
Diltz isn’t daunted by the long process. For his sparkling wines, he searched out grapes from both sides of the Columbia River Gorge: Pinot Noir from the Wyeast Vineyard in Hood River, located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River (about 550 feet in elevation), and Chardonnay from the Celilo Vineyard on the Washington side of the river (as high as 2,000 feet in elevation). These very different vineyards produce grapes with great fruit flavors and excellent acidity. Diltz ages the wine in French oak barrels; for his upcoming wines, he is excited about obtaining some barrels from the cooper who makes barrels for the Krug winery in Champagne, France, hoping that the wine will absorb some of the flavors similar to those famous wines.
While the process required for creating sparkling wines may keep the offerings small in Washington, the winemakers who have chosen to make these wines here are passionate about them. For lovers of these festive wines, that’s something to celebrate.
Shannon's Wine Picks
Tru Cellars Blanc de Blanc Méthode Champenoise NV ($40)
Fresh apple and bread dough on the nose give way to an earthy palate of spiced apple and a bit of creaminess. Pairs with: Roasted game hen or turkey with pan juices.
Pacific Rim White Flowers Sparkling Riesling NV ($14.99)
This lovely, dry, sparkling Riesling has breezy floral aromas, fresh acidity and a clean finish that makes it a g