By Frank Morgan
Sparkling wine has long been the universal beverage of celebration, but bubbly sales are soaring as more consumers recognize the vinous virtues of popping corks for daily drinking.
Though the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office doesn’t track sparkling wine sales separately, director Annette Boyd says requests are pouring in “and demand seems to be increasing across the state.”
The family behind Afton-based Veritas and Flying Fox vineyards and wineries, and True Heritage wine, is betting big on this effervescent trend by starting a new venture – the Virginia Sparkling Company.
The new operation will offer production services to local wineries, focusing exclusively on traditionally made sparkling wine using the same method as in the Champagne region of France.
“Establishing a sparkling wine production company has been in the works for 10 years,” says Emily Pelton, a winemaker for Veritas and Flying Fox. Pelton will produce sparkling wine along with her winemaker brother-in-law, Elliott Watkins.
The roots of Champagne-style sparkling wine in Virginia date back to 1999 when Patricia Kluge founded the former Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard (now Trump Winery). In 2003, Kluge hired Claude Thibaut, a native of the Champagne region and fifth-generation winemaker, to establish her sparkling wine program.
A few years later, Thibaut founded his own label, Thibaut-Janisson, and made his well-regarded bubbles in a leased space at Veritas Vineyards. Thibaut, who has trained several local winemakers, including Pelton and Watkins, is widely considered the father of Virginia sparkling wine.
Now, after more than decade, two dozen state wineries offer sparkling wine. Still, only a handful follow the traditional Champagne-style method. The cost of specialized equipment like riddling racks (large racks that automatically rotate bottles) coupled with the considerable time and expertise required to produce the wine can be a significant barrier.
The new sparkling operation will be based with Flying Fox Vineyard in a former textile mill on Route 151 in Afton, joining six wineries, three breweries, and two cideries on the Nelson 151 craft beverage trail.
“We will provide the equipment, space, and several decades of combined experience making traditional sparkling wine,” says Watkins, who is also head of operations at Virginia Sparkling Company. “This will allow wineries to add a sparkling wine to their portfolio while avoiding a large financial investment and initial trial and error.”
Beyond capitalizing on the current bubbly trend, Virginia sparkling wine is a good bet from a viticulture perspective. Grapes used for sparkling wine are often picked earlier than grapes used for still or sweet wines to help maintain acidity.
“Sparkling wine is a great fit for Virginia from a fruit quality perspective, too, because picking the grapes early means we don’t have to worry about late harvest rains that are so common here,” says Pelton.
The first bottles of local sparkling wine made by the Virginia Sparkling Company team will be on the market by summer.