DURING THE HOLIDAY season, everything twinkles and shines. It’s only fitting that our beverage of choice should sparkle, too.
The use of sparkling wine for special occasions is rooted in history. “It has always been seen as a celebratory, important wine,” says Simone Bergese, executive winemaker and winery CEO at Château Élan Winery & Resort in Braselton. After all, he explains, sparkling wine requires uncorking; this was not traditionally something people opened every day.
“It was always for the ending of something or the purpose of something,” he says.
We can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of another year (especially this one!) than popping the cork on a bottle of local bubbly, and Bergese agrees. His portfolio at Château Élan already includes four sparkling wines, and this season, he’s ready to roll out a new release—the first muscadine wine made in the methode champenoise, a traditional method that signifies some of the highest quality sparkling wines in the world.
Bergese came on the scene at Château Élan in 2012 at a time when the property’s wine production took a back seat to resort operations and other amenities. Grape growing on the East Coast presents a unique set of challenges, and the vineyard was falling victim to bacteria and disease. Italian-born Bergese, who had worked in such worldwide wine regions as Italy’s Piemonte, Australia and Virginia, was up for the challenge. But in order to tackle it head-on, he had to start with a clean slate.
“I led a revolution of the wine program, starting with pulling every vine from the 20-acre vineyard,” he said. He took some time to research the region’s growing condi- tions and varietals that would complement it before deciding what to plant.
“You don’t force your hand with Mother Nature; you’re going to lose,” he says. With that mantra in mind, Bergese settled on muscadines, a native plant that is much better suited to the climate of Georgia’s Piedmont region than other more classic wine varieties and therefore more successful here, even without the use of pesticides—a factor that was very important to Bergese.
“I strongly believe in sustainable farming,” he emphasizes. Though muscadines clearly made the most sense for Château Élan, Bergese was met with the added challenge of the grape’s somewhat low-brow reputation in the wine business. Undeterred, he simply applied the same techniques he would use on any other variety and added less sugar than other muscadine wines, allowing him to create a finished product that was “still sweet but not syrupy, with more of a wine structure.” His Cherokee White, for instance, is a dry muscadine wine similar to a Riesling, with low sugar, high acidity, and good food compatibility.
Bergese has succeeded in creating a superior quality muscadine wine that has led to high interest statewide. His wines are currently distributed at every grocery store and package store in Georgia.
BRING ON THE BUBBLES
Though Bergese was already finding unprecedented success with his muscadine wines—including a single-barrel muscadine port that sold out in two short months at $100/bottle—he wanted to diversify Château Élan’s portfolio, so he began to lease vineyards in California and partner with others around the world in order to produce more classic wines. In addition to adding varietals like Chardonnay and Merlot, these expansions made possible the sparkling wines in Château Élan’s current portfolio.
The first was a Brut Reserve, a lively, off-dry sparkling made from Chardonnay grapes with flavors of lemon and green apple in the charmat method, a process that traps bubbles in the wine in steel tanks. Later came two vintages made in the frizzante method, a classic Italian style that is a little less sparkling—and therefore not as complicated—as your classic bubbly: the Moscato D’Asti, with distinct notes of sweet peach and orange blossoms; and the Dolce Rosso, a sweet red with aromas of delicate roses.
And perhaps the most unique in the sparkling portfolio is an exclusive partnership with Moorea Juice Factory in Tahiti, which Bergese joined to create the Brut d’Ananas, a sparkling wine made with 100 percent Queen Tahiti pineapples that is available in limited supply only at Château Élan.
This year, Bergese decided to branch out even further by creating an industry-first — his muscadine wine made in the method champenoise.
“I wanted to create a superior, more elegant product,” he says, explaining that champenoise is historically a “more royal” way to create sparkling wine. The champe- noise method, which involves a second fer- mentation process inside the bottle and the addition of sugar and wine along with the final cork, takes a full year to complete. “It’s a very complicated process but it preserves the nice, exotic flavor of the muscadines,” Bergese explains.
Though it still had a few months to go, Bergese popped a cork for me to sample when I met with him back in September. The bottle spewed as the pressure released, like a mini celebration for the two of us. Dry and flavorful, I found it refreshing even in its unfinished state. “I do believe it needs some sugar,” Bergese remarked as we sipped.
His pride over the product was palpable. At press time, Bergese and his team were still seeking just the right label for this special vintage, but one thing he assured me: “It will definitely connect to the territory.”
The final product will yield a limited production of 2,400 bottles sold exclusively at Château Élan’s resort and tasting room, and should be ready just in time for the holidays.
Looking for more local bubbles? The following are a few of North Georgia’s finest:
ACCENT CELLARS INSIDER – a bone- dry sparkling apple wine made with fruit from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge; $26/bottle
MONTALUCE MOSCATO – floral with notes of stone fruit and melon; $36/bottle
THREE SISTERS VINEYARDS GEOR – GIA CUVEÉ – a full-bodied brut to extra dry sparkling white made from 100 percent Georgia-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir; $35/bottle THREE SISTERS VINEYARDS GEORGIA CUVEÉ ROSE – a zesty sparkling rose with notes of strawberry and honey crisp apple; $35/bottle WOLF MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS BRUT NATURAL – crisp with notes of citrus peel and a refreshing clean finish; $29.95/bottle
WOLF MOUNTAIN BLANC DE BLANC BRUT – aging on the yeast created a light bread flavor in this signature sparkling, combined with hints of citrus, spice and crisp acidity; $29.95/bottle WOLF MOUNTAIN VINTNERS RESERVE BRUT ROSE – a Chardonnay-based sparkling delicately blended with Wolf Mountain Reserve Claret to create complex red berry flavor and a beautiful salmon color; $32.95/bottle