Sparkling wine is almost certainly the most difficult wine to make. It takes longer than still wines, requires more complicated techniques and considerable effort, and it costs more. And this doesn’t take into account the competition from Champagne, home of the most famous and well-regarded bubbly in the world.
So why has sparkling wine taken hold in Michigan and New York state, which are hardly household wine regions and where producers already have enough trouble selling still wine?
Call it vision, foresight, a little luck, and more than a little stubbornness from the region’s bubbly pioneers.
Everything works together
“Believe it or not, sparkling wine lifts the whole portfolio,” says Meaghan Frank, whose family-named winery in New York’s Finger Lakes has been making sparkling wine for almost 30 years. “Yes, it’s so much work to do it, and especially when you do it the way we do. But it also shows the quality of our wines, because with sparkling, there’s no room to hide. If there are any faults or any issues, it all shows up in the bubbles.”
The bubbles made in these two states cover everything from carbonated wines, where carbon dioxide is injected into the wine to make it sparkle, to pét nat. They also embrace a range of grapes, including several French American hybrids, and Riesling, the white that has brought international attention to both regions. But the wines that have garnered the most attention use the traditional Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are made using Méthode Traditionnelle, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle.
“I think, if you look at the climate and the soils, the strength of these regions is white grapes that can make wines with high acid,” says Mick Descamps, a long-time Michigan wine consultant, sommelier, and wholesaler. “And there is the potential for making great sparkling wines. And it’s much the same for New York as for Michigan — you’re going to get a wine that pops in a way that you won’t in California since you have that extra acidity.”
Cold, but not too cold
Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula sticks up like a dog’s paw between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay in the far northwestern part of the state; so though it gets cold, it doesn’t get as cold as it could, thanks to the warming influence of the two bodies of water. In the Finger Lakes, glaciers scraped out seven finger-shaped lakes about 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the moderating influence of water, plus stony soils.
“Those grapes work so perfectly for us,” says Claire Lepine, the marketing manager for Michigan’s MAWBY Sparkling Wines, located on the Leelanau Peninsula. “And the reason they do is not just because it’s cooler here, so we get higher acid, but because they can be harvested earlier. So that means we can avoid a lot of problems with a cool climate, like an early freeze or frost.”
Larry Mawby founded his vineyard in 1973. His first vintage came in 1978, and the first sparkling wine was launched in 1984. Since 2000, the winery produces only cider and sparkling wines, including its entry-level Sex sparkler, a $17 Charmat that somehow earned federal label approval.
In New York, winegrowers have the example of the Frank family from the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; Dr. Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the eastern U.S. in the 1950s and released his first vintage sparkling wine in 1985. Then there’s the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard & Winery, founded by German immigrant Hermann J. Wiemer. A Finger Lakes pioneer of the 1960s, he began making sparkling wine in the mid-1980s. Weimer retired and sold the winery in 2007; today, it’s owned and operated by his longtime winemaker, Fred Merwarth, and Oskar Bynke.
These kinds of examples have both galvanized other producers and also brought favorable media publicity — something that is rare for U.S. wine regions that aren’t on the west coast to attract.
“When I first tasted Weimer five or six years ago, I knew I wanted to sell it,” says Christy Frank, a wine retailer and consultant in New York state, who has no relation to the Finger Lakes Frank family. “It’s a local wine, it’s made by real people. And, given that it’s sparkling wine, it’s very well priced.”
Which shows that vision, a little luck, and some stubbornness, can pay off.
5 sparkling wines to try:
Black Star has long been one of Michigan’s premier Riesling producers, and this wine shows a deft hand with bubbly. It’s Charmat, so not as structured as Méthode Traditionnelle, but still dry and sparkly. There’s pear and green apple fruit, nice Riesling acidity, and the region’s trademark minerality.
This Charmat bubbly, made with Riesling from a smaller Finger Lakes producer, shows what can be done with this style. It has soft, not quite Prosecco-style bubbles, as well as crisp green apple fruit and surprising minerality over a long finish.
Says Christy Frank, “I tell customers they can buy a very ordinary bottle of Champagne for $30, or they can buy this.” It’s not only a well-made wine, created from about two-thirds Chardonnay and one-third Pinot Noir, but also great value. It’s a tight, almost taut wine, with lots of mousse, citrus fruit, and a hint of stoniness.
You can almost taste the history of U.S. regional wine with this Pinot Noir bubbly, if only because few besides Konstantin Frank thought vinifera could thrive east of the Rocky Mountains. The initial wine was barrel fermented, so expect lots of yeast and breadiness. The Pinot lends strawberry and red cherry fruit, as well as a hint of tannins for balance.