Holiday Sparklers

by Hannelore Sudermann

At Karma Vineyards, where grapevines pour down the hillside toward the southern shore of Lake Chelan, a 3,000-square-foot cave holds the next few years’ of sparkling wine.

Three different grapes from the 14 acres of vines go into the bubbly: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. They’re treated much the same way they would be in the Champagne region of France, where the complex and labor-intensive method of making sparkling wine was perfected.

“The méthode champenoise is worth the work,” says Julie Pittsinger ’06, who owns Karma with her husband Bret. They opened Karma’s doors in 2007 and, she says, there really wasn’t a decision about whether or how they would do a sparkling wine.

“Maybe we didn’t know any different,” says Pittsinger one late summer afternoon after sampling the sugars in her Pinot Noir grapes. “It is the traditional style and our personality is to do it right.” While studying viticulture and winemaking at WSU, Pittsinger turned to an expert from France to help build the winery and start their first releases. Today Karma produces between 1,000 and 1,500 cases of bubbly each year.

Only a few Washington wineries make sparkling wines, but among them are some delicious and surprisingly affordable options, says Thomas Henick-Kling, WSU’s director of viticulture and enology. “And there’s room for a lot more,” he says. “I think every winery should have some.”

The climate, particularly west of the Cascades and in cooler spots on the east side, is well suited to grapes for sparklers. “You need base wines with a nice fruit aroma and a very fine texture,” he says, “and the right phenolic content.” Phenolics are chemical compounds that affect the mouthfeel and taste of the wine.

Winemakers have several paths to producing a sparkling wine. The Champagne method, perfected east of Paris, is the most time consuming and complex, says Henick-Kling. It involves a first fermentation of the grape juice followed by a blending and bottling with a dose of yeast and some juice and/or sugar for a second fermentation, during which the flavor and effervescence is developed. This second fermentation, which at Karma takes three years, is followed by a three-week “riddling,” a painstaking process of shaking and turning the bottle every day or two to move the used-up yeasts, or “lees,” to the neck of the bottle.

When the time comes, the winemakers freeze the neck, open the cap, and a plug of yeast pops out. Then comes a dosage, a bit of wine and sugar to flavor and sweeten the bubbly. Pittsinger uses her own recipe to top off each bottle before corking it.

But there are other, less complicated, ways to make sparkling wines, says Henick-Kling, who is organizing a course on the subject for his program. The first is the easiest. You take a good wine and infuse it with carbonation, like you would a soda. The result is fizzy, but rather rough, he says.

In the second, known as the Charmat method, wine is treated with yeast and matures in a closed tank where carbon dioxide builds up and creates the bubbles. “It’s a good method for young fruit-forward sparkling wines,” says Henick-Kling. It typically appears in Italian wines like Prosecco and the red bubbly Lambrusco.

But with the Champagne method, in which the second fermentation requires a contact with yeast for a minimum of nine months and up to three to five years, “You still have some nice fruit, but you also get these nice yeasty aromas,” says Henick-Kling.

Doug Charles ’83 has watched bubblies come and go in Washington. When he worked as a sommelier in the 1980s, he found houses like Hogue and Preston made “some really delicious sparkling wines,” he says. “The potential has been there, but there’s only been a tiny, tiny quantity.”

Now, in his Anacortes shop Compass Wines, he reaches to a top shelf and pulls down a Trevari Cellars sparkling Pinot Gris made with Columbia Valley grapes. “Here’s something worth trying,” he says, adding that Trevari’s sparklers have been served at the White House.

Then, skimming over a few dozen French Champagnes, he grabs another bottle from the bottom shelf. This is a Syncline bubbling brut rosé from the Columbia Gorge. “Some are traditional, some are non-traditional,” he says. “They’re all good. But I’d like to see Washington set its identity with what Washington does well.”

Using non-traditional grapes like Syrah, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling, the state could make a name for itself with its sparklers much in the way it does with its still wines. “Why do we have to make what they make in France?” asks Charles.

Charles has some advice. The first is that sparkling wine doesn’t need a special occasion. It could and should be enjoyed any time. “Bubbly is the most versatile of all wines,” he says. “It goes with just about anything.” (Karma’s Julie Pittsinger loves it with spicy food and eggs Benedict).

The second, “there are some exceptions, but for the most part bubbly is best enjoyed when it’s fresh,” he says. And finally, “Avoid buying any wine from any place that treats it like a commodity. It’s like produce. It should be kept at cool temperatures and handled with care.”


by Eric Sorensen

Mahmoudreza Ovissipour and I are in a small conference room on the edge of the Pullman campus with papers, a notebook, napkins, and plastic spoons. At the center of our attention sits a singularly small glass jar shipped overnight in ice packs from California. Its contents: one ounce of eggs from white cultured sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, also known as caviar.

A research associate in food science, Ovissipour is here to demonstrate how to wring the most flavor from  each glistening, beady egg. He is part of a small cadre of WSU scientists who have studied various aspects of fish eggs, including Barbara Rasco, the School of Food Science interim director, and Carolyn Ross, head of WSU’s Sensory Evaluation Unit.

This is not a sybaritic exercise, at least not entirely. The worldwide trade in black caviar is worth tens of millions of dollars, placing enormous pressure on sturgeon, particularly in the Caspian Sea, source of 90 percent of the world’s caviar. Writing in the journal Aquaculture Research & Development, Ovissipour and Rasco say the Caspian catch has dropped to a tenth of what it was 30 years ago, while poaching has grown.

“The fishery is now in dire straits,” they write, “and extinction has become a real possibility.”

One remedy sits in the palm-sized, $50 jar before us. It holds the roe of sturgeon farmed in Italy. Along with conservation strategies and hatcheries, aquaculture eggs might provide a sustainable answer to the centuries-old demand for this most coveted of delicacies.

But first it has to satisfy the senses the way only caviar can.

“The first sense is olfactory,” says Ovissipour, inviting me to open the jar.

I smell almost nothing, wondering if it is too cold. Ovissipour cups his hand over the jar and his nose.

“No, this is really good, because it’s pretty fresh, a little bit fishy,” he says. He speaks with the accent of his native Iran, one of five countries on the Caspian. “I cannot smell any rancidity, which is really important, because caviar are pretty rich in unsaturated fatty acid. They are pretty sensitive to oxygen and susceptible to being oxidized. This is why, once we open it and the smell is a little fresh, it shows the quality of the fatty acid is really great.”

There’s also no sourness, which would be a sign of yeast going to work. The color is good, black with a hint of gray. Ovissipour sees a hint of green, also good.

He puts a few eggs between two fingers. They are soft and unbroken, another encouraging sign.

“They’re separated eggs,” he says, “which means the quality is really high.”

Using a plastic spoon—metal spoons might affect the taste—we each put a quarter teaspoon of eggs on our tongues and hold them ever so gently against the roof of the mouth.

“The dissolvability is pretty good,” says Ovissipour, who has performed this routine maybe 1,000 times with many varieties, including beluga, the most sought-after caviar. “You cannot feel any firmness… which is really good.”

There’s a tingle of salt, but not too much, then a nutty, buttery profusion as the eggs melt across the tongue. There’s no bitterness, a benefit of being farmed and processed in the same place.

“Once they harvest the fish, they can process the caviar in less than an hour,” Ovissipour says, clicking his fingers. “This is why aquaculture can help to produce a safer product and a pretty fresh product.”

We sample again, and again. More flavors emerge. The buttery flavor deepens along with a mellow richness similar to a breakfast egg yolk. No surprise there. These are eggs.

Now comes an aftertaste that reminds me of the ocean.

“We call it marine or sea flavor,” says Ovissipour.

Recently, Ovissipour, Rasco, and Ross, along with research assistant Allison Baker, a doctoral student, and scientific assistant Beata Vixie ’11 MS , identified a total of 16 sensory attributes that could be used to evaluate caviar. The lexicon, which includes terms like “earthy,” “old linseed paint,” and “rubbery,” could help the industry improve the quality of its product, identifying which attributes are most favored by consumers. The evaluation also confirmed previous work showing no taste and quality differences between farmed and wild caviar.

Ovissipour recommends eating caviar with cheese, crackers, and maybe some frozen vodka. Later that day, I invite friends over to finish off the jar’s contents. My wife and I cobble together a Danish smorgasbord of pickled herring, the previous night’s grilled salmon, cheeses, and the proletarian antipode of caviar, braunschweiger liverwurst. We repeat Ovissipour’s exercise, the salty-buttery-marine taste building across our palates with each nibble. We follow with samples of Danish aquavit from the freezer. If caviar were glycerol, this would be nitric acid. The flavor explodes.

“Not bad for leftovers,” says my wife.

“Yes,” I say, “It helps that we have caviar.”