A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine of the Week – fine fizz at a great price from France’s Languedoc region

Carcassonne, my home for a week recently.

Carcassonne, which was recently my home for a week.

The garden of my hotel in Carcassonne - I have to pinch myself now I am back in blighty.

The garden of my hotel in Carcassonne – I have to pinch myself now I am back in blighty.

I have recently spent a week in Carcassonne experiencing as many of the different wines of France’s Languedoc region as I could. It was part of Languedoc Week (‪#‎languedocweek‬) and I had a wonderful time and learnt a lot, tasting loads of wines, attending seminars and visiting vineyards with fellow wine writers from all over the world.

Languedoc is a fascinating place, full of wonderful scenery and many exciting wines. Most wine consumers will have experienced the basic wines from the region, the Vin de Pays d’Oc – the new term is Indication Géographique Protégée / IGP d’Oc and that sometimes appears on the label instead. These are often sold as a varietal bottling, with the grape variety from which the wine is made appearing on the label.

Languedoc is home to a whole clutch of finer, more ambitious and increasingly famous wines as well though.  These often have their own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC / AC), with the place name being the most important piece of information on the label. The new term for AOC is Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) and that sometimes appears on the label instead.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Limoux is on the left in yellow – click for a larger view.

It is a hot region with a Mediterranean climate, so it perhaps logical that red wines from the likes of AC / AOP Languedoc, Fitou, Corbières, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian are the region’s most famous products, but the Languedoc makes plenty of good whites – Picpoul de Pinet is especially popular right now – and rosés too. There are also some magnificent and under appreciated sweet wines and some excellent sparklings too.

After a hard day’s wine tasting, some nice fizz is always a refreshing idea and I was fortunate enough to taste quite a few of the sparklers from the region. I enjoyed one of them so much so that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

173219 MLe Moulin Brut
Domaine J. Laurens
AC / AOP Blanquette de Limoux
Limoux
Aude
Languedoc
France

Blanquette de Limoux is a lovely wine style that I first used to sell a long time ago, but sadly it remains a sort of secret wine beloved by a few, but not really widely available, at least not in the UK.

It is thought to be the oldest quality sparkling wine in the world, with records showing that it was produced in 1531 by the Benedictine monks of Saint Hilaire Abbey, some 10 km south of Carcassonne. This predates Champagne and I am sure that, like Champagne, the process was hit and miss in the early days and was not really perfected until the middle of the nineteenth century. What is definitely true is that the wines have got better and better in recent years and now deserve to be much more sought after.

The climate here is a bit odd as winds from the Atlantic manage to reach over and temper the Mediterranean heat. This allows for the production of whites and sparkling, especially if they harvest them early and there is even some good Pinot Noir grown around here.

Blanquette de Limoux wines must be made sparkling by the traditional method, the same process as used in Champagne. The wine must be made of at least 90% Mauzac grapes, known locally as Blanquette (small white in Occitan, the local traditional language – the langue d’Oc), with Chardonnay and / or Chenin Blanc making up the rest.

A light, sweet sparkling wine called Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale is also made, as is another traditional method wine called Crémant de Limoux, which can contain much more Chardonnay in its blend, and I will write about those another day.

Harvest at Domaine J. Laurens - photo courtesy of the estate.

Harvest at Domaine J. Laurens – photo courtesy of the estate.

Domaine J. Laurens was bought and totally renovated in 2002 by local businessman Jacques Calvel and although still wines can be made here, this estate only produces sparkling. In my opinion they achieve very high quality by close attention to detail and by longer ageing on the lees than is required. The minimum time for yeast autolysis, ageing on the lees in the bottle, in Limoux is 9 months, but Laurens age their wines for between 12 and 24 months, which gives more complexity and finesse. The blend is 90% Mauzac with 10% Chardonnay.

Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

The wine is a pale colour with a fine and persistent mousse, while the nose is fresh, lively and floral, together with ripe apple and pear notes. On the palate the freshness dominates, making it taut and focussed, while there is plenty of green apple and a hint of nuts from the lees ageing together with a little richness of honey and cream. A lovely and lively wine that makes a great aperitif and I am sure it would go with lots of delicate dishes as well. It’s dry, but not searingly so, as there is an underlying softness to the fruit. A distinguished wine and great value too, I cannot think of a better sparkling wine at this price – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £13 per bottle from Stone, Vine & Sun, click here for other stockists or check with Boutinot, their UK distributor.
For US stockists, click here.

If this wine is not easily available for you, then you will almost certainly find a Blanquette de Limoux made by the excellent Sieur D’Arques cooperative near you somewhere – look at the small print on the label. In the UK, Tesco’s Finest 1531 Blanquette de Limoux is made by them and is very good and a bargain at £8.50 per bottle, click here for case sales.