“This place,” he informed me, “makes only sparkling wine.”
Then a wine newbie with a palate partial to late harvest Rieslings, I responded with wrinkled nose: “I’m not sure I like sparkling wine.”
His exasperated look illustrated his rapidly declining opinion of my sanity, and rightfully so. But what I learned that day — and which has been reinforced over the years since — is that bubbly is divine. In a single sip, I transformed from doubter to devotee. I now worship at the altar of sparkling wine, and the words of Larry Mawby, L. Mawby’s eponymous owner and winemaker, are my gospel: “Bubbles make everything better.”
Sparkling wine was developed almost by accident, as winemakers in France’s chilly Champagne region battled the bubbles that materialized, unbidden, in what was intended to be still wine. They eventually determined that the cool temperatures were halting fermentation prematurely, only for it to resume come spring, generating fizzy carbon dioxide within the bottle.
Upon embracing effervescence as the ultimate expression of their lesser-ripened, acidic grapes, they developed the “méthode champenoise” (also known as “bottle fermenting” or “traditional method”), a process that perfected upon what already had been occurring naturally. Other less costly and time-consuming processes, like tank fermenting (also called “cuve close” or “Charmat method”) and carbonation came later.
Adding to the allure, sparkling wine production has a language all its own: tirage, dosage, disgorgement, riddling. But all historical and technical aspects aside, there’s the inarguable beauty of the beverage: the stream of bubbles steadily rising in a shapely flute; the delicate golden or peach hue; the irresistible zip as fizz meets tongue.
As I’ve become increasingly entrenched in the Michigan wine industry, I’ve found plenty of places to acquire bubbly libations locally, with offerings varying in sweetness, price point and production method. L. Mawby makes a méthode champenoise line that includes Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and J’Adore, as well as tank-fermented selections under the M. Lawrence brand, consisting of well-known names like Detroit, Sandpiper, Us, Fizz and — perhaps most notably, at least for the wink factor — Sex.
Black Star Farms boasts a pair of carbonated bubblies, Be Dazzled and Bubbly Nouveau, and, for more yeast influence and a richer, drier palate, bottle-fermented Black Star Farms 2008 Sparkling Wine and Isidor’s Choice Blanc de Noir.
Southwest Michigan-based St. Julian Wine Co. has a slew of sparklers to its name, including tank-fermented Braganini Reserve Blanc de Noir, Sweet Nancie, Passionate Peach Spumante and Raspberry Spumante, and bottle-fermented Braganini Reserve Blanc de Blanc. Likewise, Old Mission Peninsula’s 2 Lads Winery produces a duo of 100 percent vintage, traditional method sparkling wines: fruit-forward, Prosecco-like Sparkling Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay-dominated Reserve Sparkling, aged at length on the lees. Other sparkling selections from Michigan include Chateau Chantal’s Celebrate, Shady Lane Cellars’ Sparkling Riesling, bigLITTLE Wines’ Tire Swing, Tabor Hill’s Grand Mark, Bel Lago’s Brillante and Good Harbor Vineyards’ Moonstruck Blanc de Noirs, Sleeping Bare Blanc de Blanc and Clustar Demi-Sec Rosé.
And that’s only scratching the surface. Chris Baldyga, 2 Lads’ co-owner and general manager, believes that Michigan, with time, will gain recognition “as one of America’s best sources for sparkling wine,” thanks to its well-suited climate and quality grapes.
Because much of the wine world still regards Michigan as “an emerging wine region,” he added, the state’s high-quality bubblies “typically over-deliver and are considered great bargains for quality-to-price ratio and overall presentation in the glass.”
Aficionados insist sparklers aren’t meant to be stashed for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion; they’re just as suitable for toasting a Tuesday night. Shady Lane winemaker/general manager Adam Satchwell said he often pops open a bottle at home “to transform an ordinary day into something a bit more special.”
“I believe every day you wake up and have your health is a day to celebrate,” said Taylor Simpson, Good Harbor’s sales, distribution and marketing director. “Therefore, why not drink bubbly on a regular basis?”
As culinary companions, Lutes suggests scrambled eggs with crème fraîche and caviar, pâté and fresh oysters (which, he raved, can be “a religious experience”), but pricey pairings are strictly optional. Baldyga prefers his bubbles alongside charcuterie components: smoked salmon or cured meat, Humboldt fog or triple-cream brie, fresh fruit, olive oil and a hunk of crusty bread. Nancie Corum-Oxley, St. Julian’s head winemaker, sips sparklers with any tasty aged cheese, cheesecake, or crostini topped with walnut, honey and blue cheese spread. For Sam Simpson, Good Harbor’s winemaker and vineyard manager, a clean, fresh Blanc de Blanc hits the spot with kabobs or whitefish in the summer. Come winter, he craves yeasty Blanc de Noirs with oven-roasted chicken and morel mushroom reduction.
But perhaps bubbly’s greatest appeal, even more than its food friendliness, is its friendliness, period.
“Sparkling wine is supposed to be fun,” Simpson said. “I think of people drinking sparkling wine and smiling. How can someone be angry with a glass of bubbles in front of them? I wouldn’t want to meet that person.”
(Cortney Casey is co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website/online community promoting the Michigan wine industry. Michael Brenton will be back in December.)