Fizzical TherapyOct 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
I’ve consumed sparkling wine in celebration, apology, in punctuation to a busy work day, and for no reason at all. It’s my go-to choice when hanging out with friends on a sunny afternoon by the lake or on a boat. Unfortunately, sparkling wine consumption in the States feels beset by a celebratory mentality. We drink it at the steakhouse for big Donnie’s fiftieth. We raise a glass when Brenda and Eddie tie the knot. Or we crack a bottle when Janice nails a hard-earned pay bump. It seems like we’re always waiting to drink it, holding out for a holiday, when what we’re actually doing is denying ourselves the panoply of sensory pleasures that only good sparkling wine can deliver.
The Finger Lakes makes excellent sparkling wines utilizing distinct techniques, from the hallowed méthode champenoise (champagne method), to force carbonation, to pétillant naturel.
At Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery on Keuka Lake, Eric Bauman leads the charge as sparkling wine maker, continuing the legacy of méthode champenoise wines first made in 1985 starting with Willy Frank. The traditional champagne grapes used to make these wines—chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier—are the first picked each year while natural acidity remains high. All grapes are hand-harvested and sorted for quality.
Pioneered in the cool, rainy region of Champagne, the champagne-method of making sparkling wine involves the meticulous secondary fermentation of an already fermented base wine. Secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle under crown cap creating trapped CO2, making up those millions of sizzly bubbles. The base wines may be a blend of the three main champagne grapes, a blend of only red grapes (blanc de noirs), or a blend of only white grapes (blanc de blancs). While méthode champenoise is practiced at Dr. Konstantin Frank and across the Finger Lakes, the wines are never labeled as champagne. Champagne is only made in Champagne, France, expressing the nonpareil character of that cold, mystical land north of Paris.
From a grape-growing standpoint, the climate in the Finger Lakes is more similar to Champagne than elsewhere in the States. There’s similar disease pressure and similarly high acidity in the grapes that is so important for sparkling wine. Some champagne styles, however, may be more viable here than others.
“Blanc de blancs is going to put us on the map,” Eric affirms. “The chardonnay is far more reliable than the red grapes.”
I confirmed this in a subsequent tasting of Dr. Frank’s sparkling wine portfolio. The 2019 blanc de blancs was a show-stopper. Clocking in at $39.99 a bottle, it had both weight and precision, and the flavor profile sang of toasted brioche and lemon pastry. The first pour I drank like water. The second, I savored, feeling lucky to have such incredible wines being made in my own backyard.
Lakewood Vineyards uses force carbonation for their top-selling Bubbly Candeo, a fruity, prosecco-inspired sparkler. In this approach, a still wine is pumped into a pressurized tank and injected with CO2. It’s far less expensive and time-consuming than méthode champenoise. The result is also completely different. Force carbonated wines are frothier and simpler than wines that have undergone a secondary bottle fermentation. Lakewood’s Bubbly Candeo and Sidekick Session Spritz, a low-alcohol sparkling rosé, are perfect wines for everyday drinking on the patio with cheese and crackers or tailgating the rock concert.
Which sparkling wine style is best simply depends on what’s happening.
“It all has a place,” explains Meaghan Frank, vice president at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. “Some just go great with Netflix. Sparkling wine is all about context.”
A third sparkling style is pétillant naturel, referred to as “pet nat” by a predominately young and hipsterific following. A great example is Osmote’s Cayuga White Pet Nat. It’s a refreshing porch-pounder riddled with limey-melon notes. Typically associated with the natural wine movement and minimal intervention winemaking, pet nats are simple, rustic, and cloudy due to lack of filtration. “Funky” is an adjective frequently applied by fans. “Unfinished” is a term I’ve heard used by its detractors. Instead of fermenting in a barrel or steel tank, the yeast-inoculated grape juice is pumped directly into the bottle and sealed. A single fermentation takes place under cap, creating dissolved CO2. Where champagne is disgorged to clarify the wine of lees (dead yeast cells), pet nat is not typically disgorged and remains murky in appearance. The wines are pleasant when they’re good, but can also be austere, even awkward. I recently enjoyed a glass of Osmote’s pet nat with fundraiser BBQ chicken and it was delicious. The simple precision of the local Cayuga white grape was the perfect counterpart to tangy chicken, salt potatoes, and mac salad. My favorite pairings are often the simplest.
When I asked Eric Bauman if he likes pet nat, his response was equitable. “Yes and no. It’s a hard sell for me. I really have to try each one. I really have to know who’s making them.”
Sparkling wine in the Finger Lakes is still a niche poised to pop, all too often hindered by a traditional association with celebration. Unlike oak-bomb chardonnay and big bold reds, sparkling wine is challenging, and not all consumers are interested in being challenged. It demands your participation. It wants to be noticed, tickling your skin as you bring it to your lips and sending comet-tails across your palate, leaving you thirsty for another sip. Remember that you don’t need an occasion. You don’t need the fancy dishes. While a glass of bubbly at a wedding is a must, a glass with dinner on a Tuesday night will make you feel fancy. Even heroic. That’s something it does every time. And therein lies its power.