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Bar Banter:
Sparkling Wine Guide

The best of Champagne and Pét Nat.

December 31, 2016

Bar Banter

Sparkling wines do a lot of different things for a lot of different people. They are evocative. They are the best examples of wines from regions and winemakers antithetical to one another; secret weapons bent towards opposite aims. Because of this diversity, sparkling wines shouldn’t be compared to one another without a regional or stylistic filter – they tend to express very well the particular intentions of the winemaker rather than something inherent in themselves. Yes, they ‘sparkle,’ but how these bubbles get into the bottle radically changes the wine’s texture as well as its flavor and character. We will, therefore, consider two broad families of wine to which the sparkling style is paramount – natural wine and Champagne.

First and most famously is Champagne – bottle conditioned bubbles made predominately from blends of pinot noir and chardonnay in the north east of France – colossus of wine lore, Napoleonic stuff. Champagne stubbornly persists in its ever-respected regard, seemingly transcendent of wine politics and generational upheaval. Embraced by the mainstream and the avant garde alike, it is a manifestation of crusty bourgeoisie prestige which nonetheless remains inherently celebratory, irreverent and somehow quintessential in all its dry, bready splendor.

That said, the new generation of Champagne drinker is not going to settle for the same old stuff out of this region.  And so enters what we call “Grower’s Champagne.” Traditionally, Champagne is produced by a dozen or so large Champagne houses which seek to replicate a consistent ‘house style’ every year. To achieve this, wine is blended from various producers and regions throughout the expansive appellation (one of the largest in France). The practice of blending multiple wines from different years in order to tamper down individual vintage character is opposite to the more traditional goal of communicating these idiosyncrasies which make up a wine’s terroir; in the great struggle of consistency versus character, champagne is very firmly planted in the former.

Grower’s Champagne, on the other hand, is sparkling wine made on single estates in single vintages. This wine is made by the grape growers themselves, not the Champagne houses which they typically sell to, and varies in character depending on the year and the specific area in which it is made. These wines have more character and, if not always as pretty as traditional champagne, are uniquely expressive and communicate the kind of verve one expects from a bubbling beverage. They are expensive and hard to find, but worth it – the type of wine that sells out in New York City and San Francisco months before landing, but that tends to languish on wine shelves in less trendy, opulent markets.

In a recent survey I could only locate a few bottles of Grower’s Champagne around Tucson. One, Pierre Gimonnet’s “Blanc de Blanc,” is available at Feast’s wine shop. This great, classic/conservative, sappy bubbly is made from old vine chardonnay. Although not physically on the shelf, any of the O.G. sommelier crew there would be happy to grab a bottle of for you. Same goes for the deeper, more muscular and edgy “Brut Reserve” from Jean Vesselle. Or, for something decidedly un-champagne here, try the odd-ball, fun, natural “X Bulle” from Vincent Caillé, a bone-dry sparkling wine made on the coastal reaches of the Loire Valley.

Anyone traveling to Feast should stop at Rum Runner on the way and partake in, pay respects to, and/or pair their wine purchases with Tucson’s most thoughtful, erudite and withstanding selection of artisan cheese. Rum Runner has thrived on a cult, regular following of Tucsonans who tastes tend toward the old world. One of the owners here recommends the Champagnes of Dosnon & Lepage: a champagne house that blends their own grapes with those from the immediate vicinity and thereby finds a middle ground between the broad, large house style and the micro-production of 100% estate wines. There is also a fine selection of sparkling wines from regions in France other than Champagne, often labeled as ‘Cremant,’ which are good options for the thrifty and utilitarian alike.  For something closer to local, the New Mexican producer Gruet makes excellent sparkling wines in the Champagne style from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown at 4000 feet.

Importantly, wines made in the sparkling style are particularly well suited to the natural winemaker who seeks to use less sulfur dioxide in their process. This is because wines that are allowed to re-ferment in the bottle, naturally creating their own carbon dioxide, create a vacuum. This pressurized container prevents microorganisms from spoiling the wine, and allows the winemaker to dispatch with the typical dose of sterilizing chemicals. Similar only in production style, these wines run the geographical and economical gamut. At Time Market, look for the Italian “Lunaris Secco,” a dry sparkling wine made from intensely aromatic Malavasia grapes grown on a biodynamic estate. The winemaker here believes that agriculture and a relationship to the earth can change peoples’ lives, and uses this project to help rehabilitate drug-addicted youths by teaching them biodynamic vineyard practices. Cheers.

At Tap and Bottle you can find two sparkling wines made without added sulphur in the pétillant-naturel style (affectionate short hand is ‘Pét-Nat’ which means fermented in bottle without filtration). For flamboyant aromatics and easy drinking, try “Rouletbulle,” a sparkling wine made by natural wine champion/guru Eric Texier, bottled off-dry. Or, truly adventurous, reach for a bottle of funky Lambrusco, sparkling Italian red wine, made by Vigneto Saetti in the dry, natural style.  Depending on how deeply you delve into these things this wine can be a conversation starter, ender, enlivener or suspender. Only time will tell. Good luck and best wishes.

Header image by Jeff Smith from the article, “Hot Optimism” from our November/December 2013 issue. 

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