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.

Santorini – A Great Wine Region


The stunning, rugged beauty of Santorini

I had thought that I wouldn’t write anymore about Greece and Greek wines for a while, but the sheer excitement of some wines that I have tasted from Santorini recently mean that I really have to share them with you.

Over the last month I have been giving some Greek wine tastings and as I had expected the quality of the wines won lots of sceptics over and made people look at Greek wines in a new light.

All the wines were well received and all showed very well indeed, but one region consistently proved to be the crowd pleaser. This was the white wines from the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view – see Santorini north of Crete & south of Paros

Sadly I have yet to visit the vineyards of Santorini – I hope to put that right this year though – but I have known and loved the white wines from this island for a long, long time and have almost always enjoyed them. I have found that as long as the alcohol level is not above 13.5% then these wines always deliver pleasure. Above that, and a handful are, the alcohol burn ruins the balance for me – so check the alcohol level when you first buy one.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Many of you will know Santorini I am sure, it is basically the lip of a volcano, so a settlement perched at the very top of a mountain as the rest just happens to be underwater. The place is tiny and basically solid volcanic rock which has very little organic matter and a complete absence of clay which means that Phylloxera never took hold. As a result Santorini can boast some of the most ancient vine roots in the world – up to 300 years old it seems.

Santorini's wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or 'pezoules'.

Santorini’s wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or ‘pezoules’.

The problems here are wind and lack of water and they solve both of these in the same way. In order to protect the vines from the extreme winds that blow across the island, they basically train the vines close to the ground and weave the stems into a basket to contain and protect the grapes as they ripen. Growing this low to the ground also maximises the effect of the morning dew on the vines.

Santorini vines woven into baskets.

Santorini vines woven into baskets on the ground – note the rocky soils.

Backbreaking work.

Backbreaking work.

Unfortunately it also means that tending these vines is backbreaking work, but like so may other extreme vineyards around the world – Mosel, Côte-Rôtie, Cinque-Terre, Etna, Ribera Sacra etc. – the results do seem to make the effort worthwhile.

Everything about grape growing on Santorini makes for naturally low yields and good concentration, so it is hardly surprising that the island has enjoyed a high reputation for its wines for thousands of years. Whatever the wines were like in antiquity though the modern wines are of excellent quality and that is thanks to these extreme natural conditions and the high quality local grapes.

Santorini is home to a handful of grape varieties and all of them are of interest, but one stands out as being especially fine, capable of being the standard-bearer for Greek wine much as Sauvignon Blanc is for New Zealand wine. That grape is the wonderful AssyrtikoAss-err-tick-OH – and frankly if you like Sauvignon Blanc (or Verdejo and Grüner Veltliner for that matter) you will like it. Who knows you might even prefer it, some of the people at my recent tastings did.

The wonderful thing about Assyrtiko is that it retains its freshness and acidity even when grown in desert conditions like those on Santorini.

The harvest

The harvest

The wines:

ASSYRTIKO2012 Santorini Assyrtiko
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
100% Assyrtiko
I had tried the 2011 while in Greece last year and it was excellent, a real standout wine, but if anything this had the edge. The nose was stony and mineral, citrus and fresh, while the palate was crisp, bone dry and nervy. There seemed to be a purity and concentration to it that I found thrilling, the fruit was there in a lemon/lime kind of way with hints of apricots too, but it was the acidity and mineral quality that gave this its finesse and elegance and the finish was wonderously long. A great wine, how I wish I had had a bit of fish with me – 92/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Argyros Atlantis White bottle2011 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate, Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O.Santorini)
90% Assyrtiko with 5% each of Aidani & Athiri
The other grapes make this slightly less crisp, it is softer and even slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less pure and less mineral, but is still a gorgeous dry white wine and what it lacks in minerality and complexity compared to the pure Assyrtiko it more than makes up for in sheer drinkability. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea – 89/100 points.

Around £10 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer online.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

VINSANTO2004 Vinsanto
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
85% Assyrtiko with 15% Aidani
Vinsanto desert wines are an old tradition on Santorini and if they are all as good as this one I can see why it caught on. Very ripe grapes are harvested and then dried in the sun for 10 days or so to further concentrate the sugars. As with all really top notch desert wine the sugar here, although high, was balanced by the sheer class of the wine and the cleansing high acidity. The flavours were astonishing with great depth, concentration and complexity. Toffee, caramel, honey nuts, nougat, apricots, orange, coffee, fig, clove show what long ageing in old oak will do, but the dominating character was freshness and liquor orange. A great, great desert wine that was superb on its own and with the baklava, but would be equally good with apple pie or strudel, and blue cheese – 93/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Oia on Santorini

Oia on Santorini

On this showing – and past experience – I really believe that Santorini is one of the great wine regions and Assyrtiko one of the world’s finest white wine grapes. Do try some when you can, you will not regret it, there might be nothing better with simply cooked fresh fish and seafood.

Thanks to my friends at Tsantali for most of the photographs.