Virginia Sparkling Company is Expanding Virginia’s Effervescent Wines
Images courtesy of Virginia Sparkling Company/Elliott Watkins
Tiny streams of bubbles dance to the top of a long-stemmed Champagne flute. The refreshing taste and bright notes of a glass of sparkling wine are the perfect complement to toasting at a wedding, on New Year’s Eve as the ball drops or with friends at brunch.
Virginia’s history with sparkling wine isn’t the longest, but it’s taking off as production and consumption continues to increase.
Kluge Estate Winery started the trend for high-end sparkling wines in Virginia when French winemaker Claude Thibaut came to Charlottesville to consult at the winery in 2003. A few years later, Thibaut teamed up with longtime friend Manuel Janisson to start their own label. In 2007, Thibaut-Janisson released their first nonvintage, Blanc de Chardonnay, sparkling wine.
The duo, both natives of Grand Cru village in the Champagne region of France, come from Champagne-producing families and got involved in the industry at a young age. Thibaut-Janisson wines are produced in Waynesboro and regarded as one of the Commonwealth’s most widely sold sparkling wines.
“Virginia is an excellent location for sparkling wine,” says Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.
Boyd credits the wedding industry as just one of the reasons Virginia wineries would want to add sparkling wines to their lineup of offerings.
“Wineries want a wide variety of options. You have consumers that have a wide variety of tastes,” Boyd shares.
However, sparkling wine is expensive to make and requires different production equipment than still wine. That’s where the Virginia Sparkling Company steps in to assist Virginia winemakers.
No Champagne, No Business Gain
Virginia Sparkling Co. is a venture from the winemaking family behind Afton-based Veritas Vineyards and Flying Fox Vineyard. The company fills a void for wineries looking to produce sparkling wine, without needing to purchase the equipment themselves.
Director and winemaker for Virginia Sparkling Co., Elliott Watkins, has desired to see the sparkling wine scene take off in Virginia and on the East Coast for quite some time.
Watkins first experienced Virginia’s wine country in 2012 when he traveled from the United Kingdom to complete his summer harvest placement at Veritas. Watkins explains that sparkling wine has expanded over the last five to 10 years in England, and it was something he focused on while completing his degree.
“There wasn’t really that kind of set up available,” he notes of Virginia wineries when he first arrived. “Most people were so focused on still wine that the investment into sparkling equipment wasn’t something they were entertaining.”
Watkins began building a client portfolio through Veritas, growing the custom sparkling winemaking production from there. After establishing Virginia Sparkling Co. as its own entity, the team built a specialized facility in 2019, located in a former textile mill along Nelson County’s 151 Craft Beverage Trail.
Virginia Sparkling Co. takes care of the second fermentation and bottling process required to make traditional Champagne-style sparkling wines, saving wineries the cost, time and expertise required. Watkins has always loved the intricacies of the Champagne style, opposed to forced carbonated sparkling wines like Prosecco.
“This style of winemaking is incredibly intricate and requires a lot of knowledge from experience,” says Watkins. “We’re asking wines to referment in the bottle, so making sure all of our pressures are correct and the yeast that we’re adding are healthy enough to complete the fermentation. That’s something I’ve been working on for the past 10-plus years.”
Traditional Champagne-style sparkling wines are less common in Virginia due to the cost of the specialized equipment, including riddling racks to rotate the bottles, and the space required to hold a large quantity of product for a considerable amount of time.
“It’s win-win because that equipment is really expensive. The time and expertise it takes to finish that second process is labor intensive and capital intensive,” Boyd explains.
“We’re trying to put Virginia sparkling on the map and open other winery’s eyes to the possibility of a sparkling wine in their portfolio,” expresses Watkins.
Producing sparkling wines is not just beneficial for business profit and consumption but also for viticulture. Sparkling wine grapes are picked earlier than grapes used for still and sweeter wines, maintaining the fruit’s acidity.
“Being able to harvest fruit a little bit earlier in the season gives you a bit more consistency with your wine,” Watkins reveals.
Virginia’s climate allows for wineries to pick grapes for sparkling wine in mid-August. Often times, hurricanes and rainy weather can ruin a harvest in September and October but picking fruit for sparkling wines can happen just ahead of the standard crush season for still wine.
The bubbly beverage is incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed with a number of Virginia foods, including ham, cheese, oysters and other seafood, according to Boyd. She recommends starting multi-course meals with a sparkling wine due to its dry, crisp taste.
“If you’re ever doing a dinner, there isn’t an appetizer on the planet that doesn’t go with sparkling wine,” she explains. “It goes with everything, especially salty foods.”
Watkins agrees. He recommends the seemingly unusual but fitting pairing of fried chicken or potato chips with sparkling wine.
“It’s a great savory snack that pairs really well with sparkling wine,” he notes.