Wine

The Sparkling Nomad

How one intrepid, roving winemaker is putting Willamette Valley sparkling wine on the world wine map

Bottles of champagne
Photo credit: Vetlostni / iStock.

Andrew Davis believes in bubbles. More specifically, he believes in the potential for sparkling wine from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home of cool temperatures and hilly aspects, where acid-driven, cool-climate, thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish.

In 2013, Davis left his post making sparkling wine at Oregon’s Argyle Winery, the one house in the Valley dedicated to bubbles, and launched his own consulting business and mobile service, The Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, based in McMinnville, with the goal of promoting sparkling wine production in Oregon and raising up Willamette Valley bubbly to an iconic level. If Napa and Sonoma could be the New World analogue to Bordeaux, he believes, the Willamette Valley could be the corollary to Champagne.

For this to happen, however, Oregon would need a lot more producers making exceptional bubbles, and doing so in the traditional method—through secondary fermentation in the bottle. Davis knew that getting Willamette Valley wine producers on board would be challenging. There were barriers to entry, such as equipment—which is specialized and expensive—and a lack of expertise. But that’s where Radiant comes in. Davis helps winemakers overcome those challenges by providing the equipment—as well as assurances that what goes in as still wine comes out sparkling. While that may not seem like such a big deal, the truth is that there’s a lot of room for error when creating a sparkling wine—and errors can be compounded over multiple vintages. For wineries trying their hand at a new winemaking technique, finding out after several years of sur lie aging that the wine has no bubbles can be costly and disheartening.

Radiant works like this: A winery makes the base wine with its own chosen grapes and puts it through primary fermentation. Four days prior to bottling, Davis shows up, snags some of that base wine, and uses it to grow a secondary yeast culture. Come bottling day, he returns with a perfectly acclimated yeast culture, which he incorporates into the liqueur de tirage and, using his own mobile bottling service, quickly bottles it for the producer. With sparkling wine, there’s no room for error—or time for mobile bottling line breakdowns. Stop at this point, when the wine is busy consuming yeast and sugar, and you’ll lose bubbles, says Davis.

Once the wine is bottled into bins with crown caps, it lies on its side at the winery for a couple of years. “The really amazing thing about méthode champenoise is that aging period where the bottles are laying on their side, the yeast has died and gone to bottom of the bottle and [it] forms this nice layer down there that, as it begins to break down over time, liberates the flavors of the yeast, which are part and parcel to what you expect from sparkling wine—the sort of yeasty, toasty, briochey, bready, biscuity character that is true to méthode champenoise sparkling wine,” says Davis. “In addition, all the proteins from the yeast cells that are being released into the wine give you those tiny, tiny pinpoint bubbles that seem to come up in long chains out of the glass.”

After a while Davis returns to the winery and confirms—through a bit of sampling—that secondary fermentation is complete in bottle. Then, he has all the wine shipped to him in McMinnville, where he performs dosage trials with the client. They make up a bottle or two, come back with fresh palates, and taste until the recipe is perfected. Once the recipe is complete, Davis assembles the dosage, disgorges, corks, and wire-hoods the wines, and then washes the bottles and handles everything straight through labeling and palletizing.

What the wineries get is méthode champenoise sparkling wine made from Oregon grapes without all of the heavy lifting usually required to make sparkling wine.

When Davis launched Radiant in 2013 there were only a couple of sparkling wine producers in the Willamette Valley and, aside from Argyle’s production, just a handful of cases of bubbles. Initially, Davis had hoped to work with 10 wineries. Today, his client list is 30 strong and includes everyone from Adelsheim and Jackson Family to Sokol Blosser and Stoller. As of the 2017 vintage he has increased the production of sparkling wine in the Willamette Valley another 20,000 cases above Argyle’s 25,000 cases.

For Davis, one of the most gratifying aspects of his business is hearing that these initial Oregon sparkling wines he cultivated, which have just begun releasing, are already playing at Champagne levels. “The wineries are taking the wines out and it’s thrilling to hear them come back to me and say, ‘hey, we put this in a blind lineup with a bunch of grower Champagne and no one picked ours as the Oregon wine,’” he says, proudly.

If Oregon has a shot at becoming the New World’s Champagne, it will likely be thanks to one roving sparkling winemaker.

Here are Davis’s tips for winemakers dedicated to going it alone with sparkling wine production, plus one for those selling Oregon bubbles.

For Winemakers:

Choose wisely.

You can turn any grape into a sparkling wine, but the traditional choices—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier—work well because they retain acid and have a character that is agreeable when sparkled up.

Press gently.

Sparkling wine juice needs to be elegant and not phenolic. It needs to be graceful and not heavy. And those things are derived in large part from picking choices and gentle pressing of the grapes.

Don’t underestimate the power of a well-developed yeast culture.

You only get one chance to bubble those bottles and so making sure you have the strongest, most viable yeast possible is of incredible importance.

Don’t do it for the money.

There is profit to be made, but sparkling wine is really a game of passion. You’re not doing it because it’s easy. You’re not doing it because it’s the highest profit margin. You’re doing it because you, the producer, are excited about sparkling wine, whether that’s because you’re bringing something new to your portfolio or because you absolutely love bubbles.

For Wine Sellers:

Sell the Oregon character.

Fruit and acidity define the character of Oregon sparkling wine, at least for now. Oregon sparkling mirrors Oregon still wine in the sense that it’s a bit more fruit-driven than its Old World competitors. It’s also more acid-driven than its northern (Washington) and southern (California) neighbors. So, Oregon sparkling wine typically has beautiful, clean, racy acidity, while being a little more fruit-forward than Champagne.

When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.

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