It’s winter, but fear not. We’ve made it past the shortest day of the year, and if history has anything to teach us, it’s a time for celebrating. This month, we’re looking at some of the ways ancient people celebrated the expected onset of spring and all that comes with it: love, fertility, new growth, and food. And sparkling wine, of course.
Milk & Fire
Imbolc, an ancient Pagan celebration marking the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, is traditionally observed from February 1-2. It originated in ancient Scotland and Ireland to celebrate the lenghtening days and the coming of spring. Its exact date also coincides with the breeding cycle of sheep, with lactation beginning right around the first of February.
The goddess Brigid, a Pagan deity concerned with poetry, crafts, and prophecy, was the main honoree at Imbolc festivals. The mythological Irish history text Cath Maige Turied , from the 10th century, claims that Brigid was born with a flame in her head, and was empowered by drinking the milk of a mystical cow from the spirit world. Ancient Imbolc tradition included effigies of the goddess and large bonfires, and were often associated with fertility rites.
When Christianity arrived, observance of Imbolc was incorporated into the new practices by way of St. Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Purportedly born to a slave and a chieftain around A.D. 453, Brigid was celebrated for her agricultural knowledge from an early age. Brought up as a student of St. Patrick himself, Brigid became Ireland’s first nun, and went on to build a monastery at Kildare, on the very site of an ancient Celtic shrine to the eponymous goddess of yore. Whether Brigid was an actual historical person remains up for debate, but the strong traditions in the area ensured that, saint or goddess, Brigid’s name would endure, and the church instituted the celebration of St. Brigid’s Day on February 1st.
The two faces of Imbolc/St. Brigid’s day bring to mind two very different methods of producing a favorite celebratory beverage–sparkling wine. Our friends in Arizona have been dabbling in some weird science and producing some really exciting, out-of-the-box sparkling wines. We thought we would share some of the fruits of their labor to spice up your Imbolc celebrations this year.
Rob and Sarah Hammelman of Sand-Reckoner Vineyards decided to go old-school with their foray into sparkling wine with a pétillant naturel, or pét-nat for short. Produced using the méthode ancestral, pét-nat is the oldest form of sparkling wine. The carbonation comes from bottling the wine while fermentation is still active, resulting in a naturally bubbly offbeat wine that would have been right at home at an ancient Imbolc bonfire. The Hammelmans learned early on that Malvasia Bianca was a perfect fit for their desert terroir, and they have had great success with the grape. Naturally, it was their first choice when they decided to make a sparkling wine.
At the other end of the traditional–modern spectrum, Dos Cabezas WineWorks has come up with a fun sparkler of their own. Dos Cabezas has long been renowned for their Rosé wines, blending Mediterranean varieties like Grenache and Monastrell into superb, pink-hued beauties. But winemaker Todd Bostock is never content to rest on his laurels, so he took some of the Rosé one year, carbonated it with pressurized gas, and canned it in 16-ounce tallboys. Portable, delightful, and delicious, Todd’s creation steps outside of the norms of winemaking, and the world is a better place for it.
Varieties: 77% Garnacha, 17% Monastrell, 6% Syrah
Vineyard: Cimarron Vineyard, Willcox, AZ
Analysis: Alcohol: 13.6%, Dry
Naughty & Nice
About two weeks after Imbolc, we arrive at another fun-sounding Pagan celebration that was co-opted by the church before being ruthlessly exploited by the greeting card industry. Lupercalia, named for the wolf guardian of Romulus and Remus, was a festival held in ancient Rome on February 15, and featured bloody sacrifices, feasting, ritualistic nudity, and random mating, all in the name of fertility. Truth be told, this is a party we would attend.
Around the third century AD, Christianity was taking hold in the Roman empire, and a certain St. Valentine was reportedly doing his part by attempting to convert Claudius II to the faith. Legend has it that Claudius resisted and had Valentine beheaded on February 14th. Valentine’s subsequent designation as a patron of lovers, coupled with the fertility rites of Lupercalia, gave rise to the notion of the modern Valentine’s day, albeit suitably neutered and sanitized for contemporary tastes.
While the pressures of modern society and decorum (and laws), will keep most of us from participating in any blood-soaked naked whipping with goat hides, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy some of the sweetness of the season with our special person. Once again, sparkling wine saves the day, bridging the gap between an all night bacchanal and a romantic night in.
At the foot of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, Domaine Bernhard & Riebel has been farming their gravelly vineyards for almost 40 years. While the main focus of the winery has been the area’s traditional Riesling, there is always room for improvisation. The roots of Crémant run deep in Alsace, being the region’s officially designated sparkling wine since 1976. Bernhard & Riebel’s Crémant d’Alsace showcases winemaker Pierre’s versatility and expertise, vinifying Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the vineyards around the Haut-Koenigsbourg castle in the méthode champenoise to produce a truly Alsatian take on sparkling wine.
Another unique sparkler comes from Burgenland in Austria. The Triebaumer winery, helmed by Gunter and Regina, has been farming the vineyards around Rust since the 15th century. Around 2002, Gunter and Regina set out to create “an uncomplicated product, just to enjoy.” Muscato grapes are harvested early and fermented in pressure tanks to harness the CO2 from the fermentation, and a rapid chilling process caps the alcohol level at 7%. The result is a sweet, fruity, low-alcohol bottle of pure fun. It’s breakfast wine!
Varieties: 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir
Vineyard: Granitic gravel soil
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.5%, Acid: 4.25 g/L, Dry
Variety: 100% Muscat
Vineyard: Limestone-rich soils in Rust
Analysis: Alcohol: 7.0%, Acid: 7.5 g/L
Love & Sekt
Spring is just around the corner, and with it comes a bounty of early-season fruits and vegetables. Kiwi, artichoke, asparagus, and rhubarb are just some of the produce we can look forward to soon. The question, then, is what to drink with the early spring harvest.
In case you missed it, our theme this month is sparkling wine, and when it comes to pairing bubbles with food, our go-to is Austrian Sekt. Grower-produced Sekt is relatively new to the country, at least as an officially recognized product, and owes its identity to one Gerald Malat. Prior to 1976, Austrian wineries were not permitted to produce sparkling wine due to antiquated trade laws. Gerald petitioned the powers that be to change the law, and he eventually prevailed in the Austrian Supreme Court.
Fast forward to 2015, when Austrian wine law established a new three-tier quality classification for Sekt, cementing the category as a pillar of the country’s reborn dedication to high-quality wine. Since the top tier of the Sekt pyramid, “Grosse Reserve,” requires 30 months of lees aging, the first Sekts with this designation have only just arrived on our shores.
Gerald’s son Michael has long since taken the reins of the winery, and his dedication to his father’s work shows in the estate’s robust Sekt program. The original “grower” Sekt of Austria, fully 20% of Malat’s production is devoted to sparkling wine, namely Brut Nature and Brut Rosé, both made from the estate’s dry-farmed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Bottled in the méthode traditionelle, both wines carry the Grosse Reserve designation since the 2015 vintage.
Michael is an astute, creative winemaker, and he is not averse to change. Historically, he preferred not to use dosage in either of these wines, but recently he decided that the Brut Rosé would benefit from a small amount. After some careful experimentation, and with input from many people (including the Circo Vino team!), he decided on a moderate dosage. This new addition, while comparatively very low for most grower-producer Champagne and sparkling wines, serves to enhance the expertly farmed, old-vine, Pinot Noir, adding length and texture to an already excellent wine.
These Sekts from Malat are everything one could wish for in a sparkling wine – tiny bubbles, a lovely mousse, and a seductive texture. Both are versatile food partners for anything the early harvest has to offer.
Varieties: 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, non-dosage
Vineyard: Löss soils and Danube gravel
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.5%, Acid: 6.3 g/L, Sugar: 1.8 g/L
Variety: 100% Pinot Noir
Vineyard: Löss soils and Danube gravel
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.0%, Acid: 6.8 g/L, Sugar: approx. 4 g/L
Always in Season
We tend to think of sparkling wine as strictly an occasion driven beverage, but in reality it’s the perfect wine for food-pairing and celebrating all year round. Whether you’re in the mood for a cold can of sparkling Rosé, an offbeat pét-nat, a juicy Asti-style Moscato, a classic Crémant d’Alsace, or a top-tier Austrian Sekt, take a moment to appreciate the vast array of versatile and rewarding sparkling wines on offer, and raise a glass in honor of whatever you happen to be celebrating! Cheers, Prost, Santé!