Virginia Sparklers Rise to the Occasion

By Jennifer Knowles , special to EdibleDC

 Photo by Victoria Milko

Photo by Victoria Milko

Sparkling wine is extremely well suited to the table. Its complexity and texture make it an amiable partner to a whole world of cuisines, especially when using seasonal vegetables. While choosing a sparkling wine means deciding what will work best for your specific purposes, consider your local options this year.

Having worked with Virginia wines very closely for the past five years, I have been continuously impressed and excited about the sparkling wines making their way to the retail scene. Interest in this category is steadily rising as more producers try their hand at this challenging style of winemaking.

 Photo by Victoria Milko

Photo by Victoria Milko

Still wine is made during one main fermentation and can be released within a year, or less, after harvest. Sparkling wines go through two fermentations and also need lengthy aging before release, which ties up both winery space and equity. Of course there are many other facets that contribute to the cost of these wines, but I know from experience that our Virginia bottlings can stand tall next to their counterparts from California, France and beyond. Although the sparkling wine chapter in the tale of Virginia wines is just starting to be written, it is one filled with stories of passionate local winemakers willing to take a chance on a wine that often plays a large part in our fondest memories of celebration and joy.

THIBALT- JANISSON

The words “sparkling wine” and “Virginia” cannot be spoken in the same sentence without the mention of Claude Thibaut, the man who helped forge the future for bubbly in the commonwealth. After studying in the heart of the Champagne region of France and cutting his New World teeth at both J and Iron Horse in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Claude was brought to Virginia by Patricia Kluge in 2003 to try Champagne-method wines at her estate outside of Charlottesville (now the site of Trump winery). In 2005, he began his own winery in partnership with the Janisson family from Champagne and has been focused solely on sparkling wine for a decade.

Blancs de Chardonnay NV (around $30 retail)

100% Chardonnay from the Monticello AVA, this is the wine served at many White House dinners. Aged for two years in the bottle, it shows green apple and crisp Bosc pear aromas along with a balanced toastiness and a long lemon-peel finish.

FIZZ NV (around $20 retail in NOVA only, no DC retail right now)

Fizz was made in a more fruit-forward style specifically for mixing. It has a richer texture and marries perfectly with both fruit juices and liquors for any drink that calls for sparkling wine.

HORTON VINEYARDS

Dennis Horton is a pioneer in the world of Virginia viticulture and was the first to bring many of the more esoteric grapes to the region, including a grape from the Northern Rhone Valley in France called Viognier. The only other area growing Viognier at the time was Northern California and they were often treating it more like Chardonnay, which with higher acidity can stand new oak barrel aging and the creamy tones imparted by malolactic fermentation. Dennis saw the lower natural acidity of the grape, as well as its floral aromas and marzipan-like flavors, and tried to maximize freshness in the resulting wine. In 1998, the weather was so hot and dry that the Viognier crop became unwieldy and the need to cut back clusters arose. So not wanting to sacrifice the beautiful fruit, he decided to create a sparkling wine with the younger, less ripe fruit, and he continues today.

Horton Sparkling Viognier(about $25 retail)

After aging in the bottle for 18 months, this 100% Methode Champenois Viognier is redolent of pear blossoms and crisp white peach balanced by a slight bitter almond note on the palate that brings an unusual and welcome texture to the wine. It is quite dry but also has a lovely balance of fruit that makes it perfect with charcuterie and cheese paired with fruit compotes and mustards.

VERITAS WINERY

Andrew and Patricia Hodson founded their winery at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2002 and after bringing in Claude Thibaut to consult with them on a crazy idea to make bubbly wine, they ventured out on their own in 2010. This is truly a family partnership: The Hodsons’ daughter Emily created the winemaking “team” with her father after finishing her Master of Enology degree at Virginia Tech and Patricia makes her mark in the vineyards. There are many reasons to visit Veritas, including The Farmhouse, an adjacent B&B that also houses the talents of Chef Andy Shipman, who brings the farm to the table utilizing bounty from local Nelson County farmers.

Scintilla (about $30 retail)

Predominately Chardonnay with a touch of Merlot juice pressed on the skins, Scintilla was a term created by Emily to describe the “little bright dots of light” that are interwoven within the fabric of the wine. Aged for 24 months in the bottle, classic aromas of crushed hazelnuts and yellow apple are lifted with the scent of Mirabelle plums and balanced by crisp acidity and a beautiful creamy Meyer lemon–like finish.

Mousseaux(about $30 retail)

The name of this rosé sparkler comes from the term used in the Samur region of the Loire Valley of France for their wines made with Cabernet Franc. This is 100% Merlot and produced with the time-intensive saignée method where the color is bled’ from the skins of the grape during maceration. It is aged for 18 months and the pale salmon color belies its amazing complexity. It is richer than the Scintilla and a bit more fruit forward showing light strawberry and white Rainier cherry aromas balanced by pomegranate acidity and red apple flavors on the palate. Perfect for those who love dry styles of Prosecco, but want more flavor.

Jennifer Knowles is wine director of The Jefferson DC. She was wine director at The Inn at Little Washington and named Best Sommelier by the International Academy of Gastronomy. She is deeply involved with the Virginia Wine Council and is a regular judge o the annual Govenor's Cup.