New World Traditional Method Sparkling Wines

This post follows my summary of European non-champagne traditional method sparkling wines.

Traditional method sparkling wines are also made in many New World wine-producing countries. Much of the initial catalysis for these wines came from Champagne houses setting up off-shoots or entering into joint ventures with local producers. Thus, many traditional method wines emulate those from Champagne in using mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. That said, there are a number of styles that are unique to a particular country or sub-region.

USA

Most wine-producing states in the USA make sparkling wine as well, although not necessarily by the traditional method. Over 90% of American sparkling wine, however, comes from California. Although there is evidence of sparkling wine having been made in California since 1892, the state has seen considerable investment by French champagne houses over the last 40 years, which has dramatically increased production and profile. Moët & Chandon was the first to set up with Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley in 1973. Piper-Sonoma, Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa Valley and Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) all followed suit in the 1980s. Additionally, the two large Cava houses have a presence with Gloria Ferrer (Freixenet) founded in 1982 in Sonoma and Codornìu’s outpost in 1990.

Five regions have emerged as producing the best quality fruit for sparkling wines over the last few decades. Anderson Valley in Mendocino County is considered to have a very cool climate due to the valley’s access to the Pacific coast, which allows cooling ocean fogs entry to the vineyards. Roederer selected the Anderson Valley as the location for their sparkling wine outpost after an extensive search. Sonoma County is seen as having potential, with sites in the Green and Russian River Valleys, and has seen a large amount of investment from America, French and Spanish winemakers. The Carneros region at the southern end of both Sonoma and Napa is cooled by fogs from San Francisco Bay and exhibits a notable maritime climate. Finally, there are a few sites located close to the ocean in the Central Coast.

Despite the cooling influence of ocean fogs, the climate in these regions is nowhere near as severe as that in Champagne. The grapes are thus riper and winemakers need to balance between picking early, which preserves acidity but risks unripe, ‘green’ flavours, or picking later to achieve phenolic ripeness but risk unbalanced, overly alcoholic wines.

The investment by champagne houses has meant that traditional method wines are usually made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is used, but not to the extent seen in Champagne. Some wineries also use Pinots Blanc and Gris. Premium wines source the majority of their fruit from Anderson Valley and Carneros, while ‘basic’ sparkling wines use the hot and productive Central Valley for grapes. These wines are unlikely to be made in the traditional method, however. Zinfandel is also used to make an off-dry pink sparkling wine. Again, this is more likely to be made by the tank method.

Lamont's Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon - experienced during a recent trip to Western Australia.

Australia

There are many similarities between Australian and Californian traditional method sparkling wine production. Australia has also seen significant investment from French champagne houses in making traditional method sparkling wine in the champagne style. Moët & Chandon again led the way in establishing a Domaine Chandon outpost in the Yarra Valley in 1987. Their wine is sold in the UK under the name ‘Green Point’. Roederer undertook a joint venture with Jansz in Tasmania – although Jansz is now owned by South Australian winery Yalumba.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the varieties mostly to be found, with some Pinot Meunier, although Australia has very few vineyards dedicated to fruit for sparkling wine. Most producers of bubbly also make still wines; as Pinot Meunier is rarely used for still wines, there is little incentive to plant it.

The most promising regions in Australia are the relatively cool climate Yarra Valley in Victoria and Tasmania. Vineyards in the Yarra receive a cooling influence from the nearby ocean and benefit from being planted at altitude (up to 470m). Tasmanian production is tiny, yet a lot of attention has been focused there in recent years. It is the coolest wine region in Australia, although some parts of the island do see hot summers. The up-and-coming subregions are the northerly Tamar Valley and Piper’s River.

Australia’s equivalent of California’s Central Valley is the Big Rivers Zone. Basic bubblies will be made from fruit sourced from here, with many varieties used – including the sultana grape, Thompson Seedless – and the tank method of production is much more likely to be used.

Champagne-imitating sparklers are also made in small quantities in Western and South Australia. Additionally, fruit can be shipped from all over the country to go into the final blend. For instance, Domaine Chandon sources its fruit from Victoria, Tasmania, WA and SA.

Like California, Australia’s climate ripens grapes a lot more reliably than Champagne. Similar problems exist with regards to preserving acidity but avoiding ‘green’ flavours from early harvesting. The reliability of the climate means there is much less emphasis on reserving base wines to go into non-vintage blends. The blending focus is a lot more lateral (across vineyards and states) rather than vertical.

Sparkling Shiraz

No description of Australian sparkling wine would be complete without mentioning this unique piece of Australiana. Sparkling Shiraz is a style that seems to have its roots in Victoria in the 19th century, when it was called ‘Sparkling Burgundy‘. The style experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and now seems to have found a home in South Australia, although Great Western in Victoria is still a significant producer.

The best examples are made in the traditional method, using predominantly Shiraz grapes, although Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be used. These wines are typically semi-sweet (about 35g/l residual sugar), with relatively high alcohol (14%), have tannins, and may spend time in oak. I recall my guide on a tour of the Barossa region saying that he firmly believed in a wine for every occasion. His ‘occasion’ to open a bottle of sparkling Shiraz was a Sunday morning brunch of bacon and eggs cooked on the BBQ in the bright Barossan sunshine, after the ‘night before’.

New Zealand

Most traditional method sparkling wine production is in New Zealand is concentrated in Marlborough, and is very small scale. The exception to this is Montana, which produces most of New Zealand’s sparkling wine – although typically by the transfer of tank method. Their top cuvée, Lindauer Grandeur, is traditional method, as is the much-lauded Deutz Marlborough Cuvée – originally set up in partnership with champagne house Deutz. Pelorus by Cloudy Bay is another noted traditional method wine.

The industry has really only been going since the early 1980s and is seeing some growth. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the dominant grape varieties used. However, production of Pinot Noir fruit has taken a while to reach levels needed to expand the sparkling industry.

Last time I was home (Christmas 2010) I saw bottles of the rather dubious-sounding sparkling Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. The sparkling Sauvignon was no doubt a ‘bright idea’ spurred by the glut of Sauvignon grape production. Perhaps that is also the same reason for the sparkling Pinot Gris. Regardless, I didn’t feel inspired enough to sample them, and I’m sure they would not be made in the traditional method.

Latin America

Latin America has seen investment and joint ventures by the big Champagne (especially Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck, Moët & Chandon) and Cava houses. Nevertheless, production here is very small and most is consumed domestically or within other Latin American countries. There are sites with great potential yet to be fully explored, such as the Limari Valley in Chile, the Rio Grande del Sul in Brazil, southern climes of Argentina, and higher-altitude parts of Mexico (where Freixenet has an outpost). Currently, Argentina produces the most sparkling wine in South America, with Mendoza responsible for about 70% of output.

South Africa

‘Cap Classique’ is South Africa’s term for traditional method sparkling wines. Production is very small scale with fewer than two-dozen producers. Almost all follow the champagne style in using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to make Brut-style wines. A number of tank method wines are made from Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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6 Responses to New World Traditional Method Sparkling Wines

  1. myweeklywine says:

    Hi James
    I suspect that your paragraph on South Africa’s Cap Classique wines may not be accurate – I think that there are more than 24 producers, and SA’s CAP Classiques are becoming highly regarded internationally. The Cap Classique Association has around 100 producers as members.
    I will do some research, and see what stats I can find and let you know what I come up with.
    Kind regards,
    Alison
    http://myweeklywine.com

  2. James says:

    Hi Alison,
    That would be brilliant. These sorts of stats are notoriously hard to track down and change frequently. Anything you could dig up to correct matters would be much appreciated. I couldn’t find anything obvious on the Cap Classique Association website.
    Best wishes,
    James

  3. Hi James
    I obtained this information courtesy of Pieter Ferreira, Cellarmaster at Graham Beck, and head/chairperson(?) of the Cap Classique association. I have copied it here verbatim. I plan to do some more research and write an article at some stage, so thanks for sparking the interest!
    Kind regards,
    Alison

    Cap Classique was established in 1992 long before the embargo on Methode Champenoise was placed in 1995. The Association was started by 14 members then. Today we have 82 members in the Cap Classique Producers’ Association. We remain to try and be inclusive but we are not there yet. According to the Platter Wine Guide there are about a 100 wineries making Cap Classique wines.

    Cap Classique is the synonym for bottle fermented sparkling wine. I don’t keep track of ‘normal’ sparkling wine (carbonated). But it is mainly Cooperatives and producing Wholesalers who produces this style of sparkling. According to my knowledge there is less than 3 Charmat (cuvee close) sparkling wines made. The latest statistics on Sparkling Wine (SAWIS 2011 figures) in South Africa is: Total litressold in SA (local market) = 8,8 million litresand Total litressold on Export market = 6,6 million litres. SAWIS unfortunately does not distinguish between Sparkling Wine and Cap Classique so a total of 15,4 million litres(so my guess is 5,4 million litresCap Classique and 10 million sparkling wine)

    Total Cap Classique production is approximately 7 million bottles and current sales suggests that the volume doubles every 5 years. Very vibrant category in SA wine industry. There is only a handful of bigger producers (more than 200 000 bottles a year – of which two producers produce a million bottles a year) about 6 producers producing nearly 80% of production. Styles emerging are Blanc de Blancs, Blends, Roses and the small amount of Prestige Cuvees. Any variety is permitted and current legislation for time on the lees is 9 months. There is a white paper passed that the minimum time on the lees is going to be 12 months which we hope will be written as law by end of 2013.

    Small percentage leave SA. Most is consumed in local market. Little exported major ones Poncracz, Graham Beck, Simonsig, Pierre Jourdan and Villiera. Main markets Sweden, UK, Germany and USA.

    The Association is quite active in promoting the category by doing generic festivals (x3) a year. They also do a annual base wine tasting were all members brings the base wines and is tasted in a
    workshop style and comment are given to improve the base wines going to bottle. The hold a technical seminar yearly where we get international speakers to discuss latest products and technical aspects and ending with a Champagne tasting.

  4. James says:

    Hi Alison,
    Thank you so much for the digging and the response you managed to achieve. Quite informative and certainly a lot more than I knew. It’s clearly quite a dynamic sector still.
    I look forward to reading your article once you’ve written it. Please keep me informed!
    James

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