French Crémant: Pop the cork! – Meanderings through France n° 227
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
For too long Crémant wines have been seen as a poor substitute to more prestigious Champagne. But things definitely have changed during the last two decades thanks to the quest for quality of the Crémant wine makers in many French wine areas. With a significant value for money they never stop gaining market share.
Same making process as Champagne
Did you ever wonder how all these lovely bubbles appear in sparkling wine? There are actually two ways to make a sparkling wine. The cheap one creates bubbles by adding carbon dioxide into a still wine just like in soft drinks. The noble one takes time and “savoir-faire” and is of course more costly. This process is called “Traditional Method” and was first created to make Champagne. Champagne wine makers jealously defended their privilege of calling it the “Méthode Champenoise” and denied Crémant wine makers the right to name it this way on their bottles. Although Crémants are made the same way as Champagne they can only call this process “Méthode Traditionnelle” on their bottles label.
It of course all begin in the vineyards. After months of care and work the grapes are picked up one by one by hand and quickly taken to the press. The grape juice is slowly extracted from the grapes and put into stainless steel vats. The magic of natural fermentation can now begin. Once this first fermentation is over the wine is bottled and a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to it. Now is time for the second fermentation. For 4 to 8 weeks these microscopic but essential organisms consume the sugar creating alcohol and CO2 that dissolves into the wine while pressure slowly grows inside the bottle, up to 6 to 8 bar!
The bottles are now ready to rest in dark cellars this is the ageing time. It takes at least 9 months for Crémant wines but many wine makers make it last longer (12, 15 or 24 months) to let the wine mature to its full potential. In summary, 2nd fermentation and early ageing in bottles are the two basic ways to make a sparkling wine. It could be objected that all wines whether still or sparkling need fermentation and it’s true that during fermentation yeast always produces carbon dioxide. But unlike in Crémant or Champagne where it is preciously kept inside the bottle, when making still wines this gas scatters in the air from the stainless-steel vat or from the barrel.
Patience and time
Ageing is essential and once again made in a very specific way. Once the second fermentation is completed winemakers get bottles of sparkling wine but it’s not drinkable yet! During the third step the bottles are going to be turned upside down and rotated a quarter turn every day in order to allow the sediment (mostly made of dead yeast) to go down into the neck of the bottle. This is automatically done and monitored by big machines slowly moving several dozens of bottles in the same time. It goes on like this, day after day, for several months or even a year.
The fourth and final step is the trickiest one. How can the winemakers possibly take this sediment out of the bottle? Fortunately they are resourceful people and invented a smart way to do it without losing gas or wine. The neck of the bottle is submerged into freezing brine, the crown cap is removed and pressure pushes out an “ice cube” of sediment. As simple and effective as can be! The lost volume is replaced by a mixture made of wine and sugar called ‘liqueur d’expédition” which sugar concentration determines the final sweetness level and style of Crémant: Brut, Extra Brut, Sec or Demi Sec. This is a delicate stage when the cellar master will need all his savoir-faire to find the right dosage to enhance the aromas of each vintage. Finally the bottles are corked with the typical mushroom-shape cork of good sparkling wines and a protective wire cap is placed over the neck to secure it. They are at last ready to be drunk!
All kinds of Crémant from all over France
As for other wines, terroir makes all the difference. All the main wine-producing French regions make Crémant, each one with its own grape-varieties, terroir and typicity. Crémant from Alsace, Bourgogne, Jura, Bordeaux, Loire or Languedoc won’t of course taste the same. It is said that the Limoux area set at the foot of the Pyrenees in the Languedoc region was the first place where sparkling wine was made in 1531. It was born in the Saint Hilaire Benedictine Abbey and the British used to buy it since the 17th century.
A Crémant label of origin (AOC) has been created in 1990 and wine makers have to follow strict rules and specifications to keep this AOC. In Alsace Julien Dopff was the first one to make sparkling wine in 1900 and today Alsace is the first producing region with 31 millions bottles made in 2013. The Alsatian vines such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling or Chardonnay are used to make Blanc de Blanc (this is a white wine made with white grapes), while Pinot Noir makes a Blanc de Noir, a white Crémant made with black grapes as well as Crémant Rosé.
Crémant making is pretty new in Bordeaux region. Here winemakers take advantage of galleries dug in the side of hills along the Garonne River to age their sparkling wine. In these natural cellars the air temperature and the humidity level are perfect to elaborate Crémant. Using local Sauvignon or Semillon vines they make fresh and elegant white Crémant, while Cabernet or Red Merlot vines make fruity Rosés. Burgundy is the native country of the Chardonnay vine the main grape variety used to make Champagne. In Burgundy it makes wonderful white Crémant.
The Crémant quality never stops improving and recent blind tests comparing Crémant and Champagne wines held a lot of surprises. Today there are great Crémant that can easily compare to great Champagne. More affordable they offer freshness and an aromatic quality that make them easy to drink from starter to dessert. You will find countless cocktail recipes to enjoy your Crémant with spirits or fruit juices. Give a chance to a Crémant Mojito and you’ll adopt it!
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny