For decades, the choices for Washington-made sparkling wines were limited to low-priced bottles made from generic blends by the state’s largest winery. Once in a while, a smaller producer might take a stab at making a better sparkler using the Champagne method — a matter of both grape choices and a labor-intensive, challenging series of winemaking steps. But until recently, there wasn’t much to celebrate fizz-wise as far as local efforts were concerned.
The first signs of a Northwest bubbly renaissance began in Oregon. Seemingly out of the blue, dozens of wineries, following in the pioneering footsteps of Argyle, began releasing small amounts of very fine (and admittedly very pricey) Oregon sparklers. Though Argyle remains by far the Northwest’s largest producer of high quality, vintage-dated, Champagne-method bubbly, with annual production close to 30,000 cases, some outstanding efforts from Soter, Pashey, Lundeen, Lange, Stoller and others are raising the quality bar in our neighbor to the south.
On a visit to McMinnville last year, I pinned down the reason for this sudden explosion of interest and expertise. Operating out of a nondescript, unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of town is the Radiant Sparkling Wine Company. Proprietor Andrew Davis, an Argyle alum, offers his winery clients access to the expertise and specialized equipment required for true méthode champenoise wines. More than three dozen wineries have signed on for his “cradle to grave service,” which allows them to focus on growing the right grapes for Champagne-style wines without having to invest in all the necessary gear.
Now some of our local winemakers are taking up the quality challenge. The Walla Walla Wine Alliance has taken a survey and found a growing number of projects in the works here in the Valley. Most of these wines are made in small quantities and sold exclusively at tasting rooms or to wine clubs, which means you’ll need to do a bit of leg work to try them.
Adamant Cellars has a Columbia Valley Brut Blanc de Blanc called “Lovely Little Thing” that doubles as a benefit for cancer research. College Cellars is doing both a sparkling Riesling (called sekt in Germany) and a sparkling Rosé of Grenache. Another sparkling rosé, at Watermill, uses Pinot Gris for the base wine. And Christophe Baron, whose family makes Champagne in France, has returned to those roots with a very limited, vintage-dated Champagne Christophe Baron at Cayuse.
Foundry Vineyards winemaker/owner Jay Anderson is taking a different tack. This spring he launched his Pét Project, a cunningly named trio of sparklers made by an all-natural process that has only recently re-emerged as cutting edge. In France, where it originated, this ancestral method is known as pétillant naturel (naturally sparkling). Here, it goes by the name pét-nat, and you’ll most easily recognize these wines because rather than the cumbersome wire cage and fumble-ready oversized cork, they are simply sealed with a crown cap, just like a bottle of beer.
The crown cap works because pét-nat wines are far simpler to produce than Champagne-method bubbly. Without taking too deep a dive into the process, just know that the primary fermentation is stopped before it is completed, and the unfinished wine is bottled immediately. Some yeast remains and finishes the job of converting the last of the grape sugar, which produces CO2 and makes an exceptionally fresh, lively wine with a moderate amount of tongue-tickling sparkle.
In traditional Champagne, only Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes can be used. But pét-nats can try just about anything, red or white. At Foundry, Anderson has chosen three different grapes, sourced from organically farmed vineyards. He starts them fermenting with wild yeasts from the vineyard and uses no SO2 at bottling. This is hands-off, yet risky, winemaking and requires constant monitoring to avoid off-scents and flavors. Foundry’s wines are all home runs.
The Pét Project Grüner Veltliner ($26) is sourced from the Soluna vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. It’s bone dry with appealing minerality and just 10% alcohol. The Pét Project Pinot Gris Rosé ($26) comes from the same vineyard. A peachy rose color, it’s loaded with tangy grapefruit flavor and finished at 11.5% alcohol. The Pét Project Roussanne ($29) is a bit of an outlier, though delicious. The ripest, fruitiest of the three, it throws a real head of froth when poured and shows the yeastiest aromas. Flavors run from banana to quince to pear, lingering on through a dynamic finish.
Along with selections from Foundry’s extensive portfolio of current and back vintages of Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the tasting room on Abadie Street is pouring the Pét Project wines on “Sparkling Saturdays” this summer. I can’t think of anything more refreshing on a hot July afternoon.