Sparkling Wines from Domaine St. Michelle
BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
I always receive a curious look when I tell friends and family that I consider sparkling wine an excellent choice for everyday drinking. With eyebrows arched in disbelief, they typically retort that wines like Syrahs, Merlots and Sauvignon Blancs are appropriate partners for casual dinners. But sparkling wines? They’re for special occasions.
Given their standard reaction, it’s easy to understand why the holidays are my favorite time of the year for raising a glass. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, it’s entirely permissible to sip sparkling wine. In fact, ringing in the festivities with a slim flute of bubbles is an established and encouraged tradition.
Typically, party hosts serve classic French Champagne or other foreign sparklers like Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco during the holidays. But bubble-loving Seattle residents have another option: pop open a bottle of one of the five lively, lighthearted domestic sparkling wines from locally owned and operated Domaine Ste. Michelle.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates founded Domaine Ste. Michelle in 1978, with a goal of making high quality sparkling wines using Columbia Valley fruit. “In the late 70s and early 80s, French Champagne and Spanish Cava producers were setting up shop in California to produce méthode Champenoise sparkling wine,” says Domaine Ste. Michelle’s sparkling winemaker Rick Casqueiro. “At the same time, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates felt that it was time to produce méthode Champenoise sparkling wine from Washington State’s Columbia Valley to compete with the finest sparkling wine regions of the world.”
The traditional method Casqueiro references is the one French winemakers use to make Champagne in the eponymous wine region. The method requires a second fermentation in the bottle, which is accomplished by adding a mixture of sugar and yeast (called liqueur de triage) to the still wine. “Then it is bottled and capped with what looks like a beer bottle cap and laid down to begin the secondary fermentation. The resulting carbon dioxide stays in the bottle, giving the wine those famous bubbles,” says Casqueiro. Contact with the Champagne yeast during this process and an extended aging in the bottle give the wine a desirable toastiness and rich, creamy mouthfeel.
And yet, this traditional process is only one part of the equation that allows Domaine Ste. Michelle to make lovely, approachable sparkling wines. The Columbia Valley vineyards and the grapes Casqueiro sources from them also play a role in turning out beautiful bottles of bubbly.
The Columbia Valley’s northerly latitude provides extra daylight hours during the growing season; additionally, the region’s cloudless skies and warm temperatures help the grapes ripen slowly and concentrate flavors, while cool nights preserve the crisp fruit acids necessary for good sparkling wine.
The region is also known for producing the most suitable varietals for sparkling wines: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These varietals create desirable base wines for blending that promise higher natural fruit acidity and delicate aromas and structure. In each blend, the floral chardonnay contributes lightness in body, freshness in aroma and flavor, and natural fruit acid; the pinot noir adds depth of fruit and body, complexity, backbone and fullness to these methode champenoise wines.
These local grapes have helped Domaine Ste. Michelle’s wines challenge misconceptions that all domestic sparkling wines are of the overly sweet, unbalanced sort they’ve sipped at weddings and brunches. Because bottlings like Domaine Ste. Michelle’s Blanc de Blancs and Brut are drier in style, imbibers who don’t like sickly sweet sparklers are often surprised to find themselves charmed by these sparkling wines.
“Our house style is a delicately balanced méthode Champenoise sparkling wine that exhibits Washington State’s beautiful fruit,” says Casqueiro. “We receive many comments about Domaine Ste. Michelle’s delicate texture and light fruit aromas and flavors. It’s always fun to pour the various cuvees and do a comparison tasting so people can really taste the differences in each style of wine.”
You can certainly serve these sparklers as a flight but more likely this season, you’ll be pouring them as a festive aperitif or opening a bottle to serve at Thanksgiving dinner. Whenever you choose to serve your bubbly, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s culinary director John Sarich, recommends careful attention to the temperature of the wine. Sparkling wines drink best at cold temperatures so the wine should be ice cold when you serve it.
When it comes to pairing the wines with food, Casqueiro allows that sparkling wine’s crisp, clean character makes it extremely versatile. But the veteran winemaker still lives by a few rules to create the best possible pairings. “The hotter or spicier the food, the sweeter the sparkling wine should be and the sweeter the desserts, the drier the sparkling wine should be,” he says. Also, richer, more complex flavors pair best with medium sparkling wines like the winery’s Blanc de Noir and Brut styles. [See our tasting notes for complete profiles of all five styles.]
During the holidays, Sarich serves his favorite Domaine Ste. Michelle wine—the “bright, fresh and effervescent” Brut—with salmon lox, cream cheese and capers spread on crostini. “I also enjoy it with curry flavored deviled eggs topped with a little caviar. And, for a great Pacific Northwest treat, a simple pairing of Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine and oysters on the half shell is always a crowd pleaser,” he says.
But Domaine Ste. Michelle’s wines truly deserve a life beyond the holiday months. “Many people believe that sparkling wines are only for celebrations,” says Casqueiro. “Sparkling wine is one of the most versatile wines—it is great as an aperitif and also pairs well with a variety of everyday foods from popcorn and potato chips to sushi and Mexican food.”
Whatever your menu this season—and beyond—there’s reason to celebrate with domestic sparkling wines that promise great value, flavor and pleasure in every glass.
Sidebar: The Domaine Ste. Michelle Flight
Ashley Gartland is a Portland-based freelance food writer and author of Dishing Up Oregon (Storey, October 2011). She has written for MIX, Saveur and Tasting Table. Read more of her work at www.ashleygartland.com.