Phil Arras and Michael Cimino of Damiani Wine Cellars

There are many great wines coming out of the Finger Lakes region in New York. They not only hold their own, but often upstage wines from regions all over the world. We can boast about really great whites, Rosés and reds and yes, even great sparkling wines. And why not? Our climate is very similar to that of the most famous sparkling wine region of all, Champagne. 

What is sparkling wine? One word: bubbles! How does this happen? Wine is fermented grape juice. Fermentation is the process of yeast digesting sugars and creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. If this carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle you get bubbles. Originally bubbles in the wine were considered a mistake in winemaking. If the fermentation is halted and bottled and the wine has not finished fermenting, when the bottle warms up the yeast will finish fermenting releasing carbon dioxide in the bottle.

There are several ways that sparkling wine is made. The traditional method, which used to be called the Champagne method, is by far the most expensive and labor-intensive method. The three traditional grapes for this wine are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, often picked less ripe, with high acid and less sugar than traditional wines. The juice is fermented, with different juices often kept separate from each other and then blended to create the style the winemaker is seeking. 

Wines are then put into strong bottles that can withstand pressure, a bit of sugar and yeast are added and the bottle is capped and the second fermentation starts. This process leaves dead yeast (lees) in the bottom of the bottle. Bottles are put in a dark area on their side and aged for at least 18 months, which adds complexity and flavor to the wine. The trick is to get a clear wine without bubbles escaping. 

This next part of the process: riddling, occurs when the bottles are gradually moved from the horizontal to the vertical position, by daily giving each bottle a turn/shake and gradually changing the angle of the rack where the wine is stored. When the sediment is finally down in the neck of the bottle, the bottle neck is quickly frozen, the sediment comes out as a pellet (disgorging), the bottle is topped off with a bit more juice and sugar (dosage), then the champagne cork is driven into the bottle. 

Originally many wines made in this style were called Champagne, now only sparkling wine made in this method in Champagne, France can legally be called Champagne. Some winemakers were grandfathered into this, and allowed to use the name, but many have dropped the term out of respect for the region. 

Another method to be noted is the transfer method, similar to the traditional method in that the second fermentation happens in the bottle. When the wine has spent the desired amount of time fermenting, it is transferred under pressure into a tank. There the wine is filtered, the dosage added, and then filled back into new bottles for sale. This method allows for complexity to be built into the wine, but is much less labor intensive, making for a nice sparkling wine that can be less expensive.

Recently I spoke with Meaghan Frank, of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Her grandfather, Willy Frank developed sparkling wines under the Chateau Frank label. In 1984 Willy Frank released the region’s very first sparkling wines made via the traditional method using the traditional French Champagne grapes. Willy was the first in the East Coast to plant Pinot Meunier for sparkling wine production. He believed that we could make comparable if not superior sparkling wines than those made in Champagne. In 1996 Chateau Frank sparkling wine were chosen for a governor’s dinner at the U.S. White House under the Clinton Administration. 

There are currently five sparkling wines available from Chateau Frank, including 2010 Blanc de Blanc (100 percent Chardonnay), 2009 Blanc de Noir (100 percent Pinot Noir), 2009 Brut (blend of the 3 traditional grapes), Celebré (100 percent Riesling), and Celebré Rosé (blend of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir). There is also a Brut Rosé (100 percent Pinot Noir) but is only available in the tasting room, which makes a visit to the winery a must. These different styles are all delicious and worth drinking for many different occasions. 

Don’t be surprised when sparkling wines aren’t labeled with the year they were born, they are often blends from wines from more than one year, allowing consistency of the wine. But when a date is represented on a label, take note, it generally indicates that this was a very good year to make a quality sparkling wine. 

Meaghan predicted, “The Finger Lakes will be the next big region to be recognized for the production of sparkling wines made in the traditional method.” After tasting their selection, I have to agree. The wines have lovely depth of flavor, are a delight to drink, with just enough variation in the different styles to make them all worth enjoying. 

Phil Arras, winemaker at Damiani Wine Cellars has some wonderful words of wisdom as well. They have two types of sparkling wine available. One is made in the traditional method, a 2010 Sparkling Brut (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). They age their traditional sparkling wine for at least two and a half years, but he notes more is better. 

The second sparkling wine they produce is Bollicini, a Finger Lakes Prosecco-style wine. It is made utilizing the transfer method, which is still bottle fermented, but Pleasant Valley Wine Company (Great Western Winery) has the technology and the equipment to complete the process. It is made with a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cayuga White (a hybrid developed at Cornell University). This blend and process results in a lovely fresh sparkling wine that can be sold much more inexpensively than those made in the traditional method. 

As Phil noted, “A great way to not make money is to make Champagne, unless you have a large operation and have all the equipment. If you want to make sparkling wine in the Finger Lakes it is a passion project, if you break even you are doing all right.”

“The idea that champagne is truly celebratory, I understand, you pay through the nose for it,” said Arra, “but that’s a reason to start a winery, you can make it, not make any money off of it, but you don’t have to pay for it. So you better make some other wine too!” 

Mark Wagner, owner and winemaker of Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars has been making sparkling wine, since he started, over 26 years ago. He believes that we have the right climate to make great sparkling wines here as well. It delivers fruit with the right amount of acid, fruit and sugar to produce these wines. 

They only disgorge about 50 cases at a time, only as they need to allow it to get better and better with age. The first bottle will not taste the same as the last. The more time it spends on the lees, the better. All their sparkling wines are vintage and made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We tasted the 2009 Brut (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), delicious depth of flavor and great bubbles!

As Mark said, “It is completely a labor of love; we do it all by hand here. No automation. It’s probably not making any money.” We agree that it always makes things festive. Best way to start a party!

I also spoke with Jeremy Coffey, the hospitality and program development manager at the Hermann J. Wiemer vineyard. All their wines are also vintage, all made with a hands on approach with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Fred Merwarth, co-owner and winemaker is always working to find ways to make consistently great sparkling wines regardless of the vintage. They experiment with multiple disgorgements, up to seven to determine the sweet spot of how long aging should occur. 

Wiemer released his first sparkling wine as a Riesling Sekt in 1985. He believed, along with Merwarth, that they have the right location to grow sparkling wine grapes with both the climate and soil. One of their vineyards, is located on a high, cool plateau 1.5 miles from the lake with a shale soil. This produces a Blanc de Blanc (Chardonnay) with a lovely mineral style. Coffey noted that Merwarth often says, “We don’t have a problem with over-ripeness in the Finger Lakes”.

Katie Cook, an assistant winemaker from Wiemer, noted “We [the Finger Lakes] don’t want to copy Champagne. This region is unique, and we want to have unique wines.”

They currently have a Brut Rosé and Blanc de Blanc, both 2009 which I tasted and were beautifully made wines, distinctly different, delicious and great for many a special occasion. They also have a 2011 Blanc de Noir and Cuvée Brut 2011. 

What consistently came through in my conversations is that the we have the climate and soil here in the Finger Lakes as well as the passion to make excellent sparkling wines! Go visit some wineries and try some, you won’t be disappointed! §

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