A Toast to Texas Sparkling Wine
Wineries are experimenting with the style, and it’s paying off.
Texas wineries have made great strides producing award-winning red, white, and rose wines. And now, some are turning their attention to the sparkling variety.
Sparkling wine is generally consumed during celebrations, a beverage used to toast a special occasion. It can also be a day-to-day beverage, one of the best wines for pairing with just about any food, like fried chicken or chicken paillard, steamed salmon or salmon croquettes, even smoked brisket or a juicy burger.
This is because good sparkling wines have a lot of acidity, which means they can handle a lot of body when it comes to food. The crisp acidity and texture of the bubbles lift heavier foods off the palate and whet your appetite. Skeptical? Try a glass of standard Italian Prosecco with a plate of crispy french fries and you’ll be a believer.
Depending on the spiciness, sweetness, or potential creaminess of a dish, there’s a variety of sweetness levels in sparkling wine that play well with these characteristics. Spicy Thai food? Try an off dry sparkling with a hint of sweetness. A spread of fresh briny oysters? Go for the minerally qualities of a dry extra brut. That juicy burger? A fruity sparkling rosé of pinot noir. Pizza with crispy pepperoni? It’s gotta be Lambrusco. (Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.)
In Texas, sparkling wine has generally been hard to come by. For one, it’s expensive to produce. Winemakers need to have a whole different set of equipment for the special bottling and capping/corking sparkling wine requires. What’s more, the process of making sparkling wine is slightly more complicated: you need to get bubbles in the wine. Aside from simply adding carbonation as you would a soda, they can be more traditional by either generating a second fermentation of still wine inside each bottle (the traditional méthode champenoise), or a winery can create a second formation in a vat of bulk still wine and then bottle it, which is how Italian Prosecco is made. All of these methods have added costs, not to mention the fact that most good sparkling wines need time to settle and age in the bottle, and wineries may not have the appropriate storage space.
In the past, Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars has had success with an annual sparkling wine. He’s bypassed the expense of production by getting his still wine to a sparkling wine facility owned by his brother, John McPherson, in Temecula, California.
He’s not the only one borrowing space. San Saba’s Wedding Oak Winery has taken advantage of operations like Texas Custom Wine Works in Lubbock—a custom crush facility that not only makes wine, but bottles it, stores it and also serves as an incubator for creating new wineries—to aid in sparkling production. Producers including William Chris Vineyards and Messina Hof Winery have also looked to California custom crush sparkling wine producer Rack and Riddle to process and bottle their Texas wines for them using méthode champenoise.
“Due to the potential of our sparkling program we are considering investing in a sparkling facility of our own,” says Messina Hof’s Savannah Gaines.
Messina Hof isn’t alone. Longtime Hill Country producer, Grape Creek Vineyards has done the same and released their first sparkling wine, “Euphoria,” in 2015, made from equal parts estate Chenin Blanc and Muscat. “Our winemaker, Jason Englert made the Chenin into a still wine the first year we had a harvest,” says Grape Creek owner Brian Heath who quickly sold out of the 2014 vintage, but will release the 2015 soon, along with a sparkling Pinot Noir rosé. “It was nice, but, the body and aromatics were perfect for a sparkling wine.” (Grape Creek is also developing an independent sparkling program to open in 2018, what will be the first sparkling wine house in Texas.)
But when equipment shortage makes méthode champenoise difficult, some wineries look to the old world. A couple of years ago, Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards began playing with the ancestral wine style called pétillant naturel, a sparkling style made by stopping the normal winemaking fermentation process before all the yeast transforms the natural sugar into alcohol. The wine is bottled and quickly topped off with a wine cap, and the extra carbon dioxide produced as the yeast continues fermentation in the bottle gets trapped inside turns it into a sparkling wine. Some wine geeks adore these wines (they affectionately refer to them as “pet nats”), which tend to have a little hint of sweetness and a freshness of fruit from the lack of aging in oak or any other vessel. They also tend to be lighter in alcohol and slightly inconsistent in terms of results—each bottle is it’s own artisanal product.
Which is exactly why Brundrett began experimenting with the style. “I like it because it’s more of an old-world process. It’s unfiltered and fruity and every bottle is a touch different,” says Brundrett. “It’s an immediate teaching moment when you drink it. You can see the sediment that yeast has produced from eating the sugars; it’s right there in the bottle.”
(William Chris currently has a white “pet nat” made from Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano) available for about $28 at the winery and a soon-to-com Mourvèdre rosé just in time for summer.)
Northeast of William Chris Vineyards in Spicewood, Ron Yates of Spicewood Vineyards was about ready to pull up the five acres of 20 year-old estate Chardonnay on his vineyard because of its lack of consistency for still wine from year to year. “It’s a hard grape to rely on,” says Yates. “Every three years or so, we get a great harvest and it surprises us. The 2014 Chardonnay still wine won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Awards but that’s not something we can expect every year. The question was whether or not to keep it or pull it up and plant a more reliable variety.”
But with patience, he and winemaker Todd Crowell have found that picking the Chardonnay a little earlier than normal, offers the perfect grape chemistry for a sparkling wine. And they used the pétillant naturel process to experiment with their hunch. The result is still in bottle, waiting to be released, but early tastings reveal a bright and zippy wine, with a breath of fruitiness and a dry bite.
“We made a pet nat last year with Riesling wine from Washington State and it was amazing,” says Yates. “Everyone is asking for sparkling in our tasting room and we’re looking at ways to give them what they want.”
Yates—who will open a second winery, Yates Winery, between Johnson City and Hye in just a few months—is looking at sparkling wine equipment as well and has hinted at plans of making a canned sparkling wine.
What can you taste now?
Wedding Oak Winery Bridal Bliss
A floral and fruity muscat blend that offers a touch of sweetness with balanced acidity and soft, elegant effervescence.
William Chris Vineyards Ugni Blanc Pétillant Naturelle
A touch of orange blossom and notes of tropical fruit, this unfiltered white wine is a bit different from standard sparkling wines, but offers a refreshing artisanal quality that is hard to resist.
Messina Hof Texas Rosé Sparkling Wine
With a whisper of cherry and ripe peach, this sparkling is made primarily of Blanc du Bois and a hint of Pinot Noir for color.