Weddings, graduations and anniversaries are the quintessential time to lift a flute of sparkling wine and toast the celebrants. But special occasions are fading as the leading occasion to enjoy a bubbly. Rappahannock Cellars is doing its part to support that.
Today, sparkling wines are the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. wine industry. In 2017, 312 million bottles of champagne or sparkling wine were sold in the United States, a steady increase in sales dating from 2000 that shows no signs of abating.
Wine bubbles are increasingly consumed as an everyday libation simply because they are delicious. Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain have helped popularize sparklers, and domestic production is drafting behind the accelerating trend.
A pulled cork of fizzy wine leaves the bottle at 25 mph and contains 49 million bubbles. And the real fun hasn’t even started.
Here in Virginia, winemaker Claude Thibaut is the most respected sparkling vintner in the state. He is a co-owner of Thibaut-Janisson Winery in Charlottesville. The winery is a joint venture with Manuel Janisson, a French champagne producer. The winery produces some 4,000 cases of sparklers a year.
Patricia Kluge was among the first to make sparkling wine in Virginia starting in 1999 at her Kluge Estate Winery. Donald Trump purchased the winery at a foreclosure sale in 2011. It still is the largest sparkler producer in the Old Dominion at more than 10,000 cases annually.
It is estimated there are now 25 wineries in the Commonwealth producing sparkling wine. Most bottle between 500 to 2,000 cases a year. Among the fastest-growing is Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly with a 3,000-case production.
“The reason we got into sparkling wine is twofold. First, we like it ourselves, and we think everybody should like it,” said owner John Delmare. “Secondly, it’s becoming more recognized as not just a celebratory drink. And it pairs well with lots of different foods.”
Delmare can spot a trend when he sees one. He opened his winery in 2000 after moving from California where he had a winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He pulled the 60th farm winery permit in Virginia. Today, over 300 wineries dot the Old Dominion’s wine scape.
His overall wine output has gone from an original 2,000 cases to 15,000 annually.
Among the formidable challenges a winery faces when considering adding sparkling wine to its lineup is space, equipment, and skill.
It is relatively easy to produce a carbonated wine. Many wineries do. The production involves taking a still wine and injecting it with CO2. It produces a pleasant effervescent wine. But it’s not a true sparkler; a palate comparison between two would quickly reveal the difference.
Delmare has produced such a wine for several years dubbing it his “Fizzy Lizzy,” a carbonated rosé that is a tasting room favorite. But the bubbles in the wine struck a chord with him and his winemaker, Theo Smith. Why not make the real thing?
And the real deal, like so many things in life, comes with a high-sounding name called méthode champenoise, or the traditional champagne method of France.
The process involves taking a still wine and bottling it with the addition of some yeast and sugar and sealing it with a beer cap. Immediately the yeast knows sugar has become its best friend and the two work in tandem to ignite a re-fermentation, trapping the gases inside the bottle.
The process is similar to what many homebrewers use in making beer.
The wine is then aged for 9 to 12 months to make certain all the sugar has been consumed by the yeast. Since the bottles have been stored upside down, the dead yeast cells accumulate in the neck and are disgorged when the cap is popped off.
Immediately, a “dosage,” or the small amount of sugar & wine, is often added back to the bottle to provide a bit of sweetness to the final product. It is then corked, and a wire basket placed over the cork to prevent it from exploding during its final aging process.
Much heavier bottles are used in producing champagne and sparkling wine to prevent “grenade” bottles from being a safety hazard in the wine cellar and for the consumer.
In the original production of such wines two centuries ago, winemakers would be terrorized by shattering bottles ricocheting around their cellars. Experience dictated much heavier bottles be used to bring the wine safely to the market.
Rappahannock Cellars produces three sparkling wines: Rosé, Blanc de Blanc and Prestige. Prices range from $34 for the first two and $40 for its Prestige, a blend of different blocks of Chardonnay wines.
Delmare underscores that the price point for the wines reflects the high production costs and more expensive corks and bottles employed.
This past December, Delmare took possession of a $40,000 stainless steel tank for Charmat styled sparklers. The new equipment will enable him to accelerate the amount of bubbly he produces and the time it takes to bring it to market.
The process uses a large pressurized tank that retains the carbon dioxide created by the refermenting wine. The process replicates the traditional method except that it occurs inside a 1,300-gallon fermentation tank, not a 25-ounce wine bottle.
The new equipment will enable the winery to boost production beyond 3,000 cases annually. If sparkling sales continue to grow as expected, production could top out at 5,000 cases or more.
(Rappahannock Cellars produces more than wine. Read more about its Dida Distillery)
A winemaker is the beat in the heart of every winery. As the talent and skills of the man or woman crafting the wine goes, so goes the fortunes of the winery.
It’s emblematic of the success of Rappahannock Cellars that it has one of the largest wine clubs in the state. And it’s not just a quarterly club like most, but two bottles-per-month year-round.
That success is driven in large part by Theo Smith.
If customers don’t like your wines, they will not sign up as a club member. Over 80 percent of Rappahannock’s wines today are sold to club members. The numbers reinforce Smith’s talent and hard work.
Smith got his first taste of the wine trade working part-time at a vineyard in the Ohio Valley while attending Franciscan University in Steubenville. After graduating in 2008 with a degree in biochemistry, he worked for two years at a cancer research firm before realizing he was not cut out for laboring in a lab. The vineyard was calling.
Through a mutual contact, he reached out to Delmare seeking employment. “John encouraged me to go back to school for a wine degree since I already had the science prerequisites.
“He played a large role in returning to school and getting my viniculture and enology certifications from Brock University,” said Smith.
Smith, 36, represents a growing number of young Virginia winemakers who have scored their educational wine bona fides and go on to make a mark in Virginia. It’s sometimes referred to as seeking to be a “big fish in a small pond” rather than laboring in Calif. or elsewhere in competition with a legion of other winemakers.
The bet paid off for both him and Rappahannock Cellars. Today, his skill set has been demonstrated repeatedly with a string of exceptional still and sparkling wines produced since being named head winemaker and vineyard manager in 2013.
Claude Thibaut provided mentoring when Delmare brought him on board as a consultant to get his sparkler program up and running. In that position, he quickly observed that Smith was “…a very sharp young guy. He is eager to learn and not just learn but to implement. He wants to make the best sparklers he can.”
John Delmare echoes those sentiments. “Theo has mastered the process very quickly. There’s a lot of nuances in making sparkling wine. It’s a whole different process from making still wine. I give him incredible credit.
“Theo sent me an email recently after we disgorged our first Prestige wine that said, ‘This is the most favorite wine I’ve made at Rappahannock Cellars.’ He loves making sparkling wine, and he’s doing a great job.”
Delmare’s expectation for the future of his sparkling wine program is upbeat, observing, “At our recent annual soup events, I asked our members, ‘how many of you drink sparkling wine.’ About half the room raised their hands.
“We have a good base and room for growth.”
The same can be said for a unique wine that is increasingly being produced and appreciated across the Commonwealth.
Look for a bubbly coming to a winery near you.