Fizzy wine has undergone a transformation of late. It’s becoming more popular and being made in new ways. Plus, such bottles are more often popped outside the confines of the “celebrations” that traditionally call for sparkling wine (specifically Champagne).
And while we would never write off proper French Champagne (in fact, one of us aged spirits correspondents celebrated a milestone birthday last week with a bottle of Moussé Fils Blanc de Noirs, which has taste and refinement a person can only ever hope to have), another sparkling wine we’ve loved lately was not so formal: a bubbly rosé from Lieb Cellars. Barely blush in color, tasting of stone fruit and mushrooms, it couldn’t have been more different than Champagne. Unexpected, crisp, subtle, and truly special, it would’ve been just as welcome at a celebration dinner as it was to day-drink on a pleasant afternoon.
Whether you're reaching for a bottle to celebrate the New Year, or just to sip on with takeout, here are 10 reasons to cheers with an American sparkling wine.
1. Oregon grows really good versions of grapes traditionally used for Champagne.
Oregon is currently making some of the finest wines around from two of the principal Champagne grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s no surprise that a growing number of top-flight sparkling wines are made there. There’s an eye toward making these wines in a classic style, yet there’s also a ton of innovation, indicating that Oregon could emerge as America's most exciting sparkling wine region.
We especially like ROCO Winery's 2016 RMS Brut for its distinct acidity and fine bubbles. ROCO is made by Oregon sparkling wine pioneer Rollin Soles, co-founder of Argyle Winery (another Oregon name to look for). Newer players Kramer, Mellen Meyer, and Division Winemaking Co. are also worth seeking out.
2. U.S. winemakers are at the forefront of sparkling wine-trends.
Pet-nats (short for Pétillant Naturel, or natural sparkling wines) and piquettes (a sparkling, wine-related beverage) are two quicker, easier, and less expensive methods of producing a carbonated wine. Pet-nats (sometimes labeled as Méthode Ancestrale) are fermented once, all in the bottle (as opposed to twice-fermented, like Champagne). Piquette is a form of fizzy beverage made from the discarded mashed-up pulp from a previous fermentation. Both drinks have a long history in France; today in the U.S., they’re being made new again, not to mention are seen as quite trendy, as winemakers in diverse regions use less favorable and lesser-known grapes to create seat-of-the-pants magic.
These wines also tend to be organic, natural, and sustainable. Pet-nats are being made everywhere, but we particularly like the offerings from Birichino in California, which in a tongue-in-cheek manner are called "Petulant" wines. Birichino’s Cinsault, made from grapes from an historic 135-year-old vineyard, is all fruit, flowers, and dried herbs in the most refreshing combination. From one sea to the other, Channing Daughters on Long Island makes a full rainbow of Pet-nats from different grapes that are beautiful to look at and to drink.
For piquette, the first maker credited with bringing the method back is Todd Cavallo at Wild Arc Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. His minimalist labels have just the word “Piquette!” in a lightning strike dialog box.
3. They come in cans, too.
Cans are fun and less formal than bottles, not to mention more portable and sustainable, as well as offer opportunity for innovative label design. Two of the best canned sparkling wines from a quality and availability perspective are Nomikai “California Rosé Fizzy” and Lorenza “Spritz!”, the latter a bubbly offering from a fashionable Napa maker of Provence-style rosés. Another great canned offering are Underwood sparkling wines from the Union Wine Company in Oregon, and “Seeds and Skins” from Old Westminster in Maryland, the first mid-Atlantic winery to can wines.
4. Co-ferments sparkle, and are uniquely American.
New England is exceptional apple territory, and back in the day, colonists fermented what they had available. As of the past couple years, cider is trendy again, plus it’s mingling with wine in all sorts of unusual ways. Makers are co-fermenting cider apples with wine grapes, or using the grape must (skins and pulp leftover from the winemaking process) to flavor and color ciders. Three great makers for these (and many other wines, sparkling included) are William Heritage in New Jersey, and Vermont’s La Garagista and ZAFA.
5. Bubbles are found in places you wouldn't expect.
Few wine shops have a Massachusetts section, even when you're in Massachusetts. One to know is Westport Rivers, located in the South Coast area where the state curls under, right above Newport, Rhode Island. Westport makes mostly “vintage” sparkling wines, meaning the grapes are all from one year. (In traditional Champagne methods, vintners work on the blend for several years, producing the house’s iconic “NV,” or non-vintage style. Vintage offerings are showcases of a particularly good year.) Westport’s wines are toasty and citrusy, and go well with the abundant local seafood. The winery also makes a quicker Prosecco-style “Farmer’s Fizz”, in a process known as the Charmat method, where the wine is fermented for the second time in tanks rather than in bottles.
6. American versions of French houses exist, too.
Moet & Chandon, maker of the legendary Dom Perignon, was the first Champagne producer to come stateside, founding Domaine Chandon in California in 1973. Louis Roederer, maker of Cristal, owns Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley. Other French producers who've set up shop in California include Mumm (look for Mumm Napa) and Taittinger (Domaine Carneros is owned by Tattinger). “Wine people” will tell you the American versions have “a certain California-ness” to them; see if you can tell. The Roederer Estate Multi-Vintage Brut is a great place to start your experimenting.
7. You can find a great $15-dollar bottle.
The Gruet family, which has roots in the Champagne region, visited the southwestern United States in the early 1980s with an eye towards expanding their operations. They settled on the climate, terrain, and wine-making history of New Mexico. Today, they make everything from entry-level $15 sparkling wines to more expensive bottles. We like the Brut Sauvage, a bracing bone-dry version ("sauvage" means wild; designating that the wine has no added "dosage," or sugar).
8. There’s more to the Hamptons than “Hamptons water.”
Though known for rosé, the East End has many elegant contemporary wineries. We love the sparkling cab franc “Horses” from Macari Vineyards on the North Fork, a new classic that is a secret tribute to another classic—the Patti Smith album of the same name. Also noteworthy are Channing Daughters, Sparkling Pointe, and Bedell.
9. Schramsberg = A+ Champagne-style sparkling wine.
Such an unsung hero is domestic sparkling wine that Schramsberg isn't a household name, but here's hoping that changes. In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies restored the historic and rundown Schramsberg estate in Napa Valley with the specific intention of producing American sparkling wines on a par with the best of French Champagne. By most accounts, they have succeeded. In 1972, the Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs was used for President Richard Nixon’s “Toast to Peace” with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and every President since has served Schramsberg at official state functions. Look for their second label, Mirabelle, for less expensive alternatives.
10. If you don’t like wine, America is home to "the Champagne of Beers.”
We (sort of) understand that not everyone likes wine. Luckily, beer can be celebratory too. Most years, Miller Brewing does a special holiday release of Milwaukee’s Best in a Champagne-type bottle. It won't look that different in a coupe.
A note on where to buy:
Not every one of these wines is going to be available at every liquor store. That's the beauty and challenge of wine: The best ones are a limited product, tied to the land and the year. We recommend searching on Wine.com and Drizzly for these particular bottles or asking for a recommendation at local liquor stores (especially those that specialize in organic, natural, or sustainable wines), using one of these wines as an example of what you're looking for.