Season 2, Episode 5: The Traditional Method (RJR Brut Cuvée, Westport Rivers, MA)

We’ve had a couple of sparkling wines in this program before, but we’ve never really had a traditional method sparkling wine on the show before.  Let’s change that, with a look at the 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée, from Westport Rivers Winery, in Massachusetts.

In case you were not aware, “traditional method” is code for the same method which is used to make Champagne in France; it’s just that nobody outside of Champagne can use this word to describe a wine method, due to very strict provisions laid down by the EU and France. You will occasionally see wines made in this method labeled as ‘Classic Method,’ also.  What these words mean is that the sparkling wine in question was bottle-fermented; that secondary fermentation which produced the bubbles occurred in the bottle in which the wine was sold.  This can be a time-consuming process if done by hand, but other places (such as Gruet in New Mexico, as an example) have figured out how to do mass-production of such bottles.

As you may have guessed from the implication above, sparkling wines made in the traditional method undergo two separate fermentations.  The first, which is usually carried out in tanks, creates what is known as the base wine, which is still–no bubbles. If the wine in question is a non-vintage blend, the base still wines will be blended according to whatever style and quality requirements exist for the given produced to produce a unified flavor for the brand; or still wines from a given year will be blended together (which is likely what happened with this wine in question).  This process, known as assemblage, ends with the blended wine put into bottles, along with a mixture of yeast and sugar to kick off a secondary fermentation.  The bottles are then closed with the same sort of cap you see on a beer bottle. (In case you wanted to expand your French wine terms, this mix is known as the liqueur de tirage).

Next up, the bottles are then placed on their sides in cellar environments, while that secondary fermentation begins.  It is this secondary fermentation that creates the CO2 which gets trapped to become bubbles. After the second fermentation is complete the wines are left ‘sur lie‘ (resting on its lees – wine terminology for the dead yeast cells in each bottle) for any period of time the winemaker wishes. This could range from a mere 6 months to upwards of several years, like in the case of this vintage. The longer the wine rests on these lees, the more amino acids and other compounds that are in the dead yeast cells will break down and be released into the wine.  Known as autolysis, this process is what adds toast, bread, and the yeasty character and aromas that are often associated with higher-end vintages made in this style.

The final steps of this process are known as remuage and disgorgement, where the lees are removed from the bottle.  The bottles are carefully rotated and shaken and slowly moved upside down so that the sediment in the bottle is slowly moved towards the neck of the bottle. This process is known as riddling–it can either be done by hand, or by automatic machinery.  After the sediment has been gathered to this part of the bottle, the material must be disgorged–something done by freezing the neck of the bottle in a freezing brine bath. After being frozen, the cap is removed, and the bottle of frozen lees sediment will shoot out.  The final step of this disgorging process is quickly topping off the bottle with a mixture known either as the dosage or ‘liqueur d’expédition. This is a mixture of wine and sugar, the amount of which is determined based on the eventual style of the wine.  As an example, the dosage for the  RJR Brut Cuvée probably contained somewhere between 6g and 15g/l of sugar; pretty standard for wines labeled as ‘Brut’.

After this, the bottle is closed with the traditional Champagne-style cork, with the wire cage (known as a muselet) and foil. The wine can now wait and age as long as the winemaker demands before being released to the adoring public. These styles of wine can age very well; as evidenced by our reaction to this bottle in the podcast.

RJR Cuvee Westport Rivers Winery
The 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée is our tasty introduction to the world of the Traditional Method sparkling wine – the same method used to make classics such as Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, and others the world over.

Season 2, Episode 1: An Unexpected Birthday

Welcome to the first episode of Season 2! This was originally going to be an additional bonus episode for Season One, but harvest, crush, and a new tasting room job meant I didn’t get much time to get this ready, so we’re going to open Season 2 with this episode instead!  Future episodes will continue at roughly every 10 days, as with season one.

In this episode, Megan (alias VeniVidiDrinki), James, our friend Ruben, and I drink a Henri Marchant Cold Duck that dates back at least to the early 1970s. Why? Because it was there. More seriously, VeniVidi found this bottle at an estate sale somewhere in Illinois, and had it sitting around… and so we decided to drink it.  For myself, this is probably the second or third oldest bottle I’ve had in my life, but for the others, it was their oldest bottle; in fact, this bottle was older than every one of us excepting possibly James.  Old wine is fascinating, often lauded, but sometimes misses the mark.  But we decided to try this one anyway and record it for shiggles.

What is Cold Duck, anyway?  Well, it so happens that Cold Duck is pretty much a uniquely American innovation in the wine world.  The wine style was invented by one Harold Borgman, the owner of Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. This inaugural Cold Duck vintage was made at the Ponchartrain Wine Cellars by simultaneously pouring Champagne and sparkling burgundy into a hollow stem wine glass.  However, this recipe was based on a German legend that involved Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony ordering the mixing of all the dregs of unfinished wine bottles in his cellar with Champagne. The wine produced by Borgman was at first given the name Kaltes Ende (“cold end” in German) until it was altered to the similar-sounding term Kalte Ente meaning “cold duck”.

It was this translation of the second name that took root for this particular wine style, and many other American wineries, particularly in California and New York, followed in the wake of Pontchartrain.  Today, you can still find bottles of Cold Duck in most grocery stores, as a “low-end” wine (see: Frasier, Season 4, Episode 9), but for the time it was a revolution that allowed most Americans who would never have been able to afford high-end sparkling wines from France to get their first experience with bubbly.

Of note: we dated this bottle based on a particularly awkwardly hilarious commercial we found on YouTube; the audio of which is featured in the podcast, but the video is below:

henri marchant cold duck
Cold Duck revolutionized the way Americans drank in the years just prior (and during World War 2). This bottle dates back at least to 1970, and we drank it… because it was there. Also, we drank it for your amusement.  How did it taste?  Listen, and find out.

Episode 43: Oklahoma

Welcome to our 43rd episode of The Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we visit a state we should have visited Sooner: Oklahoma. Our featured wine in this episode is the Glitz, a sparkling Norton and Pinot Gris blend sold by Whirlwind Winery, located in the town of Watonga.  This particular wine was not made by the crew at Whirlwind–coming from a second, now defunct winery, but the owner, Brad Stinson thought this wine was fascinating enough to be worth saving from oblivion and thus acquired all remaining inventory.  We’ve met Norton before in our very first episode of the podcast, so it is fascinating to see this grape in an entirely different mode.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, by the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oklahoma had thousands of acres of domesticated table and wine grapes. The acreage of grapes planted in 1907 and 1908 were estimated to be 3,700 and 5,425, respectively, which happens to be about ten times more than is planted in the state of Oklahoma today. The first report on varieties of grapes that were suitable for the state was released as early as 1894 by what was then known as the Oklahoma A&M College. (A later publication detailed other aspects of a whopping 175 varieties!) The oldest documented winery in what is now Oklahoma was opened in 1898 by Charles Fairchild, though I could not find any information on the name of this winery. In 1926 the USDA and Oklahoma A&M co-published Grapes in Oklahoma. Yet the end was near as both the Dust Bowl and the introduction of Prohibition into the state’s constitution sounded the death knell for the Oklahoma wine industry. The industry slumbered until 1982, when Cimarron Cellars in Caney, Oklahoma opened.

A survey in 2006 showed that growers in the state preferred red grapes, which took up a majority of the acreage. Vitis vinifera-derived varieties, in turn accounted for 80 percent of all plantings. V. vinifera varieties are the most widely grown in Oklahoma because they are generally considered the premium grapes for winemaking; however, observation and research has shown most of these varieties are highly susceptible to cold damage and fungal infection. In the 2006 survey interspecific hybrid grapes made up less than 15 percent of vines, American species grapes approximately 7 percent, and muscadine grapes less than 1 percent of the total. Today, the state of Oklahoma has about 52 different wineries, and ranks thirty-first among the fifty states in terms of wine production.  There is also one AVA which extends into Oklahoma: the Ozark Mountain AVA.  The sixth largest American Viticultural Area in terms of total size, this appellation covers Northwest Arkansas, southern Missouri, and extends into the northeastern part of Oklahoma.

This bottle was graciously donated to the podcast (along with several other vintages) by the winemaker and part owner of Whirlwind Winery, Brad Stinson. Some of these bottles will be covered in later episodes.  Thank you once again!

oklahoma wine
The Glitz, a sparkling NV blend of Norton and Pinot Gris sold by Whirlwind Winery, is our introduction to the wine scene of Oklahoma.

Episode 41: Ohio

Welcome to episode 41 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, featuring the Buckeye State, Ohio.  Featuring one of the more unique flags of a US State, Ohio has a long and lauded history with the American Wine industry. It is fitting, therefore, that the bottle we have chosen for our first Ohio episode: the En Plein Aire pét-nat from Vermilion Valley Vineyards, is somewhat of an homage to that storied history.  This sparkling wine, made as a méthode ancestrale, is a field blend of roughly 75% Pinot Noir, and 25% Muscat Ottonel, with minuscule percentages of Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau, sourced from their vineyards in the Lake Erie AVA. For those who are new to the natural wine game, this method, known also as pétillant-naturel, allows the initial fermentation to finish inside the bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide; there is no addition of new yeast for a secondary fermentation, nor disgorgement (unlike with Champagne and other sparkling wines of that ilk).

So, why a Sparkling wine to start Ohio off? To answer this question, we must go to the Ohio River Valley around 1825, and visit one Nicholas Longworth.  He planted, in the end, over 2,000 acres of Catawba grapes, and ended up producing sparkling wine that won not only national acclaim, but actually beat out titans from Champagne in at least one competition in Europe!  The resulting victory lead to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.” (I’m thinking this poem may be the subject of a dramatic reading in Season 2.) However, by the late 1850’s, black rot and powdery mildew had destroyed much of these vineyards, and the viticultural center of Ohio had moved to the region surrounding Lake Erie, where at the time, 33,000 acres of grapes and 161 wineries flourished.  Alas, like in other states, the grim specter of Prohibition ended this idyll, and to survive, most vineyards were converted to the growing of Concord for juice production–some vineyards dating to this period, such as Meier’s Wine Cellars survive today in this mode. By 1963, only 27 wineries survived, with only half making wine from Ohio-grown grapes.  The state was ripe for a renaissance.

Oddly, compared to other states we’ve explored in the course of our podcast, Ohio never needed farm winery legislation to aid that renaissance.  Instead, two major organizations devoted to viticulture jump-started this transition.  The first was the Ohio Wine Producers Organization; the second was the Ohio Grape Industries Program.  Both of these groups have catapulted Ohio wine to the impending super-stardom where the industry lurks at this time. Today, the state of Ohio has over 290 wineries, located within Five distinct American Viticultural Areas: the Lake Erie AVA, the Isle St. George AVA, the Ohio River Valley AVA, the Grand River Valley AVA, and lastly the Loramie Creek AVA.  Producing over 3,582,902 gallons, Ohio is (as of 2016) actually ranked 6th in the US in terms of wine production, and 8th in terms of total acreage under vine. Wine Enthusiast actually recently wrote an article about why Ohio wine is something to look out for, as well, so winemakers in the state are making some noise.

This bottle was kindly provided to the Make America Grape Again Podcast by the winemaker himself, Joe Juniper. I reached out to him after a kind couple in the tasting room I work for in Arizona mentioned that Vermilion Valley Vineyards was their favorite winery in the state. Thank you again, kind sir for your contribution, and for joining in on our podcast!

A sparkling wine in the oldest tradition, the En Plein Air from Vermilion Valley Vineyards starts our journey into Ohio Wine.