With Independence Day around the proverbial corner, I thought it appropriate to take a look at one of my favorite categories of American wine: the bubbly.
The history of sparkling wine in the United States dates to the 1880s when the Korbel brothers, immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic, set up shop in California’s Russian River Valley. And while much has changed in the wine world over the past 130 years, you can still find Korbel California Champagne (the company is grandfathered under laws that now ban the term “Champagne” on products that don’t originate in France). In fact, it was producers from Champagne proper who first realized the enormous potential for sparkling wine in California.
To make good sparkling wine, you essentially need two things: a cool climate and thin-skinned, high acid grapes. Places like Champagne have both of these in spades. Located northeast of Paris, the region is famous for its bracing winters and harsh growing season; a climate too foul for hearty grapes like cabernet or merlot, but perfect for chardonnay and the fickle pinot noir. The cool climate allows the grapes to ripen, but just barely, leaving each individual grape full of acidity, the basic building block of sparkling wine. Wherever you have these building blocks, be it northern France, the Italian Alps, coastal California, or even Tasmania — you’ll have everything you need to produce something delicious.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Champagne producers and the rest of the world began taking American wine seriously and buying land in Napa Valley and other locales ideal for sparkling wine production. Many of these newly founded wineries are still in operation today, including Napa’s Domaine Chandon, owned by Moet & Chandon, and Domaine Carneros, opened by Champagne Taittinger. Over time, as demand for sparkling wine grew and California winemakers got better at making them, new wineries began to emerge, offering alternatives to the more mass-produced, economy-priced wines already on the market.
California and Oregon are home to several notable regions that produce sparkling wines that rival those of anywhere else, each one near the Pacific Ocean. Regions like Oregon’s Willamette Valley and California’s Russian River and Anderson valleys are kept cool by deep-cut mountains that funnel the ocean winds inland, washing the vineyards in cool air and locking in the ripeness of their fruit. Modeled largely after Champagne, these sparkling wines are dominated by two grapes: chardonnay and pinot noir. Each one adds its own integral component to the blend — the chardonnay brings lightness and finesse, while the pinot noir contributes fruity aromas, body, and energy to the wine.
Next week, just in time for the Fourth, I’ll go over the bottles you should be popping during your holiday weekend.
As always, you can see what I’m drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to email@example.com