A recent story in The Guardian sounded a double alarm for anyone hoping to celebrate the holidays with a bottle or two of Champagne.
According to this article the company that owns some of the most prestigious and wildly popular Champagne brands – Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Dom Pérignon among them – has announced that they are running out of stock. Putting a positive spin on the news, they attribute the shortage to big spending by well-heeled consumers on a variety of luxury goods. We are heading, they believe, into a new “Roaring ’20’s” era in which decadence and luxury go hand in hand.
Coming out of the Covid years is another part of this trend. Who among us does not feel like celebrating? But if you, like me, have fallen a bit short of being among those hundreds of thousands of ultra-high net worth individuals (defined by Credit Suisse as holding $50+ million in assets) you may find that bottle of Dom ($265) or Krug ($265) or Cristal ($350) or even good old reliable Clicquot ($98) is a bit out of reach.
What to do?
Of course there are many fizzy options at much lower prices. Prosecco remains popular, as does Spanish cava. But the first defining difference that separates most of the cheap fizz from the real deal is the term ‘méthode champenoise’. Sparkling wines that do not have that phrase on the label have been made by much simpler and cheaper practices, principally charmat, which simply injects CO2 into the still wine. Wines that do adhere to the Champagne method have been re-fermented in the bottle (among other requirements). Some very good ‘méthode champenoise’ wines can be made from other grapes such as Riesling, but they are not exact substitutes for the real thing.
Which is the second defining difference – the composition of the blend. Though the French laws permit some obscure grapes such as Petit Meslier, Arbanne and Fromenteau to be grown and made in the Champagne region, the vast majority of Champagne that reaches this country is made from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir.
So where in the U.S. can you find sparkling wines made that come very close to Champagne by employing the ‘méthode champenoise’ and using only those three Champagne grapes? And that go a step further by maintaining reserves so that basic non-vintage brut wines are built upon multiple harvests, while single vintage wines are made only in the best years and generally given extra time on the lees prior to being disgorged?
California and Oregon are the places that qualify best in my experience, though many if not most California sparkling wines fight to avoid excess fruitiness and over-ripe base wines. Which leads me to the Willamette Valley.
On the face of it, Oregon sparkling wine is a no-brainer. Cool climate grapes, with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are the meat and potatoes of Willamette Valley viticulture. Soils, though not Kimmeridgian chalk, do have some spots where ancient sea beds have risen to the surface. And one pioneering winery – Argyle – has been turning out highly-regarded bubbly for the past 35 years.
Argyle began as a partnership between grower/vintner Cal Knudsen and Australia’s Brian Croser. They went all-in with 15,000 cases the first year. Winemaker Rollin Soles set the standard immediately by using wild yeasts obtained from French Champagne house Bollinger. For at least a decade no sparkling wines from the Pacific Northwest could match Argyle’s quality. That changed with the arrival of Tony Soter, who’d earned a reputation for excellence with his California brand, Etude.
Carefully-selected clones and low crop levels are paramount. Soter’s Brut Rosé, first produced in 1997 with purchased grapes, was his response to “too much forgettable [domestic] fizz in the market, which doesn’t leave you with any memory of flavor. Our ambition is to make a wine that’s serious, maybe a little bold by world standards.”
“The challenge in California,” he explained to me a few years ago, “is the grapes get too sweet before they are perfectly ripe, driven by warm temps and sunshine. Here in Oregon the whole cycle is a month later, so there’s a more subtle approach to maturity here that translates into more flavor at a given sugar. So in California you get a more lush flavor that’s boozy – it tends to be a little hot, and sometimes the delicacy and typicity is compromised.”
Rollin Soles left Argyle over a decade ago to focus on sparkling and still wines at his Roco winery. He places great importance on the details of dosage trials. “There’s nothing more subtle, elegant and challenging than a dosage trial” he insists, adding “the méthode champenoise process is far more complex and challenging than simply making still wines.”
The cost of equipment and the long timelines between picking the grapes and finally releasing the sparkling wines held Oregon’s production in check until a decade ago when Andrew Davis founded the Radiant Sparkling Wine Company. He opened in 2013 after making wines with Soles at Argyle for a half dozen vintages. The goal was to provide both the expertise and the specialized equipment required for the efficient production of sparkling wines. “I’d seen the potential through Argyle,” Davis explained in a 2016 interview, “so why were there not more people doing it?” He concluded it was in large part a lack of the physical equipment specific to sparkling wine production. “It takes up a large footprint, it’s expensive and very technical. I know a lot of people were daunted – it’s one thing if you have a barrel of Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir that goes reductive or has a stuck fermentation; you can fix it. But thousands of individual bottles over multiple vintages are a different story.”
There are many dozens of Willamette Valley wineries making méthode champenoise wines now, most limited to a couple hundred cases. Domaine Serene is one of the few that has built a dedicated sparkling wine facility on the grounds of their Dundee Hills estate, and recently released a 2014 Récolte Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc to expand a lineup that already includes a brut, a brut rosé and a demi-sec.
As good as these Oregon sparklers are – and I’ve tasted most of them over the years – they are not inexpensive. Or at least they weren’t until prices for French Champagne went through the roof. Now a lot of them are starting to look like bargains.
Here are my favorites from tastings I’ve done this year. Except as noted, these are still available for purchase online.
Recommended Oregon Sparklers
Along with Pinot Noir the cuvée includes 20% Pinot Meunier, both sourced from the Spirit Hill vineyard. Argyle makes as many as a dozen different sparkling wines in a given year and has been the leader in Oregon bubbly since it was founded 35 years ago. This has a fine bead, sharp acids, a light hint of spice and plenty of crisp green apple flesh and skin. The balance is spot on, and it’s a fine value among many more expensive Oregon offerings. 3983 cases; 12.5%; $30 (Willamette Valley)
Argyle’s long history allows the winery to age some wines en tirage for up to a decade prior to disgorgement. This is from a very cool year, which gave these grapes (60% Pinot Noir/40% Chardonnay) extra hang time. It’s delicate and lightly honeyed, with hints of blonde raisins, toasted hazelnuts and lemon meringue. This is the sort of wine that may show best at room temperature rather than chilled in an ice bucket. 1530 cases; 12.5%; $85 (Willamette Valley)
Cho 2017 Laurel Vineyard Brut Rosé
Sourced from a high elevation vineyard in this new AVA, this is a deliciously flavorful wine with touches of raspberry, cream and vanilla. The flavors are already showing excellent depth and persistence, suggesting that this wine will continue to evolve and perhaps even improve. It was just honored as a Top 100 wine of the year on the Wine Enthusiast website. I featured it on this website some months ago; now it is sold out. 40 cases; 12.5%; $65 (Laurelwood District)
Crémant, as Divio’s Bruno Corneaux notes on the back label, is the méthode champenoise technique used to produce sparkling wine in regions outside of Champagne. Here the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were sourced from the Hyland Vineyard, which he manages. This might also be labeled Brut Rosé as it is a pale rose color. The wine has a fine bead, constrained fruit flavors that touch on strawberry, rhubarb and watermelon, good length and a clean, crisply refreshing finish. 100 cases; 12.8%; $70 (Willamette Valley)
Reflecting the evolving sophistication of Willamette Valley méthode champenoise sparklers, this vintage dated blend includes 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier from the winery’s La Belle Promenade vineyard. The flavors are neatly meshed, lightly toasty, with green apple and fresh lemon fruit flavors holding down the core. It’s clean and clear and should evolve well for a decade or longer. 374 cases; 12.5%; $65 (Chehalem Mountains)
Left Coast 2015 Estate Blanc de Noir
This all Wadenswil clone Pinot Noir, method champenoise wine has some years under its cork but remains expressively fresh and vibrant. Spicy apple and Asian pear fruit shines brightly, along with zesty acids. It’s the sort of clean, brisk bubbly that Oregon does especially well. Drink now and over the next decade or longer. Not available online. 80 cases; 12.5%; $55 (Van Duzer Corridor)
This single vineyard, vintage-designated all-Chardonnay méthode champenoise wine has a fine bead and displays the elegance of a true blanc de blancs style of Champagne. Crisp, sculpted flavors of green apple, apple skin, jicama, white melon, lemon pith and rind bring layers of subtle detail. Drink from now and through the mid-2030s. 315 cases; 12.6%; $65 (Willamette Valley)
The RMS cuvée brings exceptional ripe fruit to bear in a classy sparkling wine done in the classic Champagne method. It’s 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay with deep and delicious flavors that combine apple pie, pear tart, minerally acids and nuances too subtle to name. The depth, penetration and all out length will have you refilling your glass before you have finished swallowing the first sip. 200 cases; 12.5%; $65 (Willamette Valley)
This is 100% Pinot Noir from the practiced hand of Rollin Soles, who kicked off Oregon’s sparkling wine industry at Argyle some 35 years ago. The flavors center around strawberry and cherry, with a yeasty base that adds hints of bread dough and pastry. The flavors linger and extend through the finish, which portends further development with some years in the bottle. 429 cases; 12.5%; $65 (Willamette Valley)
This vintage-dated wine spent almost six years on the lees before being disgorged in December 2021. It’s spicy and aromatic, with a wintergreen note piercing through the citrus fruit. With a bit of breathing time the flavors expand and a broader fruit palate emerges. It remains brilliantly fresh, crisply defined, elegant and dense with a long life ahead. Drink now to 2035. 177 cases; 12.8%; $100 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Winemaker Chris Fladwood and grower/owner Tony Soter have knocked it out of the park once again with this stunning vintage rosé. Pretty to look at, lovely to taste, it’s bursting with strawberry and cherry highlights. Roughly four fifths Pinot Noir and one fifth Chardonnay, it was fermented in a mix of oak and (mostly) stainless and aged four years on the lees prior to disgorgement this past May. It’s harmonious and inviting, with just the right touch of fruit in an elegant style. 1100 cases; 12.8%; $72 (Yamhill-Carlton)
Winter’s Hill 2018 Sparkling Wine
The relatively high alcohol for a sparkling wine speaks to the ripeness of the grapes and the overall heat of the vintage. It makes for a more full and round palate, with lush citrus and apple flavors that hint at more tropical fruits. The blend is 50/50 estate grown Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. It’s fresh and tangy, and I’d recommend drinking this bottle over the next five years. 40 cases; 13.5%; $55 (Dundee Hills)
NOTE: The wines I recommend have been tasted over many hours and days in peer groups and are selected for excellence. I have chosen to eliminate numerical scores from this website. Only recommended wines are shown, no negative reviews. My notes are posted immediately with links to the winery website, so you may purchase them directly from the producer before they are sold out. I take no commission, accept no advertising, and charge no fees for wines reviewed.