A Bit of BackgroundWe can thank the following factors for BC’s sparkling moment. First off, the terroir is well-suited: those traditional champers grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay flourish in our limestone soil, and the fairly high acidity around the Penticton and Skaha area place us right in the zone for good sparkling. As well, there's the terrain mindset – shadier east facing vineyards are being embraced for their strengths by forward-thinking winemakers, not maligned for their shortcomings. Secondly, the ambitious experimental scene in Summerland in the 80s (backed by federal research funds – that's some smart tax dollars at work there) which led to the renowned Steller's Jay Brut, set the bar high early on, and in the process fostered some superlative spin-offs that have only honed their game further (Summerhill and Blue Mountain). And finally, the costs are not as prohibitive as in the past. Many winemakers are experimenting with methods that aren’t as painstakingly laborious and the technology is becoming less expensive.
BC wineries are jumping on the bubble bandwagon in increasing amounts – roughly one-third of BC wineries are going with a sparkler. There are pretty big differences between them all, and no doubt you’ve heard the terms bandied about: methode-traditionnelle, frizzante, Prosecco, crémant, pét-nat and so on. But what do they mean, and what will you like?
A Lot Comes Down to How they’re madeThe main difference between still and sparkling is the extra fermentation, that yeast contact that gives it its delightful frothy palette. This fermentation is done in three distinct methods each affecting the taste, fizziness and price.
Methode-traditionnelleJust as sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne outside of that eponymous French region, the method’s name must change as well: from methode-champagnoise to methode-traditionelle. It's nonetheless the same thing. In a nutshell, the base wine (in Chamapagne it's Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and Okanagan often subs Pinot Blanc for the latter, or goes with a straight up Chardonnay - a Blanc de Blancs) undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.
By adding a mix of sugar and yeast to the bottle it ferments and creates the CO2, and the contact with the lees (what yeast becomes after it eats all the sugars) creates the famous “bread” or “biscuity” notes of top-tier bubbly.
One of the methode-traditionnelle superstars, Blue Mountain Brut
The Okanagan excels at this method. In fact almost all the good bubbly made here is methode-traditionelle. As mentioned, the terroir as well as the tradition of excellence in production – the Summerhill Cipes Brut was served at the 1994 Clinton-Yeltsin summit, and Blue Mountain originally brought on a consultant from Piper-Heidsieck to work with OG sparkling winemaker Eric Von Krosigk, to create what became a cult wine in their Gold Brut – have pointed the Okanagan towards advancing this style. The lower entry costs of technology specific to traditionelle have also allowed the smaller wineries to take part – and offer us a less expensive bottle natch!
Other names for it: methode-champenoise, methode classique, crémant (crémant has less CO2 = softer bubbles)
General tasting notes: This style aims for a bready, toasty or biscuity taste which comes from contact with the lees. Bright acidity and strong effervescence (i.e. the EU classifies as “sparkling” 3-5 bars of pressure). Pairs well with nutty and unctuous food. NYE suggestions: Oysters, caviar, shellfish, nuts, cheese and devilled eggs
Ones to try (prices are from the winery, imports are based on BC Liquor Store):
- Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut ($28) - green apple, bready, persistent mousse, multi award-winner
- Steller's Jay Pinnacle Brut ($28) - bready, strawberry, full mouth feel with persistent mousse
- Cipes Blanc de Noir ($39) or Cipes Brut ($29) - fine mousse with marmalade, raspberry, brioche notes and the Brut is a yearly award-winner with crisp acidity and a soft, creamy mousse
- Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc ($40) - very fruity, citrusy palette with a hella dry finish
- Bella Sparkling Blanc de Blancs (Keremeos) ($25) - clean, sharp and bone dry. For those that like it light
- Fitzpatrick Fitz Brut ($32) - well balanced fruits and minerality. Some oak aging and 2 years on lees result in buttery brioche notes
- Tanatlus Blanc de Noir ($28) – for you BC roséheads, this is your Pinot Noir sparkler - apple and all the berries with a nice persistent mousse
- Pierre Sparr Cremant d' Alsace Brut Reserve ($28) – not from BC but a helluva gorgeous minerally, citrus/grapefruity balanaced quaff with all those nice tiny soft bubbles
Charmat/Tank MethodGiven the painstaking and costly nature of the methode-traditionnelle, someone had to come along and find a way to simplify the process, bring down the price and make bubbly for the masses right? You can thank the Italians for that. They changed the second fermentation process to occur in a large pressurized vat, and then it’s bottled under pressure to keep it effervescent.
This is how their famous Prosecco bubbly came to be. This method is not just great for cost and efficiency, but also for highlighting a clean fruit taste, fresh aromatics, and some nice softer bubbles (caused by less contact with the yeast mix in the vat compared to a tight bottle). If that’s what your feelin' then this charmat style is for you!
Other names for it: Prosecco, Martinotti (The Frenchman Charmat created the vat, but the method was invented by the Italian, Martinotti), frizzante, semi-sparkling.
General tasting notes: While this category is the most diverse running from dry to fruity, it is mainly a fresh, aromatic and lively sipper with a softer fizz than the traditionelle (i.e. the EU classifies Proseccos as “semi-sparkling” with 1-2.5 bars of pressure). Pairs well with spicy foods, buttery snacks, and generally whatever you’d pair rosé with (another glass of). NYE suggestions: hot buttered popcorn, any of those President's Choice asian canapés, creamy brie, and fresh crudités - oh and all the desserts, especially eclair styles.
Ones to try:
- 8th Generation Confidence ($25) - the self-proclaimed Okanagan Prosecco, it is a summery, lively and fruity Pinot Noir rosé frizzante
- Joie Quotidien ($25) and Joie Plein de Vie ($19) - they successfully go to great lengths to compensate for the lees-aging of traditionelle, in these fun casual quaffers – one white, one pink
- LaMarca is a typical Italian Prosecco ($17)
The Okanagan Prosecco - lively fresh and fruity
Pét-natYou may have heard the hubbub lately over pét-nat (pronounced pet nat, or payt nat if you’re fancy), short for pétillant naturel (or naturally sparkling), it’s a funky little bub. What happens here is the original fermention is halted before bottling, allowing the process to complete in the bottle. No yeast-sugar mix is added and there is little manipulation with the lees contact other than just bottling it - moreover the lees are not taken out, ever, resulting in its signature sedimenty cloudiness. The wine geeks find this part of it’s charm, and in Italy it’s called ‘col-fondo’ (translates to ‘with sediment’).
This minimal winemaker contact approach is best used to extract the strong expression of a single grape and vineyard, and is increasingly popular in the terroir-forward movement here as BC continues to search for its best expression. Generally these are less expensive sparklers, but the small-lot and riskiness (sometimes they don’t work out) factor may drive up the price a tiny bit.
Other names for it: methode-ancestrale, col fondo.
General tasting notes: Its almost cidery feel, slight savouriness and mellow fizz make it a perfect solo sipper, but it goes just fine with salty snacks. It’s not primarily a food wine but BC sommeliers are pairing it with rich creamy proteins like oysters and bone marrow. NYE suggestions: cured charcuterie, paté or cretons, bone marrow toasts and kettle chips.
Ones to try:
- Bella Gamay Rosé Methode Ancestrale 2016 or Bella Brut Methode Ancestrale 2016 ($40) - peachy and mildly funky for the white, and the pink has plummy notes and a bone dry finish. These will vary quite a bit from year to year
- Narrative Ancient Method 2015 ($39) - fruity and racy, with some sweet creamy notes and a gentle fizz. These will vary quite a bit from year to year
Bottling semi-fermented Pét-nat.
Whether you like your bubbly on the casual, as a rustic quaffer, or as something more refined for special occasions, one thing is certain - it is a natural wonder! Ever since champagne began – unexpectedly second-fermenting on it’s own in the spring and firing corks at unsuspecting monks – up to today’s wine-hipster single vineyard pét-nats, and to embracing rather than fighting shady, acidic vineyards, creativity has been born out of natural necessity and momma it tastes great.
And don't forget to save some for your New Years Day brunch!
Note: After a little shopping around Friday, I found the following availability for BC bubbly: BC Liquor Store in the Mission had nearly no local sparklers, save Fitz, Cipes and Steller's Jay, Independent has quite a few more and Save On (Orchard Park) has a good selection, Public Liquor is repping the region as well and, Metro Liquor and Mission Liquor Store have an even wider selection than most. Also, as of this NYE morning, Cask & Barrel has a small range of those tasty local Proseccos available.