The king of Northwest bubbly

When it comes to celebrating, few wines in the Northwest are more affordable, available and worthy than the sparklers from Domaine Ste. Michelle.

This summer, Rick Casqueiro observed his 15th anniversary as winemaker of Ste. Michelle’s sparkling wine house in Paterson, Wash.

Remarkably, perhaps the turning point for Domaine Ste. Michelle came during Casqueiro’s third vintage with Ste. Michelle, just before the 1998 harvest. Each summer, then-CEO Allen Shoup and then-marketing executive Ted Baseler would gather their winemakers in Yakima for a weekend of golf, dining, relaxation and meetings.

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Sabering sparkling wine without a saber

A couple of days ago, I posted a video of Harry McWatters explaining and demonstrating how to saber the top off a bottle of sparkling wine. Since I shot the video three years ago, I have sabered dozens of bottles, as it’s a fun and satisfying way to open a bottle of bubbly.

In the video, he mentions that he has opened a bottle of sparkling wine with everything from a butter knife to a snow ski. Then on Facebook a couple of days ago, someone mentioned watching a winemaker in the Seattle area saber a bottle with a wineglass. That sounded intriguing, so I decided to try it tonight at a New Year’s Eve party with friends.

I brought a glass I didn’t care much about - and one that was pretty sturdy. I wasn’t sure exactly how it was supposed to work, so I first tried it with the base of the glass because that seemed to make sense. When the base shattered after a couple of tries (I was wearing teflon gloves, btw), I thought, “What the heck,” and tried it with the bowl, using the lip of the glass as the edge.

Lo and behold, the top of the bottle came off on the first try! I will definitely need to work on this technique more.

Now that I’ve checked YouTube, I’ve found a video demonstrating this with the base of the glass, so I guess some experimentation is in order.

Three years ago, we put together this video with Harry McWatters, then of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in British Columbia, who is well known for his affinity for opening bottles of bubbly with a saber. In this video, he explains the history of sabrage, then demonstrates it for us.

If you want to try this, head to your local hardware store and buy a machete and some safety glasses.

Demystifying sparkling wine

Between the bubbles, the way the bottle is opened and the special glasses, sparkling wine seems much more difficult and complicated than it really is. And what’s with calling it sparkling wine instead of Champagne? Let’s find out.

Champagne vs. sparkling wine

Champagne is a region in France where the monk Dom Perignon allegedly discovered sparkling wine. Thus, wine from that region — and no other — should be referred to as Champagne. Other regions have different names for sparkling wine. In the United States, we call it as sparkling wine.

How is it made?

There are many ways to make sparkling wine. The most famous is called “methode champenoise,” or made like those from Champagne. This means a wine is fermented twice, with the second time in the bottle. When sugar is converted to alcohol, it produces carbon dioxide, and when carbon dioxide is trapped in a bottle, it creates bubbles. We’ve really simplified this because crafting a sparkling wine the traditional way is rather complex.

Another common method is “charmat,” in which the second fermentation takes place in a tank, rather than a bottle. Most Italian sparkling wines are made this way. A third way is to inject carbon dioxide into wine. That’s how Coke and Pepsi are made.

How do you open it?

Opening a bottle of sparkling wine can be a bit tricky. If you literally pop the cork, you risk injury and, just as importantly, spilling good wine.

So first, chill the bottle well. Leaving it in the fridge for a few hours will do the trick. Before you open the wine, have a kitchen towel handy. Remove the foil covering the cork. You’ll find a wire cage that secures the cork in the bottle. Keeping a thumb on top of the cork as much as possible, remove the cage. Put the towel over the top of the bottle and put one hand on top to grip the cork through the towel. Place the other hand on the bottom of the bottle. Slowly twist the bottle while holding the cork tight. You’ll feel the cork gently coming loose before finally releasing with a whisper rather than an explosive pop.

If you want to be more adventurous, buy a machete and safety glasses at the hardware store and look up “sabrage” on the Internet.

What kind of wine glass do I need?

You can pour sparkling wine into any glass. In fact, if you use a standard white wine glass, you’ll enjoy the aromas most. Traditionally, sparkling wine is poured into a tall, thin glass called a flute. Its primary purpose is to allow the wine’s bubbles to appear more dramatic (and take longer to dissipate).

Avoid the “champagne coupe,” a bowl-shaped glass often used at weddings. You can’t swirl the wine, and the bubbles quickly vanish.

What do the labels mean?

There is a great deal of history behind how sparkling wine is made. Traditionally, it is produced from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but it can be made with any grape. Want a real visual treat? Try a red sparkling wine.

Here’s a quick primer for deciphering sparkling wine labels:

Blanc de blancs: This means it’s a white wine made from white grapes, such as Chardonnay.

Blanc de noirs: It’s a white wine made from red (literally “black”) grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Often, this is a pink wine.

Brut: This is a dry wine.

Extra dry: Defying reason, this actually is a sweeter sparkling wine. It’s a long story.

Spumante: This is an Italian sparkling wine.

We’ve packed a lot of info into a small space, so go put your new-found knowledge to work this holiday season and enjoy a nice glass of bubbly. Its dry approach, low alcohol and nice acidity also make it a versatile food wine.

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Ken Robertson, a longtime newspaperman and Wine Press Northwest columnist, has a great love affair with sparkling wine.

In fact, he enjoys bubbly so much, he’s made his own for several years. He started out making just a few cases of sparkling wine from frozen blackberries and other fruits. And in recent years, he has procured several gallons of Riesling, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Pinot Gris and other vinifera varieties to make his small batches of bubbly.

In this interview with Bob Woehler, Ken talks about sparkling wine, how it is made and why he enjoys it so much.

Your guide to Northwest sparkling wine, part 1

This is the time of year we think most about sparkling wine, as we look for a cork to pop to celebrate the holidays and welcome a turn of the calendar. Sparkling wine is delicious and easy to pair with food all year around, so it’s a bit unfortunate that we pay attention to it primarily during the holidays.

For something so easy to enjoy, sparkling wine can be pretty complicated — and that means it can intimidate most wine lovers. Thus, we will spend the next two weeks learning about bubbles. This week, we will explore Northwest sparkling wine producers. Next week, we will unravel a few of the mysteries surrounding sparkling wine.

Big players

A few wineries in the Pacific Northwest specialize in sparkling wine. These tend to be the producers you will find more easily.

Domaine Ste. Michelle: This Ste. Michelle Wine Estates property is the big gun in the Northwest sparkling wine scene — and one of the largest producers in the United States. Winemaker Rick Casqueiro oversees production of more than 300,000 cases of bubbly annually. The wines are made in Paterson, Wash., in the same facility as Columbia Crest, and Casqueiro makes no fewer than five different wines each year. Domaine Ste. Michelle wines win awards and accolades from competitions and critics alike. Best of all, the wines are great values, with all but the vintage-dated Luxe retailing for $10-$12.

Argyle: Located in a haunted former hazelnut processing plant in Dundee, Ore., Argyle is making some of the Northwest’s finest sparkling wines. Unlike Domaine Ste. Michelle, Argyle’s focus is not solely on bubbles, as it also makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. But it’s perhaps most famous for its sparklers. Winemaker Rollin Soles crafts no fewer than six sparkling wines, all vintage dated (a bit of a rarity in this part of the business). His oldest that is currently for sale dates back to 2000, while the rest all are from the 2006 and 2007 vintages.

Argyle sparkling wines are easiest to find in the greater Portland area, but Washington merchants with good Northwest selections also carry Argyle wines.

Mountain Dome: Based near Spokane, Mountain Dome has been focusing primarily on high-quality sparkling wines for a quarter-century. It produces three styles of sparkling wine, all made from Washington grapes. The bottles are adorned with a whimsical painting of gnomes, which represent the Mantz family, which owns Mountain Dome.

Summerhill Pyramid Winery: One of British Columbia’s most visible wineries is Summerhill near Kelowna. Owner Steve Cipes ages his sparkling wines in a pyramid modeled after the Cheops Pyramid on the Giza Plateau. He believes the pyramid invokes an energy into the wine. Regardless of what you think of his theory, the wines are delicious and well worth seeking if you happen to be in British Columbia.

Other wineries making sparkling wine

A handful of the Northwest’s more than 1,200 wineries craft sparkling wines on a small to medium scale. Here are a few we have enjoyed in recent months:

Pacific Rim: This winery in West Richland, Wash., began making a sparkling Riesling called White Flowers a couple of years ago, and it is a dynamite wine. Look for it in better wine shops and groceries.

Westport: Based in Aberdeen, Wash., this coastal winery crafts a delicious sparkling Gewurztraminer.

Sumac Ridge: This winery in Summerland, B.C., makes a couple of bubblies, including Stellar’s Jay Brut, its signature wine.

Ste. Chapelle: Idaho’s largest winery makes sparkling Rieslings that are off-dry and oh so good.

Camas Prairie: This winery in Moscow, Idaho, makes a handful of unusual and delicious sparkling wines, including a rare red bubbly.

Karma Vineyards: Based in Chelan, Wash., this winery crafts small amounts of classically made sparkling wine.

What are some of your favorite sparkling wine producers in the Pacific Northwest?