Champagne Goes Rogue

As you raise a glass of bubbly this New Year’s, you’ll be celebrating a new era in rule-breaking American sparkling wines.


New Year’s Eve has long been associated with a Champagne toast and the promise of new beginnings.

This festive, effervescent tradition dates directly to the 19th century, when Champagne houses began catering to individuals with new fortunes acquired during the Industrial Revolution. Symbolically, the custom reaches back much farther—to 496, when King Clovis of France converted to Christianity for his wife, Clotilde. He ushered in a new era in France and sparked a ritual by which new French kings began their reign in the city of Reims, celebrating afterwards with Champagne toasts. (The wines were still back then, but they were festive all the same.)

Until recently, Champagne houses have generally remained large operations. Established houses make the vast majority of their bubbly brews from a mélange of grapes grown by multiple vignerons throughout the entire Champagne appellation. The final wines are usually blends of several vintages and aim to create a “house style” for consistency. Some of those houses have established American outposts. Champagne Roederer’s California counterpart is called Roederer Estate. Taittinger’s American offshoot is Domaine Carneros. Piper Sonoma is the American sibling of Remy-Cointreau’s Piper-Heidseick Champagne Brand.

Meanwhile, during the past several years in Champagne, the “Grower” movement has gained momentum and aplomb. In 1980, winemaker Jacques Selosse began ushering in a new kind of Champagne in which he focused on growing high-quality grapes (historically, that had not the priority—grapes of middling quality are easy to mask with high levels of dosage), low yields, organic growing techniques, and wines that reflected terroir and vintage as opposed to a house style. Selosses’s philosophy ignited a movement. This movement is based upon individual growers who decided to start making their own wine with their grapes as opposed to selling them to larger houses.

America is an especially exciting place for wine right now. Author Jon Bonné chronicles this in his new release The New California Wine, in which he highlights a new wave of rule-breaking winemakers experimenting with grapes, philosophies and techniques in California.

Yet, America’s sparkling wines have not reflected this sort of renegade, rule-breaking philosophy. They have taken inspiration from the larger Champagne houses, focusing on house styles as opposed to vineyards, vintages and varietals.

That is beginning to change. In California, a handful of envelope-pushing winemakers are starting to make sparkling wines with a different mindset, often with guidance from esteemed grower-producers in Champagne. The wines won’t be released for a few months, but they will begin to hit the market in early 2014.

In Sonoma, friends Morgan Twain-Peterson (of Bedrock vineyards) and Chris Cotrell are making single-vineyard, single-varietal sparkling wines under a new label, “Under the Wire.” Their first vintage release will be a 100% Chardonnay cuvee from the “Brousseau” vineyard, all from the 2011 vintage, an excellent year to start a sparkling project on account of the historically cool temperatures. Under-the-Wire is also making a 100% Zinfandel sparkling wine from Twain-Peterson’s historic Bedrock vineyard (the vines are 120 years old), as well as other cuvees that will be released in 2015.

Twain-Peterson and Cotrell mention that making these wines has resulted in “a lot of discovery.” Their philosophy is a blend of trial-and-error as well as meticulous due-diligence—they have looked to Champagne luminaries from Olivier Horiot and François Huré to Fréderic Panaiotis (chef de cave of Ruinart) and Richard Geoffroy (chef de cave at Dom Pérignon) for guidance and inspiration.

In Santa Barbara, Justin Willett (winemaker of Tyler wines) and the Wenzlau family are making a sparkling Blancs de Blancs from the Wenzlau Vineyard with guidance from Cédric Bouchard. Their first vintage is 2012, and an expected release is fall of 2014. This project transpired when Cédric Bouchard came to visit the Wenzlau family in Santa Barbara and was impressed with the tension and purity of fruit that Justin was able to draw from the grapes in the finished wines.

Also in Santa Barbara, Rajat Parr of Sandhi Wines is making a “Selosse-style rosé” from 100% Pinot Noir, with guidance from Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet (though you’ll have to wait until 2015 to get your hands on any).

This New Years Eve, raise a glass. Within the realm of sparkling wines, we are at a new beginning.