Of late there’s a lot of cork-popping going on around town as several Paso Robles winemakers are climbing onto the sparkling wine bandwagon. And it’s that time of the year to check out some of the local bubbles.

The latest to join the sparkling trend, Niner Wine Estates unveiled its 2016 Cuvée Brut with much fanfare on December 7 just in time for the holiday season. The wet weather didn’t keep 70-plus guests from attending Niner’s Sparkling Soiree at its swanky tasting room. Andy Niner, the winery’s president, was joined by winemaker Molly Bohlman and their team, serving the Cuvée behind the bar counter while other servers, bottles in hand, milled around the room and kept the guests’ flutes filled.

The Cuvée Brut is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay from Niner’s Jesperson Ranch in Edna Valley. The base wine was tiraged for two years before being disgorged and bottled last May.

“We didn’t add any dosage at the stage of disgorging,” said Bohlman of a wine that expresses purity and freshness along with a bracing minerality. “We found this was naturally balanced so it didn’t need any sugar,” Bohlman explained. The wine is a lively and complex iteration of the coastal vineyard site. “It shines with food,” she added and indeed a sip of the Cuvée with chili-spiked fresh oysters proved a perfect pairing.

Lauren Rava

So, what’s the difference between champagne and sparkling wine?

The term champagne can only be used when it’s produced in France’s Champagne region. Otherwise, it’s called sparkling wine, even if it’s made in the traditional méthode champenoise style, a labor-intensive process that originated in Champagne. In this process, the second fermentation of a fully fermented still wine (cuvée) takes place in the bottle, kick-started with the addition of sugar and yeast (liqueur de tirage).

The wine’s aging process begins here, anywhere from a few months to a few years, where it gains nutty, toasty flavors.  In the traditional method, the aging bottles are riddled, slowly tipped and jiggled (by hand or by machine) so the yeast cells slide into the neck of the bottle. Once disgorged the bottle is topped up with sugar (dosage), which determines the sweetness of the final product.

Lineup of Paso Robles Sparkling Wines

(Alternately, sparkling wine can also be made by the tank method where the second fermentation takes place in the tank, instead of the bottle).

Traditionally in Champagne, a combination of any of three varieties is used as the cuvée – pinot noir (adds perfume and elegance), chardonnay (for structure and acidity) and pinot meunier (offers fruitiness and richness). Yet here in Paso adventurous winemakers are opting for all kinds of varietals. 

On a damp afternoon, I made my way to Rava Wines where co-owner Lauren Rava, introduced me to some new bottlings of non-vintage sparkling wines. The lineup included a slightly sweet gruner veltliner, a pinot grigio ringing with tropical flavors and a sassy albariño brisk with green apple notes. There’s also a fruitier Nocturne which blends chardonnay with these three varieties in addition to Rava’s popular Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir and a Rosé.

Rava Wines (now joined by Niner) was the first state-of-the-art winery in Paso to produce sparkling wines using the traditional method. The winery, with some 25 clients, has become a sought after facility for locals to produce their sparkling wines. However, others reach out to Napa and Sonoma for sparkling wine production.

Sandy Robinson Throop and Michelle Soots at Derby Wine Estates

 Rava attributes the current rise of sparkling wine to a glut of the grapes. “People want to do something with the crop,” she commented. Plus it makes a special wine club celebratory offering. The annual production of most of the Paso producers tends to be small, around a few hundred cases.  

There are more than two dozen sparkling wine producers in Paso, and as the holiday season got to a start, I embarked on a sip-and-savor sojourn to check out several.

In the Downtown Wine District alone, I came upon quite a few. At Derby Wine Estate, I savored an older 2007 vintage, classic with yeasty, nutty and buttery notes and the crisper 2014. Both wines are made from pinot noir grapes planted in Derbyshire Vineyard in San Simeon. 

I corralled a few winemakers to uncork their sparkling wines at Bushong Vintage Company to share their bubbles. Carmine Rubino, the founder of D’Anbino Cellars, poured Asciutto, a dry Brut style made from pinot gris and viognier and the sweeter Liggerio produced from the symphony grape (a hybrid of grenache gris and Muscat of Alexandria). Both wines are produced in Hayward. “We are selling out fast,” Rubino commented.

Jason Bushong, embarking on the sparkling trend this year, uncorked a sample as the wine was still on tirage and will be released next year. “I want more complexity,” said Bushong of the wine made from gewürztraminer sourced from Adelaida district.

Sparkling Wines from Vino Vargas, Vines on the Marycrest and Graveyard Vineyards

Hoyt Family Vineyards’ Hoyt 2 Hoyt was a vibrant, crisp blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, produced in Sonoma County. There were two interesting fizzy sparklers, Symbiosis white barbera, made in a non-traditional style, with high pressured carbon dioxide introduced in a keg of still wine and Peachy Canyon’s Pét Nat (Pétillant Naturel). The bone-dry sparkling wine of grenache noir is made in the méthode ancestral style (the wine finishes its primary fermentation in the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide and yeasty sediments). 

Pedro Vargas is among the few winemakers producing sparkling wine locally at his San Miguel winery. “I always wanted to make it but it was too big of a commitment,” he said. The Vargas Paso Doble is a delicious Blanc de Blanc (chardonnay) fresh and crisp with apple notes. Vargas started small with 50 cases in 2016 and plans to double production next year with Blanc de Noir and a Rosé . 

Graveyard Vineyards’ The Ascender Brut made from French colombard variety was a burst of deliciousness on the palate. The wine is produced in Lodi with fruit sourced there locally, noted co-owner Paula Campbell-Taylor.

At Vines on the Marycrest, owner/winemaker Victor Abascal crafts the viognier-dominant Blanc de Noir blended with grenache noir and counoise which added a slight rose tint to the wine. “We’ll stick to this combination,” Abascal commented. “We’ve hit upon something good. Indeed, with three years on tirage, the creamy 2016 Beyond Belief revealed layers of yeasty and brioche flavors.   

To celebrate the holiday season, check out sparkling wines from other Paso wineries such as Vina Robles, Bianchi, Opolo, Circle B, CaliPaso, Alta Colina and Broken Earth.

A happy, healthy and safe holiday season to all our readers.