When you think of France and sparkling wine, Champagne almost certainly comes to mind. But Crémant d’Alsace provides budget-friendly bubbles for connoisseurs willing to take a chance on something different. Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl MW explores the versatility of Crémant with Master Sommelier Eric Zwiebel, and tells you what you need to know about this fine French fizz.
Anne Krebiehl: Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Anne Krebiehl, the contributing editor for Alsace, Austria and England here at Wine Enthusiast. In this episode I’ll talk to Eric Zwiebel about the sparkling wines of Alsace which are called Crémant d’Alsace. We taste three of these together, we explain where they are from, how they were made, when to drink them, and we also suggest what kind of food you can pair them with.
Eric Zwiebel is from Alsace, and grew up with wine, helping out in his parents’ restaurant. And today, he works as head sommelier at the Summer Lodge Hotel in Dorset in southwest England, where his wine list holds many treasures from Alsace and across the world. Did you know that sparkling wine has been made in Alsace for more than 100 years? We’ll hear more about that. And did you know that Crémant can be fantastic value? Of course. We’ll also taste three very different, recently-rated Crémant d’Alsace.
AK: Hello Eric.
Eric Zwiebel: Hello, everyone. I’m very pleased to be the man that’s been chosen to represent my place.
AK: So, when the French have a choice of drinking these, what they go for first is the obvious choice, Champagne. But, if it’s not Champagne, the number one sparkling wine that is consumed in France is Crémant d’Alsace. So, first of all Eric, where is Alsace in France?
EZ: We are completely what we call the eastern part of France.
AK: So, it’s not a hot place, but it’s a very sunny place, and it’s also a very dry place because the Vosges mountains keep all the rain at bay. And the other thing that is interesting about Alsace is that it’s actually got a fairly long tradition of making sparkling wine. That is down to a young man called Julien Dopff.
Along with his father, young Julien, exactly 119 years ago, he went from Alsace to Paris to the World Exhibition, and there they tasted champagne together. And because they came from a winemaking family, they thought, ‘Oh, wow, we should be doing this,’ because they loved it so much. And so young Julien went to Champagne, learned everything about how you get bubbles into the bottle, and then he came back to Alsace. And ever since then, there has been Crémant produced in Alsace. And we should probably also say that the word Crémant is the word that the French law uses to describe sparkling wines that have been made by the traditional method. So, Eric, what is the traditional method for sparkling wine?
EZ: Our traditional method starts with the climate condition. You need a place where you have a high acidity. But the traditional method, maybe, to use a dry white wine and to make that fizz. That’s when you need to know the recipe, and add some yeast, to make the bubbles happen in the bottle. Because it doesn’t come like that naturally.
AK: So, in order to get the bubbles into the bottle you need to make a still wine first.
AK: So, you harvest grapes, you press them, you ferment them and then you have a still base wine. And then, you fill that wine into these bottles, and you add a bit of sugar, and a bit of yeast and then you seal them. And then it ferments in the bottle, and that’s really why whenever you lift a sparkling wine bottle, and you see the punt at the bottom and you feel how heavy it is that is because this poor bottle, this glass, has to withstand five bars of pressure, which I am told is the same pressure as the tyres on a London omnibus. I don’t know, but people keep saying it.
EZ: It is.
AK: So, I have brought three beautiful wines along. I’m excited about tasting them, and I have an inkling that Eric likes it too.
EZ: Of course. What is better to celebrate than a few bubbles?
AK: What are we celebrating today, Eric?
EZ: Sure. Do you mind if we can start it, to open the first one?
AK: Yes, let’s get started. And, of course, Eric has grabbed a particular bottle right away.
EZ: Exactly. And the first bottle I’ve chosen is produced by an estate called Dirler-Cadé, and it’s what we call a brut naturel. It’s also based on a vintage, 2014, where it has been a great vintage for Alsace wines. And the reason why I am quite excited to open this one is because it’s brut naturel. Brut naturel means almost no dosage at all. That means the wine should show quite pure, straight, quite racy, and very vibrant. It’s a very specific type of sparkling wine, where usually the most educated palates love it, because it’s quite unique. You mind if we open it?
AK: No, let’s go! I can’t wait. And I’ve brought it because it is one of my favorites for exactly that reason: because it’s bone dry, and it’s fresh. So, let’s see. Wow.
EZ: So, let’s see what the bubbles are going to do. Eh, voila!
AK: That was very professional, Eric.
EZ: Sure. Would you like to taste it?
AK: Oh yes, please.
Oh, it’s really fresh and it’s really lemony with that creamy, creamy core that you get in traditional method sparkling wines. Because what we’ve just described about those yeasts in the bottle, and fermenting in that bottle? They give you the bubbles, but what they also give you, what the yeast also gives you, is the…It’s those lovely flavors.
So, you get in a way—you get all of the freshness of the grape and of the acidity, with these flavors of lemon that I love, but then you also get this creamy side of it, and those lovely fine bubbles.
So, salut, Eric!
It’s very lemony. It has a little bit of green fruit. I’ve got a little taste of the yeast, but I don’t find that heavy at all because sometimes yeast can be too much, too brioche-y—there it’s very fine, it’s elegant.
AK: And I also like the aftertaste, because despite the fact that there is no added sugar in this wine, I seem to have some kind of honey flavor.
EZ: Yeah, it’s got a little bit of that honey flavor, it’s quite tender. But you can feel the freshness of the sparkling wine. Yeah, it’s got quite an acid taste to it. Yeah, the minerality is there. Yeah, there’s almost a touch of saltiness on the palate.
EZ: And I find that very, very attractive because it is obviously something you can open as an aperitif. But you can also play with food.
And in this case for me something gets more complicated, so more so than a classic brut, to play with something quite high iodine content. Like oysters, it’s for perfectly something quite smoky, like mackerel or herring. It’s really, really the kind of sparkling wine. I find it very appropriate.
AK: So, the iodine and the saltiness, you say, makes you think of seafood. I can see that, sadly, we haven’t brought any food along. We should have, really. Now, this wine, like so many in Alsace, is made from unusual grape varieties, because here we have 50% of Pinot Gris, and then we have 45% of Auxerrois, and we’ve got 5% of Pinot Noir. And one of the other things that I love about it is that it was farmed organically and biodynamically. The base wines were fermented with indigenous yeasts, and then we have the second fermentation in bottle, and there was nothing more added. And we are just basically partaking of purity, which I like.
EZ: As you know Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, are the second most-planted grape in Alsace. And you don’t see so many Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, the dry wine, because actually most of the producers use as well as the main grape in a sparkling wine, called Crémant. And it is there a beautiful example of a bottle of wine with 45% of Pinot Auxerrois. Pinot Noir gives you a little bit more structure and complexity. And even the Auxerrois has a richness to it.
AK: So, this is Dirler-Cadé Crémant Alsace Brut Nature from 2014. And it’s one of my favorites. I’ve stocked up on this at home because I like to drink this as an aperitif or also sometimes when I work late as a pick me up.
And you might have heard me crunching the foil of the second bottle because we are now moving on to taste something different, which I think, I have picked this because it’s very different from what we had before. Ooh, OK. Mine was not just silent as yours. But, here we go. This is—you say the name. You say it better than I do.
EZ: Alors, it’s a Charles Baur estate, from Eguisheim.
AK: And one of the reasons why I love this Crémant is that it has spent two years in-bottle on its lees, on those dead yeast cells—and we’re just sniffing here, but to me this is really rounder already. This is not so much on the knife edge. This is a bit more emollient.
EZ: Yeah. And it’s quite subtle as well. But you can see, apparent from the perception you have from the nose, the yeast are a little bit more marked. And I love it as well, but it’s more a classic style, compared by the previous one where it was more something more for…where you are looking for more energy and vibrancy, that’s more rich from the gentle.
AK: And I think people who usually drink champagne will feel like they’re coming home here.
AK: It’s beautifully dry. It is restrained. It has this creaminess but everybody who loves traditional method sparkling wine and is a champagne drinker will be pleasantly surprised about how affordable this is. This is something we wanted to talk about, Eric, didn’t we, about affordability.
EZ: Exactly. I think one of the reasons why Crémant become more popular every year, it’s because Champagne. They are a fantastic expression and they are beautiful bubbles, but they can be for some people very pricey. And I think if you want to find an alternative to give the same quality but with a smaller budget, it’s exactly a fantastic example.
AK: So, tell me: our brut nature made you think of everything salty and seafood-y. This to me is far more…
EZ: A little bit richer.
EZ: And personally, I think I will use everything’s great as a what we call a meaty fish or a white meat something, like scallops; salmon; [or] breast of chicken fed with corns, with a creamy sauce. Something nice, easy, no complicated, but just to work. For someone who doesn’t want to drink white, or reds, or rosé wines—to be an alternative to have something what you can play to complement with food, I find that very easy.
AK: Oh, you’re making me hungry.
EZ: Yeah, I get that.
AK: That is beautiful. But you are right. These wines are versatile, and once you get used to their sort of inherent lightness the fact that they’re just so refreshing…I think in the past year, if I really look at what I’ve actually swallowed, rather than tasted, there’s been a lot of fizz.
So, let us open another bottle. This is Domaine du Clos Saint Landelin—Domaine René Muré—and they’re in the very south of Alsace, in a beautiful village called Rouffach, and here we have their Crémant rosé. And the special thing, Eric, about Alsace Crémant rosé is that it is?
EZ: It’s only made with Pinot Noir.
EZ: That’s why also I think it’s important to say Pinot Noir: it’s one of the grapes in Alsace growing every year. Obviously, the climate, the movement, become better and better, hotter and hotter, and Pinot Noir actually love that. And…when I remember, 25 years ago, Pinot Noir in Alsace was about 3% or 4% of the product. Today, we are probably between 12% to maybe some 15%. And a part of it also because people want to challenge us to make more rosé Crémant. And that’s a beautiful example of this one.
AK: I know. It’s pretty serious, isn’t it? And again, it’s really dry. But I thought, you know, if we are going to have a Crémant d’Alsace which is 100%. Pinot Noir, we should have that from people who just know their Pinot Noir in and out.
EZ: Exactly. And this Pinot Noir, it’s about a beautiful combination from the path of vine peach, ripe red fruit—a little bit raspberry, strawberry— but you have got also this hint of vanilla, cinnamon, a bit of spice.
AK: You know what I what I would really like to have with this? I don’t know why I’m thinking of it right now, but it is saltimbocca alla Romana, which is kind of veal cutlets fried with Parma ham and sage and butter. I don’t know why that popped into my mind, but it’s kind of probably that edge of spice that is there.
EZ: Yeah, exactly. And to be honest, I think of pink meat, like the lamb. It’s perfect with it, because sometimes you just need something to complement with it: to still keep the flavors along—to be nice and elegant—but you need to bring also a little bit of fruit, little bit of structure, and I think also what I am impressed with this one, the texture on the palate: it’s quite vinous, as well.
EZ: Yeah, it’s got a great structure.
AK: Let’s explain what that means, when we say a sparkling wine is vinous. Means that it feels more like a still wine? That it has more weight?
EZ: Technically it gives you almost this impression. A little bit more weight, more rich, rounded structured. But what I love—and I find that beautiful in this wine—is it has got a beautiful finish, where it’s still vibrant, it’s mineral. It’s almost like it gives ambition to clean your palate and make you feel like you want to go back again.
AK: That’s the trouble: I can never stop when it comes to sparkling wine.
Now, thinking that we’ve had three fundamentally different wines, we’ve spoken about food pairings for all three of these wines. But what are the locations where you where you just open? You when you’re not on the restaurant floor; you when you are just, you know, in your own downtime. what is the moment when you open a Crémant?
EZ: The easy part would be as welcoming drinks at my place. And you know you want to show off a little bit because you are from Alsace and you know you have some fantastic wine. Let’s be honest. But after I find, also, to open a bottle of Crémant when you feel like it’s…you’re a little bit thirsty, you want some great bubbles. It’s easy. It makes a day special. And I think it’s, no, actually, it can be used at any time.
AK: So now, Eric, tell me a little bit more. I tried to ask you and you said a welcome drink at home and when you just want to relax. Do you have a special and beautiful Crémant d’Alsace memory?
EZ: I have got many, obviously, yes. Because I think Alsace are… for a Crémant to be opened, it’s about to celebrate. I think it’s also the context to be Alsatian, because in Alsace we are people with a big heart, we are generous. I remember many times opening a bottle to approach people because I want to show them how generous we are. And Crémant d’Alsace, what you want to show.
AK: So Crémant d’Alsace is for you a little ambassador for Alsace.
EZ: Definitely. I find the Crémant d’Alsace today, it’s not just a complement to a lineup, just to say we do sparkling wine. We make sparkling wine. We have not a huge quantity of sparkling wine, but we can also produce some very high-class—and I think all these three, definitely pure ambassador of quality Crémant d’Alsace right now.
AK: I know, because some people sometimes tend to look down a little bit on Crémant, thinking it has sort of the stepchild, of, you know, they think Champagne is the real thing, and Crémant is a step down, but I think these three wines here show us that this isn’t really the case.
EZ: And I’m pretty sure if these three Crémant will be on the lineup of a champagne, it will be a tasting to see who will come as quality winners.
AK: Yes, I think blind tastings are always revealing, aren’t they?
EZ: Exactly. And I think it will be a good example.
AK: Okey dokey. Wonderful. So, I am helping myself to another bit of the brut nature, because I am addicted to it. I know I shouldn’t admit that in public, but I just love its racy freshness.
Eric. Lovely chatting to you about fizz, with fizz. And… it was lovely and, yeah. Salut again. Or, as you say in Alsace, s’gilt!
AK: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast podcast about the versatile bottle-fermented sparkling wines of Alsace: the most popular fizz in France after champagne. For good reason, as we learned.
With Eric I tasted and sipped these three wines: Dirler-Cade Brut Nature Crémant d’Alsace, 2014, rated at 95 points for $25; Domaine Charles Baur Crémant d’Alsace Brut, non-vintage, 93 points and $25; Domaine René Muré Crémant d’Alsace Rosé, non-vintage, 93 points and $40. Find a Crémant d’Alsace near you and enjoy.
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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Marina Vataj and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers! Or, as we say in Alsace, s’gilt!