A very interesting thing has been happening in the wide world of wine over the last several years. Sparkling wine is becoming both more flavorful and more approachable, especially here in the US. Thanks to a spike in production and some earned wisdom over time, now is perhaps the best time investigate America’s answer to champagne.
These days, we’re into everything from entry-level sparkling to top-shelf stuff made in the méthod champenoise style. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from sparkling rose wine to sparkling white wine and everything in between. We’re giving it the full wine treatment, exploring how terroir plays into the wine genre and experimenting with ratios of different grapes. If you like wine with effervescence, now’s the prime time to dive in.
KORBEL practically invented reasonably priced sparking wine in this country. The California producer has been making the bubbly booze since 1882. Tara Shoultz is the winery’s associate brand manager. She credits the jump in popularity to more producers, quarantine culture, and a certain Italian-style wine.
In recent years, “Sparkling wine has become more of an everyday product versus a strictly-celebratory one,” Shoultz says. “A lot of this is due to brand marketing, but also the increase in popularity of items like prosecco.” KORBEL launched its own version of the easygoing Italian-style sparkling wine in 2020. “When COVID hit, the at-home consumption occasion skyrocketed,” she adds. “Consumers were looking for ways to celebrate even the little wins at home or participate in virtual happy hours.”
So while we used to do the celebrating out and about — at nice restaurants or wine bars — we’ve been doing it more and more at home lately. We’re also looking for any excuse to celebrate, as the wine data suggests. Shoultz claims that sparkling wine is the only major category of wine that’s experienced large growth between 2016 and 2021.
Paying attention to trends helps too. Shoultz says KORBEL is focusing especially on its sparkling rosé, given that so many Americans continue to gravitate towards pink wine. It also doesn’t hurt to have an adorable 187-ml bottle, which will always be on the cheaper and more accessible side due to its lower volume.
“Sparkling wine has more consumption occasions than many other drink options,” Shoultz says. “Everything from brunch or high-energy celebrations to quiet date nights often include something bubbly.”
Rollin Soles is a sparkling wine legend. He was the winemaker at sparkling-heavy Argyle in the Willamette Valley for years before launching his own label, ROCO. He’s passionate about all types of sparkling wine and keeps at least two bottles of the stuff in his fridge at all times.
“Great sparkling wines have been available and enjoyed throughout Europe for quite some time,” he says, “while here in the USA, the boomer generation and younger only recently developed the curiosity and joy associated with diversity of cuisines, cultures, and now wines to appreciate.”
Soles credits sparkling wine’s recent surge to its lower alcohol content and to how food-friendly it is. It’s also just fun (the pop, the fizz, the pour). With so many options these days, it can offer the same element of discovery as other major wine types like pinot noir or riesling. “In Europe, it has been common practice to always show up to a dinner party with a bottle or two of sparkling wine,” Soles adds. “It’s become the case in my neighborhood, too!”
The winemaker offers an interesting perspective on where things are headed. With more sparkling wine options than ever, there’s a wider range of quality. While a $12 bottle of fizzy wine probably won’t match the class and complexity of a $70 bottle-fermented version, the fact that it’s there might bode well for the category at large.
“I’ve observed more and more carbonated bottles of wine in retail, and the wine consumer should be aware of this on the wine label,” he says. “These wines will always seem like a deal; the bubbles are large, quick to dissipate, and the creamy texture of a great sparkling wine is lacking. But this is indicative of consumers’ interest in wines with bubbles. History shows that we will then become interested in better wines, finer bubbles that last a long time in our glass.”
That $12 bottle? Maybe’s it’s the gateway wine that will get you interested in the higher-end stuff.
Americans can still throw down big bucks on domestic sparkling wine, it’s just generally less pricier than champagne and wine from some other famed regions. As our reputation grows for making sparkling wine, so too will the prices of the best bottles. A few key factors, however, are keeping American sparkling wine fairly accessible and will continue to do so going forward.
First, the cost of making the stuff is becoming more reasonable. Making sparkling wine in the traditional fashion requires tons of time and special tools. But now, with more and more winemakers sharing equipment and production spaces, it’s become a more inviting prospect for producers — that, and genius outfits like Radiant Sparkling Wine Company that bring the expertise and specialty equipment to your winery and walk you through the process. This allows still wine producers to have at least a few sparkling wines in their lineups as well.
Second, the culinary and bar worlds are really embracing the style. Chefs are building pairing menus around sparkling wine, which pairs excellently with everything from casual snacks like fried chicken and potato chips to fancier items like seafood, caviar, and more.
Lastly, at least in places where sparkling wine grapes can be grown and thrive (think Oregon and California), sparkling wine is becoming the norm. It’s showing up on more bar and restaurant glass pour lists and is becoming the first pour in most winery tasting flights. Some producers, such as Willamette Valley Vineyards, are going all-in on sparkling wine. The storied Oregon producer recently opened Domaine Willamette in the Dundee Hills; the new winery is devoted entirely to sparkling wine.
With options galore and multiple tiers and styles of sparkling wine being made right here at home, there’s never been a better time to plunge into the fizz. Is sparkling wine champagne or better than it? Well, not technically; the French region of Champagne owns the rights to the name. But with so much quality sparkling wine being made here at home, it’s just a matter of personal taste as to which style is better, and the only way to answer that is to try it for yourself.
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