If your bubbles are not made in the Champagne region of France, you cannot call them Champagne. It’s a regulatory distinction, not a difference in grapes or the method used to produce the wine.
The method used in Champagne is called Methode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle. We use the same method at Amista and that’s what makes sparkling wines extra special! Still wines go through fermentation only once and are then aged in tanks or barrels. Sparkling wines go through an extra fermentation - producing the delicate bubbles - and are aged in their own bottle.
Although we use the traditional method for crafting our Amista sparkling wines, winemaker Ashley Herzberg and I love to use non-traditional grapes. The classic grapes used in Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Since we specialize in red Rhône varieties, we make Rhône sparkling wines. Each one has turned out to be a pleasant and delicious surprise.
Note: Today is International Champagne Day so let’s raise a glass to friendship. You can read more about "The Difference Between Champagne and Sparkling Wines" in Food and Wine.
Since we first started visiting wine country, I have always loved harvest time. There’s a palpable energy in the air with tractors rolling down the roads pulling containers of grapes, empty harvest bins rumbling like thunder across the valley and the aromas of fermenting grapes wafting on the breeze. Add warm, sunny days with bright blue skies and crisp nights with a sky full of stars - what’s not to love?
We don’t like to talk about it because wine people are an optimistic bunch, but the last few years have been challenging in Sonoma wine country. In 2017 we had the Tubbs fire that destroyed hundreds of homes, filled the skies with smoke, and shut us down with power outages and evacuations. Over the next two years we had more fires and evacuations. In 2020 we had the dual impacts of COVID and wildfires in the hills just west of us that brought days of shutdowns, smoke, and evacuations.
This year we have been nervous, knowing we are still in a heavy drought with the danger of more wildfires. The silver lining – which we always seek – is that the challenges have made us more nimble, more creative, and more grateful. We take a deep breath each time we harvest the next block and put it safely to bed in barrel. And we give thanks.
One thing that endures is the excitement we feel with every harvest. There’s something deeply gratifying about partnering with, and sometimes overcoming, Mother Nature to bring in another crop. And we’re always doing something new that is invigorating. This year we foot treaded the grapes that go into our Sparkling Tres, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. We also foot treaded Grenache for our Rosé of Grenache - in the vineyard! Everyone pitched in - our winemaker, Ashley Herzberg and her kids, our team and our club members! And most exciting of all, we are fermenting some of our estate Chardonnay in a brand-new concrete egg – an Oeuf de Beaune – to create a different style Chardonnay. We tasted a sample today and we can’t wait to release this wine! I will always love harvest.
I love the sound of a cork being popped. It's joyous! Champagne experts advise that the cork should sound like a sigh when it's removed properly. I say "no way". I like to hear the pop.
I love to see it being poured into a glass as the tiny bubbles bring the wine to life. I tilt the glass slightly to preserve the bubbles rather than have them dissipate into foam.
I love to see the bubbles rising from the bottom of a champagne flute. It's trendy these days to drink sparkling wine from a wider glass. I know it enhances the aromas, but it kills the bubbles and the flute just feels more elegant.
I love the sensation of the bubbles tickling my tongue like little stars exploding on the tastebuds. All the more reason to preserve those bubbles!
I love that sparkling wines go with such a wide array of foods. We often have a bottle of sparkling with dinner, especially with spicy foods that are hard to pair with other wines.
I already have my next five reasons. What are yours?
Who would have thought of making a sparkling wine from Syrah? Oh yeah, the Aussies. They call it sparkling shiraz. It's deep red in color and typically somewhat sweet.
Ours is a rosé, cranberry in color and dry. I call it "joy in a bottle". It's festive! It shimmers! It's delicious!
But Winemaker Ashley Herzberg wasn't so sure. She received two bottles as a gift from my husband Mike when she became our winemaker. She stuck it in her closet thinking it would be icky and sweet. One night she pulled it out to serve to her girlfriends - a good way to get rid of it. They immediately started raving about it so she took a taste. She became a convert and has been making "joy" ever since.
The dosage is added to the finished wine to “top up the bottle” just before inserting the cork. Dosage is just a fancy word for the addition of a sugar syrup or liqueur. A dosage trial is done to determine the level of dosage to add to a sparkling wine to help balance the acidity and showcase the natural flavors. Here’s how we do it.
Assemble a group of tasters who love bubbles (easy). We always gather in our kitchen around our big island.
Prepare five – sometimes six – bottles of one of our sparkling wines, one bottle of the base wine and each of the others with a different level of “dosage”. We leave this to winemaker Ashley Herzberg (hard).
Line up the appropriate number of glasses in front of each taster and pour one of the samples into each glass (easy).
Sniff each sample and make notes about the aromas. This step is supposed to be done in silence (hard). If we’re tasting just one sparkling wine, we pretty much follow the rule. If we’re doing three or four, not so much!
Taste each glass and make notes of the flavors and the way the wine feels in your mouth. Again, in silence (hard).
Winemaker Ashley Herzberg then calls on each of us to share our notes, and pick the sample we think is best, reminding us there are no right or wrong answers (hard).
Then we all discuss the samples and try to come to a consensus on which one achieves the perfect balance of acidity, flavors, and mouthfeel. Surprisingly, we almost always reach agreement (easy). In those rare instances where we don’t agree, we all agree that the final decision rests with winemaker Ashley!
They’re COLD! We harvest our grapes in the early morning hours for two reasons. One, it’s easier for the workers before the temperatures rise during the day. Two, it’s better to bring the grapes in when they’re cold to control the sugar levels and avoid oxidation. It’s not so comfy for the stomper and my feet got a bit numb.
They hurt your feet. You’re stomping on whole clusters of grapes - stems included - not just the berries. The good news is that after a few minutes, your feet quit hurting because they’re numb!
You don’t really stomp. In fact, our winemaker calls it “foot treading” not grape stomping. The idea is to gently tread on the grapes to extract the color. Plus, the pressure of human force is gentle enough so that the seeds won't break which creates bitterness in the wine.
It’s hard to keep your balance. The clusters are lumpy and as you tread first one foot then the other sinks into the juice.
It’s hard work! In fact, it’s a great cardio workout.
It’s sticky. You’ll want to turn the hose on your feet and legs when you finish just like you did – hopefully - before you started.
It’s fun! It’s also rewarding to use a traditional, natural technique to kick off the fermentation process.
I’ll never forget the day (December 2, 2010) when Ashley said, “I would like to be your winemaker.” I was honored and thrilled to hear her question and knew my husband Mike would feel the same. We had been working with Ashley in her role as assistant winemaker for several years at the winery where we custom crush our grapes. Custom crush refers to making wine in a facility with equipment and resources provided by the facility under the direction of your own winemaker. It’s a great way to make wine without the overhead and capital investment of a dedicated winery.
Ashley had decided to strike out on her own and become a consulting winemaker so she would have more flexibility to start a family. She identified us as potential clients because she liked the quality of our fruit, both from our own estate and that purchased from our Dry Creek Valley neighbors, and she enjoyed working with us – go figure! We didn’t hesitate to say “Yes” because we felt the same way about her.
Little did we know that when Ashley joined us, we wouldn’t just get an amazing female winemaker, we would also get two delightful children in training. From the time her kids were very little we would see her walking our vineyards holding one by the hand with the other in a baby sling. They have grown up in the vineyards and have become experts in knowing when to pick. Ashley brings her talent and unbridled enthusiasm to everything she does, from leading our shift in focus to Rhône varietals and sparkling wines, to being an incredible mother, gardener, and friend.
Our Sparkling Syrah is a Rosé. I call it “joy in a bottle” because its shimmering cranberry color makes it festive. When we first launched Amista Vineyards, the only thing I knew about pairings was that Cab was good with steak. Then we started making Sparkling Syrah! You might be surprised how versatile this wine is and how much fun it is to try it with a wide variety of foods. Here are five of our favorites.
Thanksgiving. There are so many assorted flavors on the Thanksgiving table, it’s hard to find a wine that works. Enter Sparkling Syrah! Because it spends several hours on the skins, it has added heft that enables it to work with the bigger flavors of roast turkey and stuffing. At the same time, its fruit characteristics pair well with the cranberries and sweet potatoes. The bubbles cleanse the palate and the wine’s effervescence is a welcome counterpoint to the richness of the Thanksgiving feast. Added bonus – the brilliant color turns any meal into a celebration.
Taco Salad. This is a casual summer meal for us. The combination of spicy taco meat coupled with garden fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cilantro makes this a challenging pairing. Sparkling Syrah comes to the rescue. Plus, it is so refreshing on a warm summer evening.
Cranberry Brie Phyllo Cups. This is a delicious and beautiful appetizer that is spectacular with Sparkling Syrah. The tartness of the cranberries, the creamy brie, and the crunchy phyllo cup come together with the Sparkling Syrah and everything pops! This easy appetizer is sure to impress your friends.
Hot and Spicy Baked Crab is a favorite of our winemaker, Ashley Herzberg. It has long been a tradition on Christmas Eve and serving it with our Sparkling Syrah has become her family’s new tradition. In fact, Sparkling Syrah is a fabulous choice with all kinds of spicy cuisines, like Thai, Szechuan, and Indian dishes.
Panna Cotta with Raspberry Coulis. We served this at one of our annual Sparkling Holiday Soirees and it was a homerun! The Sparkling Syrah was dazzling with the tart, sweetness of the raspberry coulis and the silky panna cotta.
Have fun pairing this unusual bubbly with your favorite dishes. I’d love to hear what you discover.
Our dear friend, Juergen, was visiting from Germany and got roped into helping press the Syrah grapes for the first wine Mike made from our Healdsburg vineyard. The grapes were crushed and then sat on the skins for 10 days in our garage. We used a basket press (seen at the right of the photo above) loaned by one of our neighbors. The press extracts the juice from the crushed grapes leaving behind the skins and seeds. The grapes are pressed gently to avoid crushing the seeds and releasing undesirable tannins.
It’s strange that this step in the wine-making process is called pressing, when much less time is spent pressing and a lot more is spent washing barrels! The importance and amount of time spent on cleanliness in winemaking is often a surprise to beginning winemakers.
Mike and Juergen did a great job! This 2002 Syrah turned out to be delicious. It eventually came to be called Garage Syrah and was responsible for seducing us into starting a winery. Like most things, we just didn’t know it at the time!
Keep up to date on the latest wine releases, events, and promotions.