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Crémant Offers a Champagne Alternative
By Tina Caputo
Dec 21, 2010
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If there’s ever a night during the year to splurge on a great bottle of Champagne, it’s New Year’s Eve.  But this is no ordinary year.  Although the economy is showing signs of improvement, 2010 was still a tough year for lots of people.  As a result, many of us feel more inclined to ring in the coming year with cautious optimism than with reckless abandon. 

I, for one, won’t be forking over $150 for a bottle of tete du cuvée Champagne this New Year’s Eve -- but I still have every intention of getting my sparkle on. 

There are plenty of bubbly bargains available in the form of Spanish cavas or Italian Proseccos, but I think of those wines as everyday sparkers -- great for summer sipping or casual dining, but not quite right for special occasions like New Year’s Eve. 

French “crémant” sparklers offer the best of both worlds:  Old World character without the Champagne price.  Crémant wines are made using the traditional Champagne method, but they’re not made in the Champagne region.  That distinction can mean the difference between a $15 bottle of bubbly and one that costs many times more.  Most crémant wines can be had for less than $25 a pop (pun intended). 

In the 1970s, the term crémant was used to describe less-fizzy Champagnes.  But in the late `80s, when the EU banned the use of the term “methode champenoise” by sparkling wine producers outside Champagne, the term was adopted by vintners in other French wine regions.

To label a sparkling wine as crémant, producers are required to follow strict winemaking rules:

- The grapes must be whole bunch pressed
- Crop yields are limited by local regulations (lower yields are said to produce better-quality grapes)
- Sulfur dioxide use is limited
- The wine must age on the lees for at least nine months
- The wines must be submitted to a quality control tasting panel for approval

The main French appellations for crémant today are Alsace, Burgundy, Loire, Limoux (in the Languedoc region), Bordeaux and Die (in southeastern France).  Crémant wines are labeled according to their region, as in “Crémant d’Alsace” and “Crémant de Bourgogne.”

Because the grape varieties used for crèmant production vary from region to region, the character of the wines differs accordingly.  That’s what makes this category of wines so interesting, and fun.

Here’s an overview of the regional crémants you’re most likely to encounter in the United States:

Crémant d'Alsace
Sparkling winemaking in Alsace, on the German border, dates back to the late 19th century.  The grapes used for crémant include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Auxerrois, Riesling and Chardonnay (the region’s signature grape, Gewurztraminer, is not allowed).  Vineyard yield maximums are lower than those in the Champagne region, and grapes must be picked by hand. 

Crémant d'Alsace wines are typically light and delicate, with a fine mousse and good acidity.  They’re meant to be drunk young, and are usually served as an aperitif or dessert wine. 

Crémant de Loire

Crémant de Loire is the regional appellation for sparkling wines from Anjou, Saumur (the hub of the region’s sparkling wine production) and Touraine, in the Loire Valley.  The category was introduced in the 1970s to give French wine drinkers a reliable and affordable alternative to Champagne. 

Although Chenin Blanc is the main grape used in Crémant de Loire, other traditional Loire grapes may be used, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  (Sauvignon Blanc isn’t allowed because, like Gewurztraminer, it is deemed too aromatic to be suitable for sparkling wine.)

Crémant de Loire wines tend to have complex, nutty aromas, with subtle notes of honey.  When made with Chenin Blanc grapes -- as they usually are -- the wines take on a pretty floral aroma that sets them apart from Champagne wines. 

Crémant de Bourgogne

The first sparkling wines -- called Fleur de Champagne -- were produced in Burgundy in 1826, but the Crémant de Bourgogne appellation wasn’t created until 1975.  Today there are more than 100 sparkling wine producers in the region.

Crémant de Bourgogne can be made using several different grape varieties, but Burgundy’s famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are most commonly used.  Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon and Sacy can also be used.  The rosé sparklers are made exclusively from Pinot Noir, and are typically full-bodied and round, rather than light and delicate. 

I sampled the Veuve Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne ($16) earlier this month, and found it to have an aromatic, floral aroma with fine, lively bubbles and crisp lemon-citrus flavors. 

Crémant de Bourgogne wines are meant to be drunk young, usually within a couple years of purchase.

Crémant de Bordeaux

Records of Crémant de Bordeaux production date back to the 1800s.  All white varieties from Bordeaux may be used in the wines, including Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, with smaller amounts of White Riesling, Colombard and various other grapes.  Rosé sparklers may include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. 

Grapes for Crémant de Bordeaux must be hand harvested and transported in small baskets to keep the clusters from getting crushed.  Before they can achieve AOC status, the wines are blind tasted twice: once after the wine’s fermentation and again after the bubbles form. 

The wines vary in style from dry to sweet.  Dry white versions are fruity and complex, and often have aromas of citrus, hazelnut and white flowers. 

Crémant de Limoux

Sparkling wines from this southern region are made mainly with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, with up to 60% Mauzac (an aromatic white variety traditionally grown in Limoux) added. 

The region is also home to Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines, which are made mainly from Mauzac (also known as Blanquette).

The wines are pale in color, with fine bubbles and aromas of citrus, flowers and toasted bread, and notes of green apple. 

I recently tasted the Toques Clochers Crémant de Limoux ($20), and found it to have lively, fine bubbles, along with a toasty aroma.  It has fresh green apple flavor, and a somewhat tart finish. 

I also sampled the Vichon Crémant de Limoux ($20), which had tiny pinpoint bubbles, and a pleasant yeasty aroma.  It had yeasty flavors with fresh green apple notes, and a clean but rather short finish. 

In general, Crémant de Limoux is best when young, and is usually served as an aperitif.

Traditional Diversity

While I’m not suggesting that crémant wines are a replacement for Champagne, they can be an intriguing alternative.  On one hand, the wines have been produced in their respective regions for centuries, and are subjected to a stringent set of winemaking restrictions -- as in Champagne.  But unlike Champagne, crémant can be made from a dizzying array of grape varieties grown in diverse regions from chilly Alsace in the north to the Mediterranean-like Languedoc in the south. 

If your New Year’s resolution involves seeking out new wine adventures in 2011, popping the cork on a bottle of crémant at the stroke of midnight is a great place to start.