As Valentine’s Day approaches many of you will be on the lookout for a nice bottle of bubbly – and so, it would not go amiss to fill you in on one of France’s – if not the sparkling wine sector’s – best-kept secrets: Crémant.
Crémant is French sparkling wine made outside the region of (and overshadowed by) Champagne. Quality for the price is its hallmark – and, amid rising popularity for sparkling wine in general, the category has been bubbling under its own steam, as producers seize the opportunity, raising their standards and output, to further proclaim this fizz as a serious subset of the sparkling wine realm.
But Crémant is not a new phenomenon. It’s been produced for decades, if not centuries, however, the term was officially coined in the 1980s, when Champagne began to target the metonymy that had become of its name – requiring that any reference to ‘Champenois’ on a label be solely their claim. Production volumes are small, thus the term is new for most, but like Champagne, Crémants are ‘traditional method’ sparkling wines.
Unlike Prosecco, which is made by an entirely different method, the historical, ‘traditional method’ or ‘méthode classique’ takes time, effort, and skill. The mousse is the result of a secondary fermentation which occurs in-bottle and where time spent on the ‘lees’ (yeast involved in the fermentation) lend bready, biscuity notes and a broader, creamier mouthfeel.
The wines can be white or rosé and ‘Brut’ is the required style, which indicates a perceivably dry wine (a trifling amount of sugar). In wine-speak, ‘dry’ is a gauge of perception and not a reference to sugar in absolute terms, and a touch of it serves to offset bubbly’s soaring acidity. (The unduly dry ‘Brut Nature’ or ‘Zero Dosage’ styles as seen in other sparkling wines are trendy, however in my opinion, some sweet justice is due when there’s a lack of harmony.)
The grapes regularly used for a particular region’s still wines, are often what go into their Crémant. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir provide an ideal subtlety of flavour, much like a clear canvas to which the savoury flavours produced by the second fermentation in-bottle can clearly be expressed, and many countries as well as the various Crémant-producing regions have adopted them, as part of blends or as single-variety bottlings.
Each region draws out its own individual accent to the wine, but discretion of character is of the application: mandatory hand-picking and ultra-light pressing of the grapes for a crystal clear juice are but a few of the norms enacted; where, as an appellation in its own right, certain strict sparkling wine standards must be lived up to.
Champagne’s finesse is somewhat due to its northerly location, whereas greater warmth for greater ripeness of the often more expressive grapes grown in Crémant areas, together, make for slightly more complex or weightier wines. Thus, Crémants are well suited to slightly heartier fare. Creamy pastas are a miracle match with the lemony edge many bestow. Likewise, their vibrancy would match the freshness of a caprese-style pizza. On the other hand, the mouth-coating sensations and brioche flavours are ideal with the richness of a poultry terrine or the savouriness of foods prepared “en croûte” such as with camembert cheese or pork tenderloin. Chocolate mousse with a Crémant rosé would not disappoint, nor would the orchard fruit character of some take away from a spicy apple strudel à la mode.
You’ll find excellent examples of the following at both LCBO and SAQ stores.
Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy)
Like the still wines of the area and as in Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with possibly small proportions of other grapes such as Aligoté, make for wines with bready and flinty nuances which are not dissimilar to those of Champagne. ‘Blanc de blancs’ and ‘Blanc de noirs’ examples exist.
Crémant de Loire
Small-scale producers reign in the Loire, many of which are certified organic and a few are also owned by Champagne houses. Chenin Blanc is the star, imparting an elevated apple-y, honeyed and smoky character.
In Alsace, vineyard land devoted to crémant has increased greatly, and as in many other Crémant areas, production and sales volumes have almost tripled. Pinot Blanc plays the leading role, offering aromas of ginger and pear crumble pie.
Consider also Limoux, located in the Languedoc, which claims to have grasped the idea of bubbles in the glass long before Champagne ever did. Bordeaux and Savoie, too, can produce notable examples, but Jura has really impressed critics of late for its delicacy.
Effervescing with a collective aspiration to promote the quality that exists, new quality hierarchies are emerging from some of the regions, and more exclusive expressions that can compete with any highly endorsed, cool-climate fizz are the result. The pandemic has had the convenient effect of putting Champagne’s nose out of joint: sales dropped there in 2020, but the Crémants counter-flowed that trend, seeing sales rise. Italy’s fun and fruity Prosecco can be commended for holding, in part, the narrative on that shift, having effectively paved the way for bubbly to be seen as fit on more casual occasions rather than solely for the purpose of important celebrations.
So, to whatever degree of importance you place on Valentines Day, may love and bubbles abound for you this year just the same.
Written by Leah Beauchamp, sommelier and DipWSET (Diploma in Wine & Spirits Education Trust) candidate.