For decades now, famous Burgundy estates have been buying land in Oregon, recognizing its terroir as some of the best in the world for Pinot Noir. Over the decades, an intricate web of relationships has formed between the two regions, becoming even deeper when Champagne house Henriot, which owns Burgundy’s Bouchard Père et Fils, invested in Oregon’s ultra-premium Beaux Freres winery, in 2017.
But then in April this year came some startling news. The Bollinger family, who not only own the Champagne house of the same name, but also Ayala in Champagne, bought Oregon’s Ponzi Vineyards, famous not just for its Pinot Noir, but for its sparkling wines. Oregon looks to develop as much fame for its sparkling wines as for its still ones.
But that Oregon has great terroir for sparkling wines did not come as news to wine lovers. In the past decade, the region has produced some of the most exciting sparkling wines in the U.S. And that success is largely due to the work of one man.
A lover of cool climates
Montana native, Andrew Davis, grew up with wine, in a manner of speaking. “There was always a jug of cheap wine in the fridge,” he told the Oregon Wine History Archive.
But it was while working in a coffee house that he really caught the bug for good wine, because it was next door to a wine store which conducted regular tastings of high-quality wines. Later, after college, he worked on an organic farm in New Zealand and fell in love with farming. One thing led to another — there were stints of manual labor at Oregon wineries that introduced him to the local community — and before long, he was studying viticulture and enology back in New Zealand.
Because New Zealand is a small country that’s already packed with winemakers, Davis returned to Oregon, making a beeline for Argyle Winery, the state’s most iconic sparkling winery. He says he knew from the start he wanted to work with sparkling wine. “Have you ever seen someone with a glass of bubbles that didn’t have a smile on their face?” he told the archive.
When Andrew Davis left Argyle Winery in 2013, after six years as the winemaker, he wanted to see more Willamette Valley wineries making traditional-method sparkling wine. With such excellent growing conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — two of the three grapes traditionally used to make Champagne — the potential for Champagne-method sparkling wine in Oregon seemed obvious.
But there was a problem — most wineries didn’t have the specialized equipment needed to make the style.
Inspired by the success of Rack & Riddle’s custom crush facilities in California, Davis founded Radiant Sparkling Wine Company, to give Oregon’s smaller producers access to the right equipment. Nine years later, Davis has 50 clients and has helped to triple the number of sparkling wine producers in the Willamette Valley.
“In Champagne, the smaller grower-producers don’t have their own equipment,” he says. “So each village or region will have somebody doing something similar to what I’m doing, facilitating the production of sparkling wine.”
Making sparkling wine can be a more technical process than making still wine. There’s a lot of specialized equipment required – gyropalettes for riddling, neck freezers, disgorging and dosing units, bottle washers, and labelers – that make the cost of investing in the winemaking prohibitive. Davis has invested more than $1 million on assembling this equipment, an investment in Oregon’s sparkling wine future.
“Sparkling wine making requires more precision and attention than off-the-cuff, seat-of-your-pants, still winemaking,” Davis says. “With still wine, it’s possible to do minimal to virtually no input on the winemaking, but that’s not possible with sparkling wine. We need enough yeast to finish the fermentation in the bottle, but not so much that disgorging becomes impossible.”
Some of Radiant’s first winery partners were Ponzi Vineyards, Raptor Ridge, R. Stuart & Co., and Stoller Family Estate. The new concept and unproven service model were slow to take off, but Davis’ background making sparkling wine at Argyle certainly helped. By the time Radiant released its first wines in 2015, there was a sharp uptick in interest, as word got around Oregon’s winemaking community. Some producers, especially those new to making sparkling wine, now look to Davis for help with picking decisions, for example, and to achieve a light, low extraction pressing ideal for sparkling wine, while still getting yield and flavors.
Davis says that he doesn’t want to impact the flavor of the wines, but rather help winemakers develop their own styles and let the flavors of the Willamette Valley shine. One such client is David Petterson, winemaker and general manager of Domaine de Broglie in Dundee Hills, who began working with Radiant in 2018, to make Domaine de Broglie’s first traditional method bubbly, after hearing great things from colleagues.
“Before working with Andrew, I had a general idea how tirage, riddling, disgorgement, and dosage all worked, but he walked us through every one of those, as well as providing the necessary specialized equipment,” Petterson says. “Without Andrew, I honestly don’t know how we would have done it. He also tasted the wine with me a bunch, at various points along the way, and provided great feedback. Radiant has been the perfect partner for us getting started in this world.”
Then there are clients like R. Stuart & Co., who have their own sparkling wine equipment and were making their popular Bubbly and Rosé d’Or wines long before Radiant. With the recent boom in sparkling wine though, Davis helps R. Stuart with their overflow wine production.
“They’ll get the wine into bottle themselves and age it, then it comes to me at the point of disgorgement,” he says. “They bring the dosage over to me and tell me how much to add to each bottle, and I make sure the labels go on straight.” What would take R. Stuart weeks to work through, Radiant is able to process in a couple of days.
Oregon’s sparkling wine scene is still growing, and with Radiant, many smaller winemakers have had the opportunity to make sparkling wine for the first time. Next up, Willamette Valley Vineyards’ Jim Bernau is building a $13 million sparkling wine oasis in the Dundee Hills, with soon-to-be 30 planted acres. The best Oregon sparkling wines have an elegant balance of bright, aromatic fruit and high, natural acidity that could truly be mistaken for Champagne.
And who knows? One day soon, an Oregon winemaker may be buying land in Champagne.
3 Oregon sparkling wines to try:
Founded in 1991, the King family has created the largest certified biodynamic vineyard in North America. This wine offers aromas and flavors of apple, lemon, and brioche, set off by the lively acidity.