CULT OF TASTE: Bring on the Bubbles


Why more and more East End wineries are adding fizz.

While some cultures view sparkling wine as suitable for daily consumption, we of the New World tend to save our bubbles for special occasions. “During the holidays, people buy more,” says Eric Fry, the gregarious, bearded winemaker at Lenz. “I don’t agree with it, that people tend to treat it as an extravagance. I want, on March 27, for people to drink it with roasted chicken.”

And while we have yet to transition our relationship with bubbly into a daily affair, there is some justification behind our choice to exoticize and eroticize sparkling wine—the elaborate and time-consuming process that inevitably costs a winemaker more. Still, there are no fewer than 15 Long Island wineries now making sparkling wine. And while most follow the challenging laws of Champagne, where only particular varieties and fermentation methods are used, a handful of wineries, like Croteaux Vineyards and Bouké, are using other methods to get bubbly wine to market faster and often at a lower cost.

At Sparkling Pointe, French winemaker Gilles Martin uses méthode champenoise, which requires the second fermentation in the bottle, which creates the bubbles. He begins with handpicked grapes that are gently crushed in a pneumatic (or balloon) press. For still wines, a pressing might result in 155 to 165 gallons of juice per ton of grapes. For sparkling wines, Martin says he presses only 125.

Méthode champenoise, says Martin, is a longer process that requires greater storage space. The grapes are harvested early, and the first fermentation, which creates the base wines at Sparkling Pointe, takes three to four weeks. Following fermentation and fining (to remove particles and sediment), the wines are bottled with added sugar and yeast and then topped with a crown cap, like what is used to top a bottle of beer. Fermentation begins again for another three to six weeks. The wine then ages in the bottle on dead yeast cells, known as the lees. Sitting horizontally (sur latte in French), allows the sediment to gather on the bottle’s side. At Sparkling Pointe, the cuvées age for two years on the lees (sur lie, that is, on the sediment of the dead yeast cells) and the blanc de blancs ages for four to six years before the sediment is disgorged and the bottle is topped off with dosage, a blend of wine and cane sugar. “Dosage,” says Martin, as he climbs over a cage of such bottles, laid tight and glistening like fish, “is where you can still put your mark on the wine…. It’s a signature of the winemaker to handle it.”

(Under European Union law, the term “Champagne” is reserved for sparkling wines made from grapes grown in that region of France. The law does not apply in the United States; however, many producers respect the wishes of the Champenois and call their wines “sparkling” and the method “traditional,” instead of “champenoise.”)

At Lenz, Fry points out that bottles for bubbly must be twice as heavy as those for still wine, in order to withstand the pressure of 100 pounds per square inch. “Stronger than your tires,” he says; thus the bottles cost twice as much. When my research assistant, David, and I arrive at Lenz, Fry is directing the tail end of the disgorgement process. Fry, the winemaker at Lenz for 23 years, says, “We don’t normally do disgorgement during harvest, but we had no choice. We’re running out of bubbly because it’s selling too fast.”

Sine Fry arrived in 1989, Lenz has been producing sparkling wine. In the beginning, he used to blend pinot noir and chardonnay. Then he tasted the still wines and saw the chardonnay was “pretty good” while the pinot noir was “wonderful.” Since then, the sparkling wines at Lenz have been made from 100 percent pinot noir. In addition to the Lenz Cuvée, Fry also produces a R.D. (récemment dégorgée, or recently disgorged) cuvée, which is aged for an extended period, but not disgorged until just before release. This technique—a rare effort for any sparkling winemaker, even in Champagne—allows the wine to age while maintaining its freshness.

Standing in a room of stainless steel tanks, Fry uncorks a bottle of 1996 R.D. Cuvée. Bottled in 1997 and disgorged in 2010, this wine spent 13 years on the lees. In exceptional vintages, which are most vintages to Fry, he likes to set aside a few cases for late disgorgement. He has 20 cases of the ’96 left, which he intends to disgorge this year. “It’s extreme,” he says, pouring a taste into my glass, “but I like to do things in extreme style.” I lift the glass to my nose and smell Vegemite, a brown Australian spread that’s made from yeast. Bread and brioche notes are typical for sparkling wines, but because the yeast is so completely “dissolved” in the R.D., according to Fry, the flavors head farther from baking notes toward yeast and even honey. With all this passing of time, the wine is slightly oxidized, revealing sherry-like aromas and flavors. “It makes no economic sense,” says Fry, with a big laugh, standing on a cask and lumbering above the bottle in his zip-up hoodie and graying ponytail. “But wine tastes good and it’s fun. I’ve been doing wine for 36 years. If you don’t do something fun and exciting, it becomes old hat,” he says and tips back the glass.

Once the assistant winemaker at Roderer Estate, a French-owned sparklingwine producer in the Anderson Valley in California, Martin has dedicated himself to the art of the bubble. Born “at the gate of the Champagne area,” Martin, who has been with Sparkling Pointe since its inception in 2003, opens the tap on a tank to offer David and me a sample of his base wine made from pinot noir. I take a sip and pucker. The acidity is high and bright, and I tell him I’d drink it. In Champagne, Martin says, the chalky soil yields notes of minerality, and the short cool growing season guarantees the high-acid levels necessary for the base of any great sparkling wine. In contrast, “the terroir of Long Island offers more ripening,” which results in more sugar and lower acid. “We have a different profile in terms of wine. It’s a trade-off.” And while he has consulted on sparkling-wine production at other houses, such as Martha Clara and Macari Vineyards, he is now strictly striving for consistency at Sparkling Pointe.

“What drives consistency is the blending of wines,” he says. “In order to achieve consistency year after year, I blend different wine.” That is, rather than relying on one recipe, the winemaker blends different ratios of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier to achieve a house style. “I need different wines on the palette, like a painter. It’s not the same every year.”

In its first year, Sparkling Pointe produced 1,000 cases. Last year that number tripled; this year, 5,000 cases were made, with the addition of Topaz Imperial, a sparkling rosé with notes of strawberry-infused stone. Of the four wines Sparkling Pointe produces, their tête de cuvée Brut Seduction is the most complex. In 2009, the Brut Seduction was voted best of class at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. According to Martin, it “is for people who really like Champagne.”

Across Noyack Bay from the North Fork stands Wölffer Estate, where Roman Roth makes two sparkling wines, a rosé called Noblesse Oblige, and a blanc de blancs, made purely from chardonnay. Now producing nearly 800 cases each year, Roth first made sparkling wine against a bit of resistance. In 1992, his first sparkling vintage, Roth made only 35 cases. “Christian Wölffer stated that only French Champagne is drinkable,” writes Roth in an e-mail, referring to the vineyard’s legendary founder. “So, when the 1992 was ready, we held a blind tasting with six of his friends. The Wölffer sparkling, the Bollinger and the Charles Heidsick were the wines tasted. Three of his friends thought ours was the Heidsick and three thought ours was the Bollinger. Only Christian got it right, later admitting that he was guessing.”

By early November the Noblesse Oblige was sold out. But don’t worry yet. Roth disgorged the 2007 in time for Thanksgiving; one can only hope it doesn’t sell out before the end of the year.

Also in the limited-edition category, Bedell Cellars has made a small amount of sparkling wine using méthode champenoise since 2004. The winery just released 150 cases of the 2006 version of its Bedell blanc de blancs, or B3, made from a single block of 25-yearold chardonnay vines and stored in the bottle for three years prior to being disgorged.

At Martha Clara, where Martin used to oversee the production of sparkling wines, one can still purchase the wines he produced—the brut, the blanc de blancs and the rosé. Priced at $22 or less, these are wines one could serve at a holiday party without breaking the bank. Martha Clara’s current winemaker, Juan Micieli-Martinez, says their sparkling wines are always in release, so they never run out. Showing his support for the notion that every day is cause for celebration, Micieli-Martinez suggests drinking the blanc de blancs on Sunday mornings with fresh pomegranate juice.

Though méthode champenoise is the most favored method of production on Long Island, not everyone observes the law of Champagne, where only chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes are allowed. At Lieb Family Cellars, the blanc de blancs is the fortuitous product of an accidental planting of pinot blanc. The winery made 200 cases in 1993. And, with Fry as the consulting winemaker, Lieb produced this all-pinot blanc sparkler off and on, until 2000, when it was reintroduced as a brighter wine that spent less time on its lees.

In addition to the blanc de blancs, Lieb offers the Bridge Lane Bubbly, a blend of 60 percent chardonnay and 40 percent pinot noir. Once made by Gilles Martin, the Bridge Lane is sold only at Lieb’s tasting room, where there are 100 cases left. “Just enough to get through the holidays,” says Gary Madden, the general manager at Lieb.

If Lieb’s and Lenz’s wine are sold out, two new sparkling producers would be more than happy to have their wines grace your holiday table. Croteaux Vineyards introduced their Cuvée Sparkle last year, and Bouké launched their Perlant this year. Both wineries have chosen other methods of production.

Using the Charmat process, Croteaux blends their still wines—the three merlot clones: 3, 31, and 181—and the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, takes place in a pressurized tank. According to Michael Croteau, who owns the vineyard with his wife, Paula, the Charmat method results in wine quick to market. “It allows us to release the wine on a similar schedule to our other wines, and keeps the dry, crisp, fruity flavors of our rosés. It fits our style better than the yeasty-toasty méthode champenoise type of sparkling.” And indeed, Croteau is right. The Sparkling Cuvée tastes like a blend of their rosé wines. With only 400 cases produced, hurry to secure some for the holidays.

Bouké simplifies the sparkling process even more, by employing the frizzante—or semi-sparkling wine—method, where the light bubbles are a result of a second fermentation in the tank. A blend that’s bottled under screw cap, the sparkle here dances on the tongue, as opposed to filling one’s entire mouth. “It’s delightful as an aperitif or with Sunday brunch,” writes Lisa Donneson, owner of Bouké, adding another voice to Long Island winemakers’ notion that we should celebrate life’s smaller moments with a toast of the flute, because sparkling wines are not just for birthdays, anniversaries or New Year’s Eve. They’re for every day.

Karen Ulrich is WSET certified, lives in Harlem and writes for her blog,, where it’s all about wine.