Of course you’ll be having a party during this holiday season. Friends will gather, you’ll put out a few snacks, perhaps even something more formal. Either way, it’s time to pour sparkling wine into flutes and celebrate another year.
The question is: which sparkling wine? Champagne, if you have the money, or the sorts of friends who swear there is no substitute for the real thing. Many people say so.
I disagree. There are so many other great sparkling wines, literally hundreds of them, from any wine country in the world, all with their own styles, their own personalities. To call them Champagne substitutes is both wrong and misleading.
France has its own sparkling wines, apart from Champagne, all with proud local traditions. Some are called Crémant, others have more local names. They come from Burgundy, Alsace, Jura, the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Limoux in Languedoc. For my money, and my palate, the best are from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. And for between $20 and $30, you can have a bottle that says “France,” that has all the gold and swirly labels associated with sparkling wine, and that opens with that essential, satisfying celebratory sigh (a bang is for Formula One drivers).
“People are really open to trying French sparkling wine rather than Champagne,” says Skye LaTorre, sommelier at Café des Amis in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow district, where Rémy Gresser’s Crémant d’Alsace and Simonnet- Febvre’s Rosé Crémant de Bourgogne are offered by the glass. “I recommend them with almost all the starters, with seafood, salads with Roquefort.”
And just to illustrate the good value of these sparkling wines, the Simonnet-Febvre Rosé is $9 a glass; the rosé Champagne listed by the glass is Delamotte, at $24.
Like Champagne, all three Crémant-producing regions are cool, in the northern arc of French wine production that stretches from the mouth of the Loire Valley to the Rhine Valley vineyards of Alsace, an area that includes Champagne and a good part of Burgundy. What all these regions share is the ability to produce grapes with great natural acidity, sometimes too much for still wine but just right for bubblies.
Yes, the Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, feature prominently in these Crémants. To that extent they are Champagne alternatives. But each Crémant (and the other local sparkling wine appellations) present a different and intriguing take on the classic mix.
The Loire, with its cool climate and limestone soils, is a natural for sparkling wine. And in Saumur the bubbles, the fines bulles as they are known locally, have found their capital. Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc,Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are all in the mix. They come under two appellation labels—Saumur and Crémant de Loire.
There is another plus to sparkling winemaking at Saumur. Just as in Champagne, there are caves and miles of cellars in the soft limestone rock for storing the bottles as they age. Here, bottles of sparkling Saumur d’Origine—12 million a year at last count—pass through their second fermentation, just as in Champagne. Upstairs, the public face is very much in the Champenois mold—perhaps not surprising when Bouvet-Ladubay, one of the largest Saumur companies, is owned by Champagne house Taittinger and another, Gratien et Meyer, is still associated with Alfred Gratien in Epernay.
Crémant de Loire is also made in Saumur. It took a while for the appellation to take off after its creation in 1975, but the leader was Langlois-Chateau, owned by Champagne Bollinger. Because the appellation requires a higher proportion of the classic Champagne grapes (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), because yields have to be lower and because the minimum bottle aging is longer, the quality of Crémant de Loire is generally higher than sparkling Saumur. Crémant is also produced in other Loire regions, particularly in Anjou.
While Saumur is a major Loire center for sparkling wines, the natural acidity and lightness of many other Loire wines also lend themselves to being made in a sparkling style. In Vouvray, in Montlouis and in nearby Montrichard, the Chenin Blanc is used to create a light, fresh style that takes advantage of that grape variety’s natural acidity.
Recommended Loire Sparkling Wines:
90 Bouvet-Ladubay 2006 Saphir Brut (Saumur); $16. Imported by Kobrand.
90 Château de Moncontour 2008 Cuvée Prédilection Brut (Vouvray); $19. Imported by USA Wine West.
88 Domaine des Baumard 2004 Tirage (Crémant de Loire); $22. Imported Ex-Cellars Wine Agencies.
88 Langlois-Chateau NV Brut (Crémant de Loire); $23. Imported by Terlato Wines International.
Of all the sparkling wines made in France outside Champagne, Burgundy comes closest in style. The grapes—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—are exactly the same. And many of the best sparkling wines come from the cooler northern reaches of Burgundy, just a few miles over the hills from the Aube, the southern part of Champagne itself.
Yet there are stylistic differences. “Crémant is more like a wine,” says Christophe Cardona, whose Blasons de Bourgogne range of wines includes the Bailly-Lapierre Crémants de Bourgogne. “It has an extra richness. It’s maybe more like a table wine.” He adds that his wines only come from north-facing vineyards, which are not really suited to table wines but have the extra acidity demanded for sparkling.
Crémant in Burgundy is new. The appellation was created in 1975. Before that, most of the wine destined to be made into sparkling was sold to Germany for the production of Sekt. Yet firms like Bailly-Lapierre, Louis Bouillot in Nuits-Saint-Georges and Simonnet-Febvre in Chablis have created what Cardona calls a “spirit of bubbles. It feels just like Champagne.” And visitors to Nuits-Saint-Georges should not miss the Imaginarium (imaginarium-bourgogne. com), created by the Boisset family, which is a homage to bubbles in all their glory.
Recommended Crémant de Bourgogne:
91 Bailly-Lapierre NV Brut Pinot Noir (Crémant de Bourgogne); 24. Imported by William Harrison Imports.
90 Louis Bouillot 2003 Grands Rayes-Blanc Blanc de Noirs Brut Rosé (Crémant de Bourgogne); 64. Imported by Boisset Family Estates.
89 Simmonet-Febvre NV Brut Chardonnay (Crémant de Bourgogne); 25. Imported by Louis Latour Inc.
87 Patriarche Père et Fils 2005 Brut Crémant de Bourgogne); $20. Imported by Patriarche USA.
Nearly a quarter of Alsace’s wine production is comprised of sparkling wine. It’s the hot seller in its home country and America is the thirdlargest export market. “It’s been phenomenal,” says Pascal Schiele of Gustave Lorentz. “Shipments just keep on going up.”
In the lee of the Vosges Mountains, Alsace has a dry climate. But it has a continental climate, with freezing winters and hot summers. That gives grapes for sparkling wine the chance to ripen quickly without losing acidity. Those grapes include the Pinots (Blanc, Gris and Noir) along with Auxerrois, Riesling and even Chardonnay. There are Blanc de Blancs styles as well as classic white-red grape blends and some delicious rosés made entirely from Pinot Noir.
Schiele says the style of the Gustave Lorentz wines is “as close as possible to Champagne. We use Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc—it’s the same product, although it does have a shorter aging period.” And, he adds “once people have tasted it, they think it really does have the taste of Champagne.”
Recommended Crémant D’Alsace:
88 Château d’Orschwihr NV Brut (Crémant d’Alsace); $20. Imported by Fine Wines.
88 Gustave Lorentz NV Brut (Crémant d’Alsace); $25. Imported by Quintessential Wines.
88 René Muré NV Cuvée Prestige Brut (Crémant d’Alsace). $23. Imported by Pasternak Wine Imports.
87 Lucien Albrecht NV Brut Rosé (Crémant d’Alsace); $23. Imported by Pasternak Wine Imports.