Following The Vaults Tasting last Monday, I was back in London for an interesting little tasting the following day. Organized once more by Business France, Crémant presented twelve producers of this category of sparkling wine from five out of the eight French wine regions designated for Crémant production. Sadly there were no individual producers of Crémant de Savoie, nor Jura, both of which are making some particularly interesting wines at the moment and, ironically, both of which I’m particularly fond. Nor was there any for Crémant de Die. But this did allow me to focus on the other production zones. I didn’t taste the wines of Les Grands Chais de France. They are the UK’s largest supplier of Crémant (they also own brands like Calvet and JP Chenet), and have a presence in every French sparkling wine production zone.
The tasting was at the Edel Assanti Gallery in Newman Street, Fitzrovia, and its white walls provided a good visual environment for the wines. It was a little hot, but the wines were well chilled and the organisers ensured there was plentiful, constant supply of ice.
So What is Crémant? – A Brief Introduction
Crémant is the designation for the finest sparkling wines of France outside of Champagne. Well, that’s the theory. All grapes for Crémant must be hand harvested, and rules for gentle, whole bunch, pressing apply (as do rules on maximum yields, grape varieties pertinent to each region, etc). The production method is effectively the same as Champagne, using the Méthode Traditionelle, which means that the wine undergoes the second fermentation in bottle.
There are currently eight designated production regions, or AOPs, for Crémant. Apart from the aforementioned Savoie and Jura, these are Alsace, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Die, Limoux and Loire. The last on that list, Crémant de Loire, was the first to be designated, in 1975.
There are a couple of basic differences with Champagne. One is bottle pressure. Although the term “Crémant” was once used for Champagnes of a lower pressure (now often called Perle by some growers), modern Crémant can in fact still sometimes have a lower pressure than most Champagne. Champagne usually has a pressure of between five and six atmospheres (famously the sort of pressure you’d find in a tyre on a London Bus). But the Crémant category does allow for a lower pressure (I know, for example, that the rules for Jura stipulate a wine above 3.5 atmospheres). But generally, the consumer will be unable to tell the difference.
A more important difference relates to ageing on the lees of the second fermentation, in bottle. Lees ageing is the key to quality in sparkling wine, and long lees ageing gives Champagne its characteristic autolytic complexity. Non-Vintage Champagne must spend a minimum of 15 months on lees, but the best has much longer, and Vintage Champagne even longer still. You might have read about Weingut Peter Lauer’s Reserve Sekt in my last article, wine which spent 24 years in bottle – an exception, and probably not intentional (Florian’s father forgot about it!), but the wine is truly astounding in its complexity (and fresh too).
When you read the notes on the wines here, you will notice that most of these Crémants see just 12 months, maybe 18 months in some cases, in bottle before disgorgement. As the effects of autolysis really kick in from 18 months onwards, it becomes clear that these are not often wines of massive complexity. Instead, they are wines to celebrate for their fruit and freshness. As one producer said, that’s a nice way to enjoy sparkling wine.
Does the Future Look Bright, and What do we Do with Crémant?
In the past people have tried to compare Crémant with Champagne, and invariably it has come off worse. That’s not always right. Many readers will have been given Champagne of dubious quality, especially if purchased from one of the supermarket Christmas offers, where they knock out something with an unknown name for a tenner. At the same time you might have tried a bottle of Stéphane Tissot’s Crémant du Jura BBF, or his Indigène, where complexity and interest rivals a top grower Champagne. So, within the category there’s a lot of variety.
Where Crémant scores highest is surely value for money. In the UK we drink oceans of cheap Prosecco. Crémant tends to cost more than the kind of Prosecco we cart home from our supermarkets, but it’s still a lot cheaper than fine Champagne. Instead of seeing Crémant as a rival to Champagne for the big celebration, why can we not acknowledge it as the perfect wine for summer, especially for picnics and outdoor dining. Even for the barbecue. I mean, why do we insist on drinking 14.5% Shiraz or Malbec when its 25 degrees and the coals are nudging it up to thirty?
If I learnt anything from this tasting, it’s that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from what are largely, except for the special cuvées, fairly simple wines which are nevertheless long on fun and pleasure. Look at how much pét-nat is glugged by young people, at least in London and Metropolitan Britain. Crémant, when well executed, should fit into that demographic. Okay, some Crémant might taste good, but it is made in industrial quantities, you say. True, some is, but this is generally a quality category, sparkling wine made from decent quality handpicked grapes, vinified traditionally. And the volumes do help to keep the price down.
The problem for Crémant on this particular export market lies perhaps with other rivals from the New World, especially Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. These wines are well established in the UK, and are often keenly priced in supermarkets and wine chains. Not all are bottle fermented, and it is unclear whether consumers really know, or care.
Domaine Zinck, Crémant d’Alsace, Equisheim
Alsace is the largest production zone for Crémant (more than 20% of Alsace wine is sparkling, though vast quantities are made by the tank method). It’s a little known fact that the region is planted with quite a bit of Chardonnay, used only in sparkling wine, yet most Crémant d’Alsace is blended from among the four Pinots (Blanc, Auxerrois, Gris and Noir), plus a little Riesling.
Domaine Zinck was established by Paul Zinck in 1964 and today comprises 20 hectares producing both still and sparkling wines. There are two Crémants, a white Brut and a Rosé, and both were available to taste in bottle and magnum.
Crémant Brut is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, with 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Blanc. The current bottling is from a 2014 base with 20% reserve wines, mainly 2013 with 5% from 2012. You can see, if you are au fait with Champagne releases, that the wine is younger than many current releases from that region. But there’s still a bit of a biscuity note here in the Brut, along with crispness and freshness.
The pale salmon-coloured Rosé is also sold as a non-vintage. It’s 100% Pinot Noir, largely from 2014 again, with 20% reserves from 2013. It’s crisp and fruity, with quite high acidity, which the fruit copes with.
The Magnum Effect
One story of the Tasting involves the “magnum effect”. Generally it is true that wines age better in magnum. This doesn’t just apply to premium cuvées of Vintage Champagne, and certainly not exclusively to bottle fermented sparkling wine. The theory is that with twice the wine and no more air ingressing into a magnum than a standard bottle, the wine ages more slowly and achieves greater complexity. This is unquestionably true of long lees aged Champagne, but is it true of Crémant?
Every producer brought at least one wine in magnum, and there was a thread through the tasting. I didn’t find one wine which didn’t taste better in magnum, including those Zinck wines above. One reason might be that the magnums currently on the market had actually been aged for longer than their 75cl counterparts. Or maybe they just looked more impressive! With a magnum of Crémant often costing the same as a bottle of Champagne, there are certainly occasions where, let’s face it, “impressive” is no bad thing.
The Magnum Tasting Lineup
Domaine Schwach, Crémant d’Alsace, Hunawihr
Schwach has 19 hectares in the region, which François Schwach began purchasing in the 1950s and 60s. The company is run today by the third generation of the family, Sébastien. Schwach makes a wider range of Crémant cuvées than Zinck, and six cuvées were on show.
Four white bottlings cover Blanc de Blancs (Pinots Blanc, Auxerrois and Gris); Blanc de Noirs (Pinot Noir); Chardonnay and Riesling. The Chardonnay is dosed with a low 4g/l dosage, but is still quite creamy compared to the other bottles. The Riesling is very mineral and almost chalky. There’s also a fruity Rosé.
Crémant d’Alsace “S” is the special cuvée. It’s a blend of equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with one year on lees, bottled at 8g/l liqueur. It’s a vintage wine, and this bottle was a 2011. It’s the last vintage Sébastien’s father made, and he named it “S” after his son, who was about to take over. It has a degree of extra complexity on the nose, and more personality.
Domaine Joseph Gruss & Fils, Crémant d’Alsace, Eguisheim
This is a slightly smaller estate, at just over 16 hectares, split into more than 50 plots on differing soils around Eguisheim, one of my favourite Alsace villages. I liked the wines here, doubtless swayed by the amiable winemaker, André Gruss, who was on pouring duty. André said he is aiming for balance, purity and elegance, so let’s see how he did.
Crémant d’Alsace Brut is a Pinot Noir with extended lees contact (15 to 20 months depending on vintage) and the wines go through malolactic (which many crémants avoid, to retain freshness). This is more fruity than some, easy going but well made.
Extra Brut Classic is different. 80% Pinot Blanc with 20% Riesling, a little less time on lees (12 to 15 months) and no malo. Dosage is 3g/l. Despite being served a little cold, there’s a biscuity arrowroot nose, plus good fruit. The palate has a fruity acidity, with some citrus from the Riesling, and a fine spine running through it.
Brut Prestige blends 60% Pinot Blanc with equal proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with no malo again, and 5g/l dosage. Longer lees ageing (up to 30 months for each year, but at least 24), but very fresh. All of these wines will drink well now, which is how André likes them, young and fresh.
Cuvée Prestige is the same wine as above, but with a minimum of 30 months in bottle on lees, and bottled in magnum. This one had undergone malolactic, and was disgorged in November 2016. It was the most impressive wine so far, and one of my favourites on the day.
Célène, Crémant de Bordeaux, Haux (Entre-Deaux-Mers)
Célène has been making sparkling wine in Bordeaux since 1947, a fact which might surprise those who have little idea Bordeaux even had a sparkling wine industry. And Célène make a lot of wine – 1.3 million bottles a year. There are two ranges, going under the “Ballarin” and “Célène” labels.
Several of the wines contain Semillon, which, counter-intuitively perhaps, makes for quite an interesting flavour profile. Ballarin Noble Cuvée blends Semillon with Muscadelle and Cabernet Franc (vinified white). The oddly named Black Pearl White Brut blends the same varieties, but with a bit more precision and freshness.
A couple of other wines proved equally interesting. Célène Saphir Rosé is 85% Cabernet Franc plus Merlot. The finish had quite a nice bitter touch. I preferred it to Perlance Brut Méthode Traditionelle, blending Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc. Just nine months on lees and dosed at 10g/l, this would make a decent aperitif if well priced.
The most interesting wine was Célène Opale Blanc de Blancs Crémant de Bordeaux, a blend of 60% Semillon, 30% Muscadelle and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. This gets 12 months ageing on lees in the company’s cold underground galleries. Quite delicate and floral on the nose, there are exotic fruits on the palate, and plenty of lingering flavour. It makes a nice point of difference to the many Crémants made from the traditional Champagne varieties.
Moutard-Diligent, Crémant de Bourgogne
Moutard will not be unknown to Champagne drinkers. They are one of the producers from the Côte des Bar (Aube), which by coincidence is just across the regional border north of Chablis/Irancy. They have been making still wines from those appellations for some years, but only started producing Crémant de Bourgogne, from vineyards around Tonnerre, since 2015, so this is a new venture. The wines are only just on the market this year.
There were six wines on show, all well made and showing the expertise of a well regarded Champagne House. There’s a Brut, Brut Nature with zero dosage, a cuvée vinified in oak, a Brut Rosé from Pinot Noir, and a 3 Cépages cuvée (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Aligoté).
Of the six, the most interesting, though certainly the most expensive one would assume, is the cuvée Les Vignoles. This is from a selected parcel, or lieu-dit, a plot at Molosmes, just east of Epineuil. 100% Chardonnay, there’s more complexity. The fruit is citrus, with some tropical flavours, but overall there’s a nice line of fresh acidity. With a touch more presence than the other wines, this will certainly accompany food – paté to seafood and (as Moutard suggest) sushi. It will be interesting to see how they price this one.
Veuve Ambal, Crémant de Bourgogne
This company is the largest producer of Crémant de Bourgogne (they make 40% of the AOP), based in the Côte Chalonnaise, at Rully. They have been operating for more than a century, and are also responsible for the still Burgundies of André Delorme.
There were several sparkling wines on show, but they were showcasing a new “product”, Veuve Ambal Expression. It’s a Crémant de Bourgogne with a “random bottle design”, so that the pattern on every bottle is different. Now one could be cynical about all that, but to be fair the wine tastes fine, no, more than fine. The blend is 90% Pinot Noir with the addition of Gamay. Dosed at a friendly 11 g/l, it has plenty of fruit on the nose and it’s not all that dry (to a Champagne drinker). You’d call it a crowd pleaser, and if that, along with the bottle design, encourages novices to try a Crémant de Bourgogne, that is a good thing.
Maude Metin, who was on the stand, told me she thought it would retail around £15. If she’s right, they may have the potential for success. Too much more and I think you are getting into territory where people want something a bit more serious, where the colourful bottle could be a hindrance.
Victorine de Chastenay, Crémant de Bourgogne, Beaune
This Crémant House is part of the La Chablisienne Group, but has made around 6,000 h/l of sparkling wines since 1995. The three basic cuvées are all well made (Brut, Rosé and Blanc de Blancs). These are wines which will provide satisfaction for someone wanting well made fizz without the expectation of complexity.
The two Vintage bottlings are a step up. Blending Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 2011 was served in magnum, and had some complexity. It’s surrounded by the typically florid marketing you expect from these larger producers, who no doubt have the budget to pay marketing companies. The language doesn’t always translate well for the British market. But it’s the wines which matter in the end, and this magnum, with an extra year of age (over the 2012), was very good. Another example of the magnum effect.
The 2012, less complex than the 2011, was nevertheless fresh and attractive. As a range, these wines were all attractive for what they are. The Vintage 2011 in magnum vied with the Moutard Vignolles as my favourite of the Crémants de Bourgogne.
La Compagnie de Burgondie, Crémant de Bourgogne
This grouping comprises the Caves Bailly-Lapierre (for Crémant), Vignerons de Buxy (Côte Chalonnaise still wines) and AVB (Beaujolais). Rully claims to be the birthplace of the Crémant de Bourgogne AOC.
Bailly-Lapierre showed four non-vintage Crémants. The best of these is labelled Chardonnay. This bottling gets an extended three years ageing, and can quite rightly boast of its finesse.
The white Vintage, made only in the best years, is made from the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at their disposal. I preferred the 2010 Rosé to the 2009 Blanc. It’s a nice salmon pink colour with good fruit. It sees three years on lees. Both are called “Vive-la-Joie. Pinot Noir Brut 2013 is much paler, with just a wink of colour from the press of the grapes. Served from magnum, the mousse and bead was subdued, but it had a nice vinosity.
Domaines Auriol, Crémant de Limoux
Domaines Auriol is owned by the Vialade-Salvagnac family, but they make wine all over the South of France, at a number of estates. Their Limoux wines come under the Maison Vialade label, but are made at an estate called Terres Blanches, which the family acquired in the 1980s.
Crémant de Limoux is not one of the better known Crémants, but has an increasingly good reputation based on one or two up-and-coming estates. The terrain can be hilly and the best fruit is grown at elevation, benefiting from cooler night time temperatures. This version, 70% Chardonnay with 20% Chenin Blanc and 10% Mauzac, is very fruity but with an elegance which I’d put down to Limoux Chardonnay (which in the region’s best still white wines can be exceptional). The wine gets 15 months on lees and it has genuine character.
Auriol were the only people to sneak in some still wines. I couldn’t resist trying two unusual IGP Aude wines, a white Albariño and a red Marselan under the “Jardin des Vignes Rares de Ciceron” label. The Albariño had a lovely nose and was a good example of an easy drinking version of the Galician grape. The Marselan (a Grenache-Cabernet Franc cross) was purple in colour with sappy fruit. Both good gluggers.
Ackerman, Crémant de Loire, Saumur
Ackerman began life in 1811, so they have a history comparable to many of the Champagne Houses. They also own 366 hectares of vineyard. So their importance to the Loire economy cannot be underestimated. They specialise in both Crémant de Loire and sparkling Saumur, which has its own AOP, with a different (mainly Chenin Blanc) grape mix, and its own regulations on yields etc.
Of the several Crémant de Loire cuvées on show, Cuvée 1811 Brut Rosé was one of my two favourites. The grape blend is unusual for a pink sparkler, being Cabernet Franc with Grolleau. Fifteen months on lees gives a wine with elegant red fruits on the nose, and ripe fruits on the palate.
Crémant de Loire Cuvée Louis-Ferdinand Brut 2013 is a special prestige cuvée. Just 3,000 bottles were produced of the 2013, and the liqueur for dosage is the sweet Coteaux de Layon. Three years on lees gives a buttery, toasty wine of some elegance. Very interesting.
As was the magnum offering from Ackerman, X Noir Brut Rosé, made with the Pineau d’Aunis variety. Very aromatic with red fruits, definitely a wine to pair with food (fish or fowl).
Ackerman may be large but they are not scared to experiment. Saumur L’Esprit Nature Brut is made from Chenin Blanc, 12 months sur lattes, it’s pale gold in colour, fresh, fruity…and has no added sulphur. A creditable experiment which I hope succeeds.
Caves de Grenelle, Crémant de Loire, Saumur
Slightly younger than Ackerman, but nevertheless founded in 1859, it does remind us that sparkling winemaking in the tufa caves of Saumur goes back a long way. Another seven cuvées were on show, and this House is making nice wines, most with a lifted, floral character, from the fairly easy going Cuvée Si made by a variation on the Méthode Ancestrale (with just three weeks on lees), to the more complex Cuvée 3/7.7.4.
That strangely named cuvée is made from three grapes: 7 parts Pinot Noir, 7 parts Cabernet Franc and 4 parts Pineau d’Aunis (which explains the name). It’s a Blanc de Noirs. They call it “chiselled”, with reason. There’s red and stone fruits, with a nice berry nose. Pretty, elegant, and savoury on the finish, it probably needs six months to settle but I think it will be impressive. I liked it, anyway.
If I want to make a couple of conclusion, I think they would be first, as I said at the beginning, these wines need to be assessed on their own merits, not as some kind of second class Champagnes. But equally, whilst those made using some of the traditional grape varieties of the Champagne region can be very nice, don’t be put off trying some of the interesting wines made using other varieties. Each company at this Tasting produced at least one wine, and in most cases more than one wine, which I think even a reasonably fussy wine aficionado would enjoy.
Many of the producers above are still looking for a UK importer. For further information, contact Business France.