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WSET Diploma Unit 5: the US Sparkling Wines

Terms in this set (8)

1. General: U.S. sparkling wine production consists of a diverse set of producers, including small, boutique wineries and large-scale, value brands. Regardless of size, some producers own their own vineyards as well as their wineries, while some purchase grapes instead, often from long-term contracts. Most producers are privately owned entities, but a few are publically-traded companies.

The majority of sparkling wine producers are small in size and production and, consequently, local in scope, supplying their wines to a limited geographic region.

Given Champagne's reputation, the majority of American producers look to Champagne as their model in production process, name or both. It wasn't until the U.S. signed the U.S./EU Wine Agreement that use of the term "Champagne" on American labels became prohibited. Specifically, any U.S. wine labels approved prior to 2006 can use "Champagne" on label as long as the term is prominently qualified with the geographic origin where the grapes were grown, i.e. California Champagne. However, American sparkling wines develop a reputation on their own and conscientious producers take proactive measures to support and protect wine place origins both at home and abroad. Other labeling requirements for sparkling wines are the same as those for still wines.

Most grapes are sourced from cool regions. Most American premium sparkling wine producers focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Meunier. However, varieties such as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are also used. Value brands may use the same grape varieties in their wines, but may source them from a wider area, especially from California's Central Valley. Alternately, they will blend traditional grapes with less expensive grapes such as Chenin Blanc and French Colombard, as Korbel does. Additionally, Muscat has become popular as wines emulating Asti are produced.

There are also some tiny niche producers who use native or hybrid, Merlot, Sangiovese-Pinot Noir Blend to make sparkling wine but only significant locally.

Sparkling wine grapes are usually picked a week or two before still wine grapes to maintain high acidity. Once harvested, winemaking practices for American sparkling wines are not legally defined, but the two most common methods are Traditional Method (for premium producers) and Tank Method (for value producers).

Premium producers' aging regimens are not statutorily defined and thus, time spent on the lees is based upon the producer's philosophy and market considerations. However, premium producers usually age their wines for lengthy periods of time or at least have one or two special cuvées that spend significant time on the lees. As a general guide, most producers will age their wine on lees for at least 12 months, although there are some premium examples which can be aged on lees for up to 3~5 years, depending on the producers.

The wines from many premium producers are vintage-dated regardless of the vintage conditions. However, the winery may choose to produce its top wine only in exceptional years.

2. California: largest producers in the US, accounting for 90% sparkling wine production. California used to concentrate on lower end market. Most of the wines were produced from the Central Valley. In 1960s, Schramsberg was re-established after the prohibition. In 1970s, Champagne and Cava producers moved to California. Both makes California sparkling wine shift from quantity to quality.

Today, California is home to both premium and value sparkling wine producers. Within the state, value brands are generally produced using the broader California appellation (and sometimes the even broader American designation), while premium producers frequently craft wines from smaller, more specific AVAs.

3. Washington State: the production of sparkling wine in Washington State is quite small. Most of these producers are making sparkling wines alongside their still wine selections and only a handful of them are using the Traditional Method.

4. Oregon: Very small quantity. Most producers are small so largely rely on traditional method to make Champagne style of sparkling wine, although Charmat method is also widely used.

Semi-sparkling wines are produced by capturing carbonation at the end of a very cool primary fermentation and bottling it at low temperatures. Winemakers using this method cite the ability to harvest the grapes at levels riper than those usually preferred for sparkling wines. Not surprisingly, this method is favored by southern Oregon producers, whose climate is much warmer than that of the Willamette Valley.

Still others are using simple carbonation to create inexpensive sparklers, especially for their lower-priced, entry-level wines.
1. Sparkling wine has continued to thrive in the U.S. market. The biggest components of imported sparkling wines comprise Champagne and, more recently, significant volumes of Prosecco and sparkling Moscato. Sparkling Moscato grows much rapidly than Prosecco.

2. American-made sparklers continue to rise in both sales and volume, especially among California Traditional Method wines.

3. Consumption in the sparkling wine segment is growing twice as fast as that of still wines.

4. he states consuming the most sparkling wine in the U.S. include California, Illinois, New York, Florida and Texas. However, New York is the largest metro market in the US. Nearly half of sparkling wine sales occur during the holiday season.

5. With the robust consumption of sparkling wine in the U.S. expected to not only continue, but also to rise in the years ahead, there are certainly opportunities for current sparkling wine producers to expand their production.

6. Another opportunity for growth, particularly for small, regional wineries, is the consumer focus on drinking local, which mirrors the trend in food.

7. The price of premium US sparkling wine is less competitive to Champagne within the same price category. The time and labor connected with the production of these wines is to blame for their high prices, coupled with the high cost of land and labor in many regions such as Napa Valley and Long Island. Furthermore, sparkling wines are taxed at a much higher rate than still wines and do not offer the same tax incentives for small producers that still wines do, compounding the problem.
1. California:
- Domaine Chandon: Domaine Chandon's founders came to Napa in 1973 from France's noted Champagne house Moet & Chandon. They immediately planted Champagne varieties and were the first California winery to use Pinot Meunier. The winery's first wines were released in 1976. Today, Domaine Chandon maintains 1,000 acres in Yountville, Carneros and Mount Veeder. The property's sparkling winemaker is Tom Tiburzi who began making wine as a child with his family before studying biology at UC Berkeley. He has been with Domaine Chandon for 20 years. Domaine Chandon sources grapes from cool climate vineyards in California and generally ages its entry-level wines for 12 months on the lees. Reserve and Vintage wines are also produced. Its Classic Brut is often served at White House receptions.

- Iron Horse Vineyard: When Iron Horse's founding partners, Audrey and Barry Sterling, first saw the 300 acre property in 1976, it was the most westerly vineyard in Sonoma. Located within the Russian River Valley's sub-appellation of Green Valley, the cool and foggy climate was a deterrent to many other potential buyers, but having lived in France, the Sterlings knew they wanted to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and that this was the perfect climate in which to do so. They partnered with Forrest Tancer, formerly of Rodney Strong, who had planted 110 acres of the property, to help them upgrade the vineyards and build a winery. The tasting room opened in 1979 and Iron Horse's first sparkler was produced in 1980. Named for the train that stopped at Ross Station, near their property in the late 1900s, Iron Horse's wines have been served in the White House since the Reagan- Gorbachev Summit Meeting in 1985 and Wine & Spirits Magazine has named Iron Horse Sparkling Winery of the Year nine times. The founders' daughter, Joy Sterling, serves as CEO while David Munksgard is the winemaker. The winery has been active with green causes and is committed to sustainable agriculture.

2. Oregon:
- Soter Vineyards: Arriving in Napa in 1975, Tony Soter went on to spend the 1980s serving as a wine consultant for such clients as Araujo, Niebaum-Coppola, Shafer, Spottswoode, Viader and Dalle Valle. In 1992, he founded Etude Winery and today, boasts more than 30 years of experience. Shifting away from his more diverse roster of consulting clients, Tony now focuses on Soter, Etude and his family. At Soter, his mission is to dedicate himself to Oregon Pinot Noir with an emphasis on place and plants, not winery manipulations. Yet despite his more narrow direction, Tony chose to make a sparkler because he is a "sucker for a winegrowing challenge." Additionally, he was motivated to show Pinot Noir in another form as well as to create a special wine for his wife, Michelle, making it truly a labor of love. Produced from 100% estate grown fruit, all of Tony's sparkling wines are vintage-dated and disgorgement-dated and spend at least three years on the lees and often more. Between Soter's loyal following, low quantity of production, and the inherent quality of these wines, they sell out quickly.