Califonia Bountiful

Rising to the top

May/June 2018 California Bountiful magazine

In-bottle method for adding bubbles yields distinctive wines

 More online: Wine pairing tips

Winemaker Eric Donaldson, shown tasting one of his sparkling wines at his winery, brings a classic-style sparkler to a new region. Photo: © 2018 Bryan Patrick

Whether it's for toasting the bride and groom or ringing in the New Year, sparkling wine has traditionally been reserved for special occasions.

But these days, the effervescent beverage is increasingly showing up at meals and other casual affairs.

"It's becoming an everyday wine," San Joaquin County winemaker Eric Donaldson said. "It's not just for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries or holidays. People are having it with their dinner."

Sales still enjoy a significant boost during the last two months of the year, when 30 percent of sparkling wine purchases occur. But people also pop cold bottles of bubbly when they want something refreshing in the summer, Donaldson said.

Not that he has much time to drink it these days. But he does have plenty to celebrate: Rising demand for sparkling wine has been a boon for his business, LVVR Sparkling Cellars in Lockeford, east of Lodi. Donaldson opened his tasting room about two years ago. He also makes sparkling wine for a number of other wineries, mostly in the Lodi area.

He's currently the only winemaker in the region specializing in sparkling wine produced by "méthode champenoise," also known as "méthode traditionnelle." This is the same method used to make Champagne, a term reserved for sparklers produced in the Champagne region of France.

Wines that use this traditional method typically cost more because the bubbles are produced inside each individual bottle, requiring more handling and more equipment. The wines are aged longer, lending complexity.

"There's more of a finesse with méthode champenoise," Donaldson said. "That's kind of the niche I'm going for—a product that's got more finesse to it."

A 'phenomenal' bubbly

At top left, Donaldson examines the yeast deposits, or lees, in a bottle of sparkling wine after the second fermentation and aging process. The bottle is then transferred to a gyropalette, bottom, which allows multiple bottles to be turned every so often until the lees settle in the neck of the bottle. The finished product is shown at top right. Photos: © 2018 Bryan Patrick

Lodi may not be an obvious place to go for a winemaker aspiring to make méthode champenoise-style wines. After all, the region is usually more closely associated with zinfandel than with sparkling wine—and in fact calls itself the Zinfandel Capital of the World. But Donaldson said he saw potential—and a "huge gap in the market," because no one else in the area was doing this style of wine.

Having worked in wine production in his home state of Ohio and in New Mexico, Donaldson has made wines from fruit grown in extreme climates very different from those of the Golden State. He cut his teeth at producing sparkling wine in 2006 with an experimental batch while working at a winery in Cincinnati. Later, he learned large-scale production in New Mexico, making sparklers that were carbonated artificially, not through fermentation. After moving to Lodi in 2011 and getting to know the grapes grown in the region, he decided to return to doing what he loved: making sparkling wine the traditional way.

"Working with the fruit and the profiles on the wine, I felt it is possible to do this here," he said.

Not everyone was convinced, including winemaker Jeremy Trettevik, who owns Jeremy Wine Co. in Lodi. Describing himself as a "creature of bias," Trettevik acknowledged he was one of those people who thought the best sparkling wines come only from the Los Carneros wine region of Napa and Sonoma counties—until he tasted Donaldson's wine. Now he's one of Donaldson's clients. Last fall, Trettevik released his first sparkler, which Donaldson produced for his winery, and called the response to it "phenomenal."

"You can have great wines from just about everywhere," Trettevik said. "It comes from the craft and the approach that the producer takes with it."

Though other Lodi wineries have been making sparkling wine for years, they use nontraditional methods such as Charmat. This approach is less labor-intensive because the bubbles are produced inside large, pressurized tanks. Some Lodi wineries sell méthode champenoise-style wines, but only the first fermentation, producing a nonbubbly base wine, is completed locally; it gets turned into sparkling elsewhere.

"Eric is doing it all on-site here—taking it all the way through the process," said Stuart Spencer, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. "He's really the first artisan sparkling wine producer we've seen here in Lodi."

Donaldson buys all of the grapes to produce his sparklers from Lodi winegrape growers. Now that his business has taken off, he said he's going to start having them do more custom farming so that they're growing grapes tailored to his needs.

"One thing that makes Lodi work well is you get good quality for a reasonable price," he said. "As I grow, I'm going to be buying from the field more. Finding a good source of chardonnay with the right chemistry is very important."

Growing with the market

From left, Bonnie Jenkins, Vanessa Foreman, Victor Kasemir, Virginia Vizcarra-Tyler (obscured) and Phil Jenkins toast with sparkling wines from LVVR Sparkling Cellars. Photo: © 2018 Bryan Patrick

As a wine appellation, or recognized winegrape-growing region, Lodi houses 110,000 acres of vineyards that yield some 671,000 tons of grapes annually, comprising 18 percent of the state's total winegrape production, according to the commission.

The region now has a burgeoning wine culture and a new wave of boutique wineries—and more people are discovering it as a wine destination, said Cindy Della Monica, a chef and owner of Cheese Central in Lodi, which hosts classes on cheese, food and wine. She noted that when she moved to the area in 1981, there were just five wineries; now there are 85.

"Though Napa and Sonoma are our backyard neighbors and many of our grapes go that direction, we want people to know that we have a world-renowned wine region right here," Della Monica said. "We have a wine culture that's drawing tourists."

Because of Lodi's growing tourism, wineries want to offer a range of wines and styles, Spencer said, and what Donaldson is doing is "very consistent with our efforts to elevate Lodi as a premier wine-producing area."

Trettevik said he finds that people traveling through Lodi are "generally more receptive to unique items," and this allows winemakers to test new concepts and "explore the waters."

"One of the real beauties is that there's no constraints placed on these new winemakers coming in, either via varietals or techniques," he said. "It leaves a huge space for growth and creativity."

In terms of total U.S. wine sales, Champagne and sparkling wines still account for a relatively small portion—6.4 percent in 2016—but consumption has been increasing in recent years, according to the Wine Institute.

Much of this growth has been driven by the popularity of a less-expensive style of sparkling wine: Italian Prosecco, the most consumed bubbly in the U.S., said Shannon Latting, wine and beverage manager at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa County. Because of Prosecco's lower price point, people are drinking it year-round and using it to make cocktails such as the mimosa, a brunchtime staple with orange juice and sparkling wine.

More affordable sparkling wines may be driving much of the trend right now, but winemaker Rick Taylor said he has had no trouble selling the bubbly that Donaldson produced for his winery, Riaza Wines in Lodi. The 2016 vintage, at a retail price of $28, was released late last summer and was sold out by Christmas.

"It shows me that if you produce and deliver a really high-quality product, people are going to respond well and going to happily give you money to take some of that home," he said.

Ching Lee

Bubble basics: How bottle-fermented sparkling wine is made

Long before the advent of soda water and carbonated soft drinks, which get their fizz by adding carbon dioxide, beverages such as sparkling wine and beer were naturally carbonated through fermentation, the same process used today for most sparkling wines.

In méthode champenoise, this second fermentation takes place in the same bottle that goes to market. The first fermentation turns the grape juice into alcohol, creating still wine. Sugar and yeast are then added to the wine, triggering the second fermentation, which occurs when the yeast starts to break down the sugar. This fermentation and aging process could take months to years, adding complexity to the flavor and carbonation quality the longer the yeast sits in the wine, winemaker Eric Donaldson said.

After that, the bottle is transferred to a gyropalette, a machine that turns the bottle a little at a time every few hours during the course of several days until the yeast sediments, or lees, settle in the neck of the bottle, a process called riddling. Next, the bottle goes to a refrigeration unit, which holds the bottle upside down and freezes just the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then disgorged: The crown cap is popped off and the pressure from the bottle forces the frozen lees out of the bottle.

Depending on the level of sweetness and flavor profile the winemaker wants to achieve, sugar or another wine may be added at this point to balance the acidity of the wine. This step, known as dosage, also allows the wine to be topped off to replace what was disgorged. Finally, the bottle is corked, secured with a wire hood, washed, labeled and sent to market.

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