Dr. Konstantin Frank is considered the father of Finger Lakes viticulture because of his adherence to the theory that European varieties of grapes, or vinifera, could not only grow in cooler climates, but could, in fact, thrive in specific growing areas. Despite decades of experimentation in his Keuka Lake vineyards with numerous varieties of grapes, Dr. Frank simply did not prefer the ultimate cool-climate wine product: Champagne, properly known as sparkling wine outside of France. Therefore, it was not Dr. Frank but his son, Willy Frank, who in 1985 founded Chateau Frank on the site of an old winery with a natural cellar, less than a quarter mile from Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars.
Willy Frank wanted to try his hand at winemaking, recognizing the potential for sparkling wine, but like any dutiful son he did not want to compete directly with his father’s business. Although Dr. Frank died in 1985 soon after the founding of Chateau Frank, the winery to this day is bonded separately from the winery at Dr. Frank’s, but both wineries contract to share staff, facilities and resources. Willy Frank continued to oversee operations at Chateau Frank until he passed away in 2006.
Sparklers not new to Finger Lakes
Unbeknownst to many, sparkling wine has a long and proud history in the Finger Lakes. Much like the Champagne region of France, where sparkling wines were first developed in the late 17th century, the Finger Lakes is a cool climate with acidic, well-drained soil. Early wine growers in the Finger Lakes region noted this potential, and most of the early wines produced in the Keuka Lake region were sparklers.
In the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company of Hammondsport took honorable mention with a sparkling wine made from Catawba, an American grape. This same wine won first place at a Vienna competition in 1873, shocking Europeans who considered American winemaking inferior.
After Prohibition dismantled the New York wine industry, 20th century attempts at sparkling wines were more disjointed, although Frenchman Charles Fournier of Gold Seal made sparkling wine and was an early supporter and partner of Dr. Frank.
Chateau Frank, in conjunction with its sister winery, uses a team winemaking approach. Mark Veraguth, the operation’s head winemaker, started at Dr. Frank’s in 1989 after gaining experience in the Californian wine industry. A native of Napa Valley, Veraguth worked for S. Anderson, one of California’s premier sparkling wine producers, for nine years. Eric Bauman, who works primarily with the sparkling wines, began with Dr. Frank’s in 2005 after eight years making sparkling wine with J Wine in Sonoma, California. Both winemakers contribute to the Chateau Frank vintages, conferring at times with Barbara Frank, a New Jersey-based winemaker consultant and sister of Dr. Frank’s president, Fred Frank.
A lengthy process
Sparkling wine made in the Champagne tradition uses Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, a little-known grape but one that Willy Frank referred to as “the sauce that brings it all together.” The entire premise of sparkling wine is to harvest the grapes early when the acidity is high but ripeness has yet to enhance the sugar levels. Bauman believes that the Finger Lakes climate is key in this pursuit: “In California we had to dump bags of acid in the tank because of the hot climate. Here, the acidity stays high as the grapes slowly ripen.”
Veraguth agrees, stating that “there are a lot of choices here” in terms of the harvest. The cool weather allows winemakers to delay the harvest, resulting in fuller fruit, without fear of a major loss in acidity.
There are many ways to make sparkling wine, but the Méthode Champenois is the time-honored tradition used in the Champagne region of France and results in the best wine. Chateau Frank’s winemakers use the Méthode, which is a lengthy and arduous process. After the grapes from the three varieties are pressed and the juice fermented, the various lots are blended and tasted to come up with the combination, or cuvée, of the vintage. This blend is bottled, yeast is added, and a second fermentation occurs within, trapping carbon dioxide in the bottle. The wine is then aged on the yeast for at least nine months, but Chateau Frank uses a standard of five years for aging.
After this extended aging period, the bottles are riddled, which is done either by hand or by machine over two weeks and involves the repeated manipulation and rotation of the bottles so that each bottle is eventually pointed downward, consolidating the yeast and other byproducts in the neck of the bottle. At this stage the winemaker uses a disgorgement machine to freeze the waste products at the end of the bottle and remove them, at the same time adding a tiny dose of sugar and liqueur – called the dosage – to finish the contents of the bottle just before corking. The finished sparkling wine now spends more time on the shelf before being released for sale.
The fruits of Eric Bauman’s and Mark Veraguth’s labor take over five years to make it to the consumer, representing a long-term investment of time, skill and money that many wineries simply cannot carry over such a long period. Fred Frank admits that sparkling wines “are a labor of love” and that they remain a difficult business proposition despite the success and admiration that Chateau Frank enjoys. “I spend a lot of time down here,” Eric Bauman admits, motioning to the dark cellar that holds at least five years of vintages waiting to be released. Mark Veraguth notes the commitment but is adamant that the Finger Lakes is perfectly suited for sparkling wines. “We have learned a lot over 20 years, especially with the harvest, but the consistency year after year with the sparkling wines is amazing.”
A variety of choices
Bauman and Veraguth produce five different types of sparkling wine, all made with the Méthode Champenois. These include Brut (a basic Champagne blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier), Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay), Blanc de Noirs (Pinor Noir), Célébre Crémant (Riesling) and Célébre Rosé (Pinot Meunier). While these sparkling wines are priced slightly higher than many Finger Lakes still wines, they are relative values in comparison to sparkling wines originating from California and other regions, and far less expensive than most true Champagne from France made using the same process. All are available for tasting and sale at Dr. Frank’s main tasting room.
During a presentation of the aforementioned sparkling wines, Veraguth points to the rising carbon dioxide bubbles and explains how they show best when the inside of the glass has a slight imperfection, allowing for the gas to seed at a single point and burst upward in a steady stream of dancing spheres. He and Bauman spend a lot of time and energy creating Chateau Frank’s sparkling wines; the result is inarguably a thing of great beauty and a testament to winemaking potential in the Finger Lakes.
by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner writes for lenndevours.com, a New York wine website. He lives in Syracuse.