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.

New Wine of the Week – a delicious and very drinkable southern French white

When thinking of wines from France’s deep south – I am talking Languedoc-Roussillion here – most people automatically think of the reds. Picpoul de Pinet  is really the only white wine from the region that has managed to carve out a niche for itself.

Which is understandable as the reds are often very fine indeed and frequently underrated. However, many of the whites from these regions are really excellent and deserve to be more widely known. I tasted a wine recently which is a case in point. It is a white wine from Corbières, which is a PDO / AOC in the Aude department, which in turn forms part of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. It’s a big and important part too, producing just under half of all the PDO wine of the region.

I have always liked Corbières wines as they frequently offer great value and often very high quality too – see my article about Château Haut-Gléon here. I have yet to visit the region, which I intend to put right soon as it appears to be very beautiful. What’s more, excitingly it is Cathar country and is littered with the ruins of castles destroyed during the crusades against this obscure Christian sect. The local speciality dessert wine – actually more correctly called a mistelle  – is called Cathagène to honour the Cathars, so readers of the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code should make sure they keep a bottle handy.

Anyway, this white Corbières impressed me so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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

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

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

Blanc Paysan
2014 Blanc Paysan
PDO / AOC Corbières
SCV Castelmaure / Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure
Embres & Castelmaure
Aude
Languedoc-Roussillon
France

Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure is a co-operative that was founded in 1921 and serves two hamlets that have been joined together to form one village. Embrès et Castelmaure is a about 25 km north of Perpignan and sits roughly on the border between Languedoc and Roussillon. As a consequence their website offers both the Catalan (as spoken in Roussillon) and Occitan languages, as well as French itself. The website also plays some very Spanish sounding flamenco music to you which then morphs into some very French jazz. It’s an interesting combination, give it a listen by clicking here.

They farm some 400 hectares and although clearly forward thinking and ambitious, they cling to old ways. They still use the concrete vats installed in the winery in 1921, as they regulate the fermentation temperatures very well. They also have very cannily used all the old perceptions of their problems to their advantage. The region is hot, wild and rugged, so gives low yields, while the slopes are inaccessible by machine and tractors, these things held them back in the past when the only game in the Languedoc was the production of bulk wine. Today the wines have to be good, concentrated, terroir wines and so all that works to their advantage. They farm sustainably and harvest by hand.

This white wine is an unoaked blend of Grenache Blanc with some Grenache Gris, Vermentino (aka Rolle) and Macabeu (aka Macabeo and Viura).

I love the label as it shows a Renault 4 climbing a near perpendicular slope. It seems that the Renault 4, while never the icon that the 2CV was, was actually the main car of French farmers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and many more of them were made than the more famous and more loved Citroën. The label made me smile as I have memories of being driven up similar slopes in the back of a beige (who else remembers beige cars?) Renault 4 by a Spanish builder in the early 1970s.

The wine is crystal clear and lemony to look at, while the nose offers wild flowers, herbs, pithy grapefruit and a slight, attractively waxy note. The palate is a lovely mix of rich and fresh, with wild herb flavours mingling with citrus and more succulent stone fruits. There is plenty of acidity – from the Vermentino and Macabeu I assume, while the Grenache gives that richness and herbal quality that are so delicious and evocative. A lovely wine with lots of tension between the zestiness and the richness and loads of flavour too. Delicious, refreshing and very easy to drink, this could help wean addicts off Pinot Grigio I think. What’s more it is an utter bargain – 87/100 points.

Try as I might I cannot think of anything that this would not be good with. It is delicious on its own, with fish, chicken, charcuterie, spicy food, cheese – you name it. I loved it with baked camembert.

Available in the UK at £6.50 per bottle from The Wine Society.

 

Wine of the Week 73 – a glass of winter sunshine

As I keep saying in these pages, I love finding new wines. Wines made in countries, regions or from grape varieties that are new to me continue to excite me. After 30 years in the wine business I can still find new things that I have never tried or even heard of before, which I think is wonderful.

With winter settling in I seem to be drinking a bit more red, although not exclusively, and I recently found a really terrific wine and so made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of France - Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Wine map of France – Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne - map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne – map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Tibouren2014 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cuvée Speciale
Clos Cibonne, Domaine André Roux
Cru Classé Côtes de Provence, AC Côtes de Provence
France

If I am honest Provence somewhat passes me by most of the time. Obviously I know about the famous rosés, loved some Bandol reds and rosés, have tasted the odd Cassis (the white wine, not the liqueur) and remember being very impressed by some fine Priorat-like reds from the Les Baux-de-Provence appellation too, but my experience of this region is very limited indeed. In fact I have never been there and must put that right as soon as I can.

le_pradet_winery

The Clos Cibonne is an old estate that the Roux family bought from Royalist Navy Captain – the French Navy base of Toulon is nearby – Jean Baptiste de Cibon in 1797. In 1930 André Roux completely modernised the winery and had the label designed too. Such was the estate’s renown, that Clos Cibonne was created a Cru Classé with the classification of the vineyards of Provence in 1955. The classification of Provence was similar to that of Bordeaux in 1855 in that it ranked estates and was not concerned with the vineyard or soil like the Grand Crus of Alsace, Burgundy or Champagne.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand - courtesy of De Maison Selections.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand – courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Clos Cibonne had fallen on hard times again by the late 1990s when André Roux’s granddaughter Bridget and her husband Claude Deforge took over the running of the estate. They nurtured the vineyard back to life and renovated the cellars, but kept the traditional winemaking ways and the old wood foudres.

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne -

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne –

Today the Roux-Delorge family farm 15 hectares just 800 metres from the Mediterranean. The vineyards are surrounded by the Maure mountains that make the estate a sort of amphitheatre facing due south. This gives perfect sun exposure and allows them to achieve remarkable ripeness and to minimise vintage variation. The sea breezes also temper the effects of the sun and allow them to have excellent freshness and acidity in their wines that makes them very drinkable indeed. While not certified organic, they do practice sustainable viticulture or lutte raisonnée.

The family remain committed to the local Tibouren grape that is widely used in Provence for the rosés, but not so widely for the reds – in fact only 15% of production in the region is red, so Clos Cibonne are unusual in focussing on making red wine – although they do craft a rosé from their oldest vines. This Cuvée Speciale red  is 90% Tibouren together with 10% Grenache which lends some richness and fat. The wine is traditionally aged under fleurette (a thin veil of yeast, but that just gives complexity, it is not Sherry-like) in 100-year-old, 500 litre foudres.

The nose offers gorgeous wild herb aromas – garage – together with ripe fruit, earthy, savoury notes and a light touch of the sea. The palate is quite fleshy with excellent concentration of fruit and medium body, some nice refreshing, cleansing acidity and an inky feel which sounds odd, but is actually delicious. Those wild Mediterranean herbs return on the palate too. The wine is deliciously smooth, with light supple tannins and lovely balance between savoury characters, ripe fruit and freshness. The finish is very, very long with fruit and savoury, earthy flavours lasting the whole time. I was thrilled by this wine, it is so obviously a genuine wine that speaks of a place and has a style all its own, although if you enjoy Rhône wines, Burgundy or good Beaujolais you will enjoy it – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Red Squirrel wine for around £20 per bottle. 
Available in the US through De Maison Selections, Crush Wines and Spirits – for other stockist information click here.

In the summer this would be a great barbecue wine, even lightly chilled, but in winter it is perfect with game, roasts, pies and casseroles. It would be even be a great choice with Christmas dinner.

Wine of the Week 26 – a deliciously tangy white

My Wine of the Week is a wine that I have actually written about before, different vintages though, but I always enjoy it so much and it so interesting and refreshingly different that it’s always worth another mention.

Earlier in the week I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner hosted by Joanna Simon. The theme was wines and food of South West France – or le Sud-Ouest  and it was in the trendy Boundary Restaurant in Shoreditch. The restaurant has a wine club which runs these wine themed evenings and a good time seems to be had as the food is quite superb and the restaurant is quite a beautiful place to be. In fact The Boundary fills a whole building and includes a hotel, a shop, café, bakery, bars and other restaurants and as if all that isn’t enough, there is also a rooftop bar.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The evening was lovely with a delicious menu of rich, interesting French food including a main course of braised ox check, with smoked wild boar in stunningly rich sauce, and a blindingly good cheese board. The wines that partnered them were all from the delightfully disparate region that is South West France and they went very well indeed. My favourite though, or one of them anyway, was a tangy, zesty, aromatic and richly flavoursome dry white wine that was perfect with both the salad of Bayonne Ham with black truffle and the Ossau Iraty cheese.

Vineyards in Saint Mont.

Vineyards in Saint Mont.

vigne-retrouvees-blanc2012 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées Blanc
A.C. / P.D.O. Saint Mont (still shown as Côtes de Saint-Mont on my map)
Plaimont Producteurs
Gascony, France
Plaimont are a cooperative and the leading producer in Saint Mont. As such they make a huge array of wines from everyday wines to more ambitious cuvées and they are never worse than decent. This little gem is quite special though, made from the region’s traditional ‘rediscovered’ grapes that give the wine it’s name, it is an exciting blend of 70% Gros Manseng, 20 % Petit Courbu and 10% Arrufiac. Gascony was originally the northern part of the Kingdom of Navarre (Navarra) and some of these grapes are grown over the border in Spain’s País Vasco to make Chacolí / Txakoli. In ancient times the people of Navarra were the Vascones tribe who later evolved into both the Basques and the Gascons.

It’s dry, medium-bodied and unoaked with a richly tangy citrus acidity and a richer stone fruit and pithy grapefruit palate with some creamy and honeyed intensity and texture to the fruit. This texture dominates the finish and makes it feel really succulent – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £7.95 per bottle from The Wine Society.

This is such a lovely white wine, so delicious and so interesting that it deserves a wider audience. It would be a great wine to keep on hand to serve guests throughout Christmas – unless they read this site they will never guess how inexpensive it is – and it will go perfectly with anything from a cheese straw to a full blown meal. What’s more it might open the delights of France’s South West up to you, it is a beautiful, varied and sadly underestimated wine region.

More information is available at southwestfrancewines.co.uk

Wine of the Week 25 – a superb inexpensive sparkler.

I love sparkling wine and enjoy drinking it whatever the occasion. Nothing cheers me up so much as some fizz after a difficult day. Sparkling wine before dinner always turns an ordinary day into something of a celebration too. A nice fizz always gives me a little lift and makes the world seem a better place. Sadly a lot of sparkling wines can be a bit expensive for everyday drinking, while the cheaper examples can often be disappointing.

Happily there is help at hand and I have made it my Wine of the Week. It is a Crémant de Jura, so it comes from the Jura region of France. Jura is a small and relatively obscure place in the east of the country, but it makes some wonderful wines and produces stunning cheeses – Comté comes from here. I recently created the maps for the definitive book on the wines of the Jura, which is available here in the UK & here in the US.

My map showing where Jura is. Click for a larger view. © Quentin Sadler 2014.

My map showing where Jura is. Click for a larger view. © Quentin Sadler 2014.

Jura vineyards showing the dramatic terrain.

Jura vineyards showing the dramatic terrain.

Sadly I have not yet visited, but from my research I know that Jura is a beautiful and captivating place full of stunning scenery and picturesque towns, while imposing mountains are never far away. I gather the place is very quiet and rural and a world away from the France of the big cities.

The fact that the wine is a Crémant means it must be made sparkling by the Traditional Method, the same way that they do it in Champagne. The wine comes from Aldi and I think it might well be the best sparkling wine on the market at under £10, but don’t tell anyone, or they will all want to try it! In fact I have been quite impressed with lots of Aldi wines, so while you are there buying this you might want to grab a few other bottles to try.

If you have never been able to try anything from Jura, this wine might be a good place to start as production here is very is small and so the can often be difficult to track down.

Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura2011 Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura Chardonnay Brut
A.C. Crémant de Jura
Jura, France

What makes this so good? It is the balance and the acidity which gives it freshness and elegance. It really is much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. Made from pure Chardonnay – Jura is not far from Burgundy – it’s crisp with a lean, apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat. This so obviously comes from a cool region and it such a refreshing – in every sense – change from the soft pappy and sweetish style of sparkling wine that is so widely encountered nowadays (I’m talking about cheap Prosecco here in case you didn’t know) – 85/100 points.

Available from Aldi at £7.29 per bottle – you can find your nearest store here.

This just makes a perfect everyday fizz, so stock up early for Christmas would be my advice. What’s more if you like it – and if you like sparkling wine you will – make sure you try something else from the Jura, The Wine Society stock some Jura wines, as do Les Caves de Pyrène.

Wine of the Week 21 – blast from my past

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Long ago when I was just a boy I was a trainee wine shop manager. Not knowing as much about wine as my miss-spent youth had led me to expect – I well remember asking what claret was! – I set out trying all the wines in the shop that I could afford.

It was 1984 and Bordeaux was big. The 1982 vintage was being talked about with reverence and it had a huge positive effect on the Bordeaux trade. My shop was awash with impressive looking clarets in wooden boxes. Not all of them were silly money either, we had the 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose and 1982 Connétable Talbot for sale at £4.99.

Eager to try this famous vintage I splashed out on a swanky looking bottle of Saint-Émilion Grand Cru called Château du Cauze. It was £3.99 and I was very proud of it. It seemed such a lot of money for a bottle of wine,  my father and brother thought I was mad, although I seem to remember they both helped me drink it! Sadly I did not write tasting notes in those days, merely kept labels, so I do not know what it tasted like, but I do remember that I loved it. It was a life changing moment as I felt that I had tasted good claret. The cases it came in were even those posh wooden ones and I still have a wooden 1982 Château du Cauze box that I use for tools all these years later.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

As the song says, I have often stopped and thought about Château du Cauze, but have never actually seen it for sale since. Until the other day, when I thought I should really get down to Lidl and check out their much vaunted new range of wines French wines. The range focuses on Bordeaux in some detail, but also includes wines from the Loire, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, the Rhône, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and the South-West. The idea, it seems, is to wean the wine buying middle classes away from Waitrose and get them coming to Lidl and certainly the range looks interesting and we are promised more to come this month too.

Well, blow me if one of the wines wasn’t Château du Cauze, 2011 this time though, not 1982. ’82 was, of course a great vintage of legendary high quality, whereas 2011 is much more mixed, but I just couldn’t resist buying a bottle just for old times’ sake. What’s more, I liked it so much I made it my Wine of the Week.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Ch du Cauze2011 Château du Cauze
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Bordeaux, France
A proper Château graces the label and it actually looks like that in real life too. It is built on the sight of a medieval bastide that was destroyed during the Hundred Years War – Saint Émilion was right on the border between English Aquitaine and France. Just down the road is Castillon, which makes its Côtes de Castillon wines in a similar style to St-Émilion. The capital is fittingly called Castillon-la-Bataille as it was the site of the last battle of the Hundred Years War. That was in 1453, the English were defeated and their commander, John Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury was killed.
Château du Cauze belongs to the Laporte family who also own another château in Montagne-Saint Émilion. The wine is a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and around half of it gets aged in barrel for 12 months.
The colour is pretty deep, opaque, ruby with touches of purple and garnet.
There’s lots of fruit on the nose, plums, blackberry and blackcurrant together with a whiff of pencil lead and cedar. There is rich elderflower too, caramel and a touch of dried fruit.
The palate is soft, with supple tannins just adding touch of structure, while a little acidity cleans it up and makes it fresher than the colour suggests. Nice weight of fruit and concentration, fresh acidity and layers of flavour make it seem quite complex for the price.

While I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I seem to remember I was by the 1982, I still think it is a good wine – I am a great deal more experienced and knowledgeable than I was then, so am probably assessing it more accurately. Perfectly nice to drink now, I think this could age nicely for 4 years or so too. I am sure it is plusher and more fruity than the 1982 and at 14.5% it’s certainly more alcoholic, but it carries this very well thanks to the freshness and balance – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl @ £11.99 per bottle.

I was very pleased to discover that this is still a good wine, what’s more it is sensibly and honestly priced. It seems to me that this wine has a lot more to it than all those £12 bottles which are artificially discounted down to £8 or £6. If you fancy a bottle of claret at a good price then this fits the bill perfectly and is lovely with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.