Wines that Sparkle

Sparkling wines carry deep legacies, kept alive by winemakers like Treveri Cellars in the Yakima Valley.

STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAFF

Sparkling wines might be one of the most misunderstood of all wine categories. Bubbly, frothy, sometimes pink and sweet, they are often written off as frivolous or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, too luxurious (read: expensive) for the average wine drinker.

But sparkling wines today comprise the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. wine market. Some are priced for luxury, but there are plenty of high-quality versions in the $20 range, slipping them into the everyday category. No matter the price range, sparkling wines carry deep legacies, and that history and tradition thrives even in Washington, kept alive by winemakers like Juergen Grieb, the large, friendly, and imposing owner of Treveri Cellars in the Yakima Valley.

Wine runs through the veins of this German-born winemaker. Five generations of his family have worked as vintners and winemakers, so it was a natural career selection for Juergen. He studied winemaking in his native Trier, earning degrees in both still and sparkling winemaking, and, in 1982, he joined the winemaking team at Langguth Cellars, a German-owned winery in Mattawa, a small town in Eastern Washington where grape vines thrive. In 1986, Juergen went to work at nearby Coventry Vale, a custom crush winery, where he was part of a team producing around 400,000 cases of red and white wines a year.

He stayed there for 20 years, but the allure of sparkling tugged at Juergen’s German heart. Permanently settled in the United States, he for years made small lots of sparkling wine for himself and his family. In 2008, he launched Treveri Cellars, the ancient Roman name of the city now called Trier, where he grew up. He bottled less than 1,000 cases of bubbling wines, which he sold out of a small tasting room in Yakima, while continuing his work at Coventry Vale. “Nobody else in Washington was really focusing on sparkling wine,” he remembers.

In 2010, after earning a few 90-point scores from Wine Spectator, Juergen went all-in with his sparkling passion, bumping Treveri Cellars’ production to 20,000 cases. Today, he and his son Christian produce a line-up that includes Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and a sparkling rosé, along with firmly Germanic sparkling wines like riesling, müller-thurgau, and gewürztraminer. But Treveri Cellars is a genuinely Washington winery. Juergen sources all his fruit from Yakima Valley vineyards that are at least ten years old, including Ramos Vineyard, Upland Vineyard, and Naches Heights.

Juergen Grieb, photo courtesy of Treveri Cellars

There are several ways to get bubbles inside a bottle. Sparkling wines are made all over the world and are often identified with the region where they are produced — Champagne from France, Prosecco and Asti from Italy, and Cava from Spain. The methode champenoise process, associated with the Champagne region of northeastern France where Dom Pérignon tended the cellars at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, is the most demanding. And it’s the method Juergen uses at Treveri Cellars.

Legend says that about 300 years ago, the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon created the first bottle of bubbly, but the magic of creating a secondary fermentation is more likely the work of Christopher Merret, an English scientist, a century or so before Dom Pérignon took over his monastery’s cellars. But the famous monk did contribute to the methods that tamed what had been a scary process. In fact, most winemakers at that time worried more about preventing a second fermentation than starting one, because it could lead to exploding bottles.

Wine is created when yeast interacts with sugar in the pressed juices of grapes, forming alcohol. Yeast is a living organism, and as it works during fermentation, it breaks down into small particles called the lees. In the 17th and 18th centuries, without the chemistry and controls available to modern winemakers, external influences like weather could play havoc with the process.

Fermentation requires heat, and as temperatures cooled in the fall, fermentation might slow or even halt. Winemakers, therefore, ran the risk of unknowingly bottling their wines before all the yeast was depleted. When the sun warmed things up again in the spring, that sleeping yeast could reawaken, setting off a secondary fermentation, transforming sugars into alcohol, and at the same time creating bubbles of carbon dioxide inside a sealed bottle. As pressure grew, it sometimes led to a chain reaction of flying corks and exploding glass — never a good situation.

But done properly, those bubbles can transform a wine into an adventure of tastes and textures, ranging from creamy, slightly sweet brioche flavors to dry and extra-dry Bruts, with clear acids and minerality. Juergen makes a range of sparkling wines, including traditional champagne-style bottles of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, along with rose and a sparkling syrah.

Brix is a measurement of the sugar content of grapes, indicating the degree of the grape’s ripeness (sugar level) at harvest. Grapes for sparkling wines are picked at a much lower brix (around 18) than typical still wines, which are harvested at around 24 brix. The lower sugars mean less alcohol in the first fermentation, as well as a bright, crisp acidity. The juice goes through its first fermentation in stainless-steel tanks.

Juergen then blends wines from different lots to create the perfect cuvée — the base wine that will eventually sparkle. He adds a mixture of yeast and sugar, called tirage, then bottles and seals it with crown caps, like those on bottles of beer. The yeast and sugar in the tirage set off the secondary fermentation. More alcohol appears, along with bubbles of carbon dioxide. The yeast breaks down into lees — dead and residual yeast — that settle on the bottom or sides of the bottle, often giving the wine a dull or chalky appearance. The wine ages on the lees, a period called en tirage, for about 24 months.

The next step, riddling, is a true art form, Juergen says, and requires a whole new set of sensory perceptions. Historically, workers would rotate the bottles by hand, a quarter turn every day for four to eight days, depending on the type of wine. At the same time, the workers would gradually elevate the bottles until they were  upside down, so the lees would settle into the neck of the bottle, leaving the wine clear. Today, computerized equipment handles the riddling process. The winemaker can watch the lees, see how they move and react, and adjust the rotation schedule with the touch of a button.

When the lees finally settle into a plug, the bottle necks are immersed in a freezing bath at minus 25 degrees centigrade, the caps are removed, and the frozen plug is disgorged from the bottle, a safer and more controlled explosion than the kind that ruined whole vintages and injured cellar workers in Dom Pérignon’s day. “It’s really fascinating,” Juergen says. “You see the wine when it’s all cloudy, and then you get the yeast out of it, and you have this beautiful clear product with bubbles.”

Juergen finishes the wine with the addition of a small amount of dosage — a mix of base wine and sugar, and sometimes a little brandy — to replace the volume lost during disgorgement. “A lot of winemakers don’t want to talk about dosage,” he laughs. It’s like the secret ingredient in a chef’s special sauce. Dosage is the winemaker’s last chance to determine the taste and balance of the finished wine — sweeter with more sugar, maybe a little smoother with brandy. Add a cork secured with a wire cage, and the sparkling wine is ready for sale.

The calculations involved in each step demand precision — from the delicate amount of alcohol in the cuvee to the perfect balance of sugar and yeast in the tirage that produces more alcohol and carbonation, enough for sparkle but not so much that the bottle explodes (sparkling wines pack as much as 90 pounds per square inch of pressure, three times the pressure in a car tire).

The method might be purely French, but Juergen steps out of the Champagne shadow by bubbling up some distinctly German wines. True Champagne is limited mostly to chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. Treveri Cellars produces all those, but Juergen also bottles müller-thurgau, riesling, and gewürztraminer, grapes he learned to love growing up along the Mosel River.

“I love gewürztraminer as a still wine, the spices in the wine,” Juergen says. But it is rarely fermented as a sparkling wine. A little sweeter than Treveri’s Brut or Extra-Brut Blanc de Blanc, both 100 percent chardonnay wines, Juergen’s gewürztraminer is remarkable enough, he says, that he has set aside a small lot, about 30 cases, to age up to five years before he releases it as one of Treveri’s first reserve wines.

Despite their growing popularity, sparkling wines are still a niche market in the United States. In Europe, they are more widely available and not reserved just for celebrations. But with his son Christian working beside him in the cellar, Juergen’s Germanic legacy has been firmly transplanted to Washington. “My mom, still today, drinks only sparkling wine,” Juergen says. “It’s my passion.”


Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest. She is a fellow of the Professional Wine Writers Symposium.

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