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The Willamette Valley’s New Take on Sparkling Wine

On its face, Oregon sparkling wine is a no-brainer. Cool-climate grapes, with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are the lynchpins of Willamette Valley viticulture. Soils—though not the Kimmeridgian chalk found in southern Champagne and other regions of France—do have some spots where ancient sea beds have risen to the surface. And one pioneering winery, Argyle, has been turning out highly regarded bubbly for more than three decades.

Argyle was founded in 1987 by Brian Croser and Rollin Soles, with grower/vintner Cal Knudsen joining in later. It made a splash when they started selling 1991 with 12,000 cases of brut and brut rosé. In search of authenticity, winemaker Rollin Soles began to use heavy flocculation yeasts obtained from French Champagne icon Bollinger and Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC).

For the next decade, Argyle crafted quality sparklers that no other Pacific Northwest producer could match.

Argyle tasting house
Argyle’s tasting house

That changed in the late ’90s with the arrival of Tony Soter, who’d already earned a reputation for excellence with his California brand, Etude.

Soter insists that he came to Oregon to make Pinot Noir, and even now, he produces just 1,000 cases of sparkling wine per year, principally a brut rosé. Though limited in scope, their quality echoes the acclaimed Soter Pinots and Chardonnays. Carefully selected clones and low crop levels are paramount.

Soter’s brut rosé, first produced in 1997 with purchased grapes, was his response to “too much forgettable [domestic] fizz in the market, which doesn’t leave you with any memory of flavor,” he says. “Our ambition is to make a wine that’s serious, maybe a little bold by world standards.”

“The challenge in California is the grapes get too sweet before they are perfectly ripe, driven by warm temps and sunshine,” says Soter. “Here in Oregon, the whole cycle is a month later, so there’s a more subtle approach to maturity here that translates into more flavor at a given sugar [level].”

Rollin Soles
Rollin Soles

Soles left Argyle a few years ago, but continues to make still and sparkling wines at his own project, Roco. He focuses on the details of dosage trials. “There’s nothing more subtle, elegant and challenging than a dosage trial,” he says.

Soles believes that the Méthode Champenoise process is more complex and challenging than still-wine production.

“The target window for peak ripeness is so narrow that you can’t afford to go a little early or a little late,” he says. “And how do you as a winemaker, out in the field tasting grapes, detect ripe fruit behind high natural acidity?”

Soles, with his 30-plus years of experience, believes that Oregon has just begun to explore its potential for Méthode Champenoise wines.

“I always felt at Argyle, I was one hand clapping in the woods,” he says. “My dream is to convince a Champagne producer to get serious about buying in the Willamette Valley.”

The New Players

Aside from Argyle, Soter and a few other producers, sparkling wines were slow to find footing in Oregon. Now, a flood of high-quality, bottle-fermented sparklers has popped up in tasting rooms, wine lists and club offerings.

It’s a bubbly renaissance. One such vanguard is found in a nondescript, unmarked warehouse in McMinnville, Oregon. It serves as home to Radiant Sparkling Wine Company.

Andrew Davis started Radiant in 2013. He helped make a half dozen-vintages with Soles at Argyle. He seeks to provide the expertise and specialized equipment required for the efficient production of sparkling wines.

“I’d seen the potential through Argyle, so why were there not more people doing it?” he says. Davis concluded it was a lack of proper equipment for sparkling wine production.

“[The equipment] takes up a large footprint,” he says. “It’s expensive and very technical. I know a lot of people were daunted. It’s one thing if you have a barrel of Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir that goes reductive or has a stuck fermentation—you can fix it. But thousands of individual bottles over multiple vintages are a different story.”

In its no-frills warehouse, Radiant carries out what Davis refers to as “cradle to grave service.” There’s also a well-equipped mobile truck for onsite bottling. His client list includes 34 wineries, representing heavyweights of Oregon wine like Adelsheim, Brooks, Elk Cove, Lange, Ponzi, Rex Hill, Sokol Blosser and Trisaetum.

Willamette Valley Vineyards' winery director, Christine Collier Clair
Willamette Valley Vineyards’ winery director, Christine Collier Clair / Photo by CWK Photography

Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards, was an early customer. Davis offers far more than disgorging and bottling services, she says.

“Andrew helps with picking decisions and dosage recommendations,” says Clair. “So he provided that level of expertise that jumped us [up] from making ordinary sparkling wine.”

Willamette Valley Vineyards plans to develop a dedicated sparkling wine operation. The winery just purchased a 15-acre vineyard planted in 2000 along Highway 99 in the Dundee Hills appellation, which is slated to be rebuilt to embrace biodynamic principles.

“It will be Bernau Estate, a legacy vineyard and brand for [Willamette Valley Vineyards founder] Jim Bernau,” says Clair.

Oregon appears to be near the time when it can add sparkling wine to its world-class repertoire. The only real obstacle is limited production. Most of the wines mentioned below are constrained to a few hundred cases, and Radiant’s total production (20,000 cases) remains well below industry leader Argyle.

Sparklers are yet to debut from Domaine Serene, which is constructing a facility that will produce white and sparkling wines.

“We have been saving wine from every vintage since 2014,” says its winemaker, Michael Fay. We are going to do late-disgorged wines for both rosé and vintage Brut—at least eight years, maybe 10. We’re going to let the wines tell us when they’re ready.”

Another wine to watch is Davis’s Lytle-Barnett release, coming out later this year. It’s the only client for whom he makes the base wine. A sneak preview of the 2014 Brut, a blend of Pinot Noir and a rare, old vine Champagne clone Chardonnay, suggests how close Oregon can come to matching Champagne in quality.

“Soil is a variable, but not an essential,” says Davis. “We are actually cooler than Champagne, more maritime. There’s still plenty of ground to be planted. Part of the next journey is finding the right places. When people think high-end sparkling, I want them to think Champagne and Oregon. What I am shooting for is to be the first step in achieving that.”

Top cuvées

Pashey 2014 Cuvée Extra Brut Methode Champenoise Estate Grown Sparkling (Willamette Valley); $65, 94 points. Estate-grown fruit—principally Pinot Noir with 8% Chardonnay—goes into this impressively complex sparkling wine from Trisaetum. It’s rich and deep, showing both power and finesse. A fine bead and light details of cocoa, coconut and cream bring exceptional complexity. Editors’ Choice.

Roco 2014 RMS Brut Sparkling (Willamette Valley); $65, 94 points. The second release of this tête de cuvée offering from Roco is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay, and winemaker Rollin Soles (Argyle) seems to have saved his best for it. Matching intense fruit to classic Champagne-style finesse, it’s brightly layered with apple, pear and Mandarin orange flavors. It has a fine bead and finishes clean, with citrus and toast highlights. Editors’ Choice.

Soter 2013 Mineral Springs Vineyard Brut Rosé Sparkling (Yamhill-Carlton); $65, 92 points. From estate-grown, barrel-fermented grapes, this lovely wine appeals to all the senses. Its sunset hue is striking, as is the fine bead and inviting cherry and cocoa aromas. On the palate, it’s an elegant and sophisticated sparkler with tart cherry fruit and bracing minerality.

Argyle 2007 Extended Tirage Brut Sparkling (Willamette Valley); $75, 91 points. A shift from the 2005, this is one-third Pinot Noir and two-thirds Chardonnay, disgorged in July of 2017. It’s tasty and surprisingly young, with tart apple and peach flavors dominant, along with light custard and some lovely toast. This may be enjoyed now or cellared for up to five years.

Elk Cove 2015 La Bohème Estate Grown Brut Rosé (Yamhill-Carlton); $50, 91 points. Sourced from the oldest vines of the estate’s La Bohème vineyard, this lush sparkler is made from 100% Pinot Noir. Its pretty strawberry shade matches the scents and flavors. With exceptional concentration and elegance, it seemingly gathers strength through its long, flavorful finish.

Maison Jussiaume 2015 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling (Rogue Valley); $65, 91 points. From Winemaker Jean-Michel Jussiaume, this sparkling wine is produced entirely from Chardonnay sourced from the Del Rio Vineyard. It offers concentrated lemon, grapefruit and pineapple flavors, with a fine bead and impeccable overall balance.

Anne Amie 2014 Marilyn Brut Rosé Sparkling (Chehalem Mountains); $45, 90 points. This 100% Pinot Noir sparkling wine opens with tart fruit flavors of rhubarb, strawberry and sour cherry. It’s tight and sharply defined at first but broadens as it opens, finishing with a lick of vanilla.

Brooks 2015 Sparkling Riesling (Willamette Valley); $40, 90 points. This is the first sparkling Riesling from Brooks, and it’s a stunner. With dry, precise flavors, it’s dominated by citrus rind notes and suggestions of rocks. It’s penetrating and long, with lemon peel highlights throughout the finish.

Lange 2015 Mia Mousseux Méthode Champenoise Brut Rosé Sparkling (Dundee Hills); $70, 90 points. A first for Lange, this 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay bubbly is elegant and bone dry, with a pleasant earthy character that suggests loess and chalk. The fruit flavors are dried apple, gooseberry and grapefruit, with first-rate length and finesse.

Ponzi 2014 Brut Rosé Sparkling (Willamette Valley); $50, 90 points. This blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay brings big bubbles and bold flavors. Its cherry and berry fruit puts it squarely in a New World style, and it was sourced from some of the estate’s oldest vines. A March 2016 disgorgement, it’s drinking well at this time, finishing with a touch of dark chocolate.

Stoller 2014 LaRue’s Brut Rosé Sparkling (Dundee Hills); $65, 90 points. Three quarters Pinot Noir and one quarter Chardonnay, this young sparkler is tart and tangy with lemon, pink grapefruit, green apple and orange flavors. There’s a dash of baking spice and a slightly earthy note in the aroma, but overall it’s enjoyable.

Kramer 2015 Brut Zero Dosage Sparkling (Yamhill-Carlton): $38, 89 points. This might bring the current wave of traditional method British sparkling wines to mind, with hints of chalk, lime, gooseberry, apple and grapefruit. It’s delicate and dry, blending 44% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Noir and 22% Pinot Meunier.

Sokol Blosser 2014 Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley); $50, 89 points. This vintage sparkler is refined, crisp and clean, following the Méthode Champenoise. There’s a hint of strawberry fruit and plenty of lemony acids. The bubbles are fine and the presentation classy. It should age nicely for up to a decade.