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On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers breaks down France’s other sparkling wine regions. Outside of Champagne, there are seven regions in total that make sparkling wine called Crémant. Tune in to learn about the history and varieties being grown.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m on a mission to create an official name for sparkling American wine — American sparklers. You know, July 4th. Fireworks. Sparklers. Somebody help me out.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101.” How are you? You good? All right. So Champagne is Champagne, right? But there’s so much more sparkling wine in the world that’s not Champagne. Actually, there’s a lot of sparkling wine in France that’s not Champagne. And that is what we’re talking about today: France.
OK, guys,. We all know that Champagne’s got that cachet. Am I right? And at some point in this podcast, I’m going to do a whole history on Champagne. It’s a very interesting story, and the Champagne region was not always sparkling wine. But some things happened, and it became the thing they did and they created an industry out of it that is just the most massive sparkling wine ad campaign ever done. There are things that happened in the United States right before the Civil War where some Champagne people came to New York to introduce it to everybody. The story just kind of goes from there. It’s a really awesome story. One day, I’d love to tell you about it.
The thing about Champagne on our market, in our mindset as Americans, is it’s celebratory. You pop the cork out or you saber the cork. It’s not really the wine you buy for a meal. Now, Champagne winemakers really want that to be a thing. But when a bottle of wine that is non-vintage and sparkling from Champagne starts at $35 or $50, it’s not really always the place or the wine for a weeknight or even a weekend meal. And that’s not to say that Champagne isn’t a special place. I mean, what they’ve created in Champagne with what they have there is an amazing feat in a very special wine from a very special place. If you want to know a little bit more about that, I do an overview in Season 1 or Season 2 of Champagne. Go listen to that. Like I said, I’ll get deeper at some point.
But because of Champagne’s popularity, there are people that may not know that there are other sparkling wines being made in France. As I talked about in the sparkling wine episode in Season 1, sparkling wine is a natural thing that’s been happening for a very, very long time by accident. But as it was harnessed, there are places in France that have been doing this stuff traditionally. Maybe not ancient or even Middle Ages, maybe even the 19th century, but for a long time, with their own varieties of grapes and their own terroir and their own style of making said sparkling wine. When I say style, primarily, I’m talking about what is now known as the traditional method or the second fermentation in bottle. The thing is, it was once called the méthode Champenoise, or the Champagne method, because Champagne was so popular. It was like, “We are the ones that do this.” But other places in France were like, “We make wine the same way. Why is it called the Champenoise method when we make it the same way?” Well, for a long time outside of the Champagne region, a lot of wines that were sparkling and made in the traditional method the same way Champagne is made — because the Champagne was method is now called the traditional method, which is a second fermentation in bottle — generally wines that were sparkling outside of Champagne had the word “musso” attached to them. Or “mousse,” like a softer, creamy bubbly drink.
And a lot of these wines are being made in climates that are a lot warmer than Champagne. Scientifically, and I’ll get into this, the atmospheres of pressure in these wines were less than the atmospheres of pressure in a Champagne. So the resulting wine was a little softer. And speaking of softer, before the 1970s, there were two areas in France that started going away from the musso word and had a new word attached to their sparkling wines. And it was specifically in the Loire Valley, the middle of the Loire, in an appellation called Vouvray and an appellation called Saumur. It’s a little bit complicated, and Vouvray does still use the musso word for some of their wines. But in general, these two areas were calling their sparkling wines Crémant, which means creamy. So we went away from the mousse idea to the creamy idea, which kind of makes a little bit more sense.
They started calling their wines Crémant de Saumur and Crémant de Vouvray. This caught on. And somewhere in the mid-1970s, the term Crémant de Loire was born. In the ’80s, the region of Alsace and Burgundy went ahead and adopted the Crémant as well. So it was Crémant d’Alsace and Crémant de Bourgogne. And then in 1990, to give you a sense of how popular this thing was getting, Bordeaux created their own Crémant de Bordeaux. And then Limoux. I can’t wait to talk about this. The Crémant de Limoux in the southern part of France created theirs as well. And then after that, a little area in the Rhône called Die was created in 1993. There’s a really small appellation over towards the Swiss border called Jura in the Jura mountains — I mentioned that in the Burgundy episode — that came on board in ’95. And then even further close to the Swiss border, Savoie became a Crémant in 2014. Those three are very small and fairly new, and I’ll touch on those. But the first tranche all the way up until 1990, those are the wines we’re primarily going to see on our market.
Let’s go into these different Crémants and understand them so when you’re out there in the wine shops, you can grab them with confidence, straight up. Crémant is a word used to describe sparkling wines outside of Champagne in the country of France. And the main regions you’re going to see them all on the American market. It will be, like I said, Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire, and Crémant de Limoux. Now, although these wines are made with different varieties in different terroirs and different geographies, there are a short list of general rules that have to be followed so that this thing can be consistent throughout France. It’s not really intense.
It’s just about whole-bunch pressing. There’s maximum yields so that the quality can be maintained. There’s a maximum sulfur additions so that quality can be maintained. And there’s a minimum of 12 months between bottle and release. All these numbers and limitations and stuff is a nice general list of rules that you can still play around with. Winemakers can still be creative within that, but Europe has a lot of rules. Also, something to think about here. As I said, the climates are different from Champagne. These are cool climates, but there are cool climates within the places in France in which they are. One of them is actually in southern France, but because it’s in a high elevation area near the Pyrenees, it’s a cool climate. You kind of get a sense of how sparkling wine works in France. We talk about that in the sparkling wine episode. So I’m just going to quickly say that that high acid thing, trying to harvest varieties at a high acid, is easier to do in these areas, even in Burgundy.
OK, let’s get into it. Alsace is a border region between France and Germany, and there’s a whole story there. It’s gone back and forth. It was once Germany, then it was France and Germany, now it’s France. But for the wine situation, there’s been wine being made there for quite some time. But as far as sparkling wine is concerned, that didn’t really happen until the 19th century. Now, I’m sure there was sparkling wine being made there before the 19th century, but the 19th century is when documentation really picks up. But I will say that Alsace got the memo in the ’80s when the Crémant thing was very popular. And a lot of the wines of Alsace are high-acid whites, so it makes sense to make sparkling wine from these varieties. It became a very important commercial style of wine in the wine industry of Alsace in the 1980s.
It got to the point where sparkling wine was actually a quarter of the production of wine in Alsace, and basically all the varieties that exist in Alsace are allowed in the sparkling wine: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling. A very interesting grape you may never heard of called Auxerrois. It’s from a family of grapes called Auxerre, which comes from a little town called Auxerre near Chablis when Charlemagne was doing his thing. And actually, if you’re making all-rosé sparkling wine in Alsace, it must be 100 percent Pinot Noir. But the majority of the sparkling wines that come out of Alsace are from Pinot Gris. It’s a very popular wine. Even if you’re going into a wine shop and you go to the Alsace section, you’re going to see a lot of Pinot Gris, and you’ll see a lot of sparkling Pinot Gris. But they also blend it. They can get creative with it. All the varieties are available. The one thing that’s consistent with these wines is they’re very soft. They have low atmospheric pressure, probably around two. Where a normal Champagne is between four or five or six. They’re soft, they’re clean. Sometimes they’re a little bit sweet. They’re light in body, often with a nice fine mousse as it bubbles up to the top. They’re almost elegant and light. So if you’re looking for a live sparkling wine, Alsace would be the way to go.
In Burgundy, this is one of those places that at one time they were calling their sparkling wine Bourgogne Musso. So there’s that musso, that mousse, that frothiness at the top of a wine glass from sparkling wine. The softness of the body of the wine is kind of what they were going for. And then in 1975, the year of my birth, they said, “You know what? We’re going to go with the whole Crémant thing as well.” What’s really trippy is they kept the Bourgogne musso term, but they reserved that for red sparkling wine in Burgundy. I have never had it. I want it. DM me, please @VinePairKeith. I need to know. And just like in Alsace, all the varieties in Burgundy are available to the winemakers to make in sparkling wine.
They call it Crémant de Bourgogne. That’s pretty much going to be Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and there might be some Gamay sometimes. Speaking of Gamay, if you listen to the Burgundy episode, you’ll notice that all the way back in the day, the Gamay grape was not hated, but there was an anti-Gamay grape campaign that’s been going on for a long time in Burgundy. And it’s just so funny that in the rules for Crémant de Bourgogne, Gamay may not constitute more than one-fifth of the blend. Most of the Crémant de Bourgogne in Burgundy is made in the Côte de Chalonnaise, which is the area just above the Mâconnais, where Mâcon is made. Again, go to the Burgundy episode and check all that out for all this stuff. But there’s a little village in the Côte de Chalonnaise, Rully, and that is a major hub for Crémant de Bourgogne.
Also all the way up north near the Chablis region, I was talking about Charlemagne back in the day, there’s a town called Auxerre. In that town, they also make Crémant de Bourgogne. And what’s really cool about this is the majority of wine that is made in Rully, because it’s the southern part of Burgundy, is a little bit softer, creamier. Crémant means cream, so that makes sense. And the ones that are made up north, we don’t see as much of them on the American market, but they’re around. They’re a little more crisp, angular, and sharp. You know what I mean? I have to say right here, I absolutely love Crémant de Bourgogne. I think it is a hidden treasure in wine shops. The price is always right. It’s like $25. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blended, or one or the others. They do Blanc de Blancs as well if it’s 100 percent Chardonnay. Crémant de Bourgogne is wonderful stuff and it’s often very affordable. And that is my weeknight bubbly.
All the way down in southern France, in the Languedoc-Roussillon in the hills of southern France that will eventually lead up going west to the Pyrenees, there is a town called Limoux. This is a very famous town when it comes to sparkling wine, because the winemakers and the people of Limoux believe they were the first sparkling winemakers, or at least, they were the ones that figured it out first. Or they at least were the ones that harnessed it the best. And there’s a story that’s not true of Dom Pérignon, the monk from Champagne coming down and seeing what’s going on Limoux, then going back and copying it. That’s not necessarily the case. It’s a little more complicated than that. Again, one day we’ll talk about Champagne. I’ll do a deep dive into the story. But there is a mad pride here in Limoux, and for a long time they made what was called Blanquette de Limoux, which is “the white of the town of Limoux.” And it was often a wine made from a grape called Mauzac. It’s a fun little aromatic varietal, and you can get some depth out of it. You can get some stuff out of it.
The thing is, they used this variety for so long, in doing this sort of natural fermentation thing, they were in a place at the elevation in which they were that sparkling wine kind of made itself before modern technology. The whole idea of how sparkling wine was made in the first place is that before modern technology, yeast was still in the bottle. In bottling, winter happens, spring comes, yeast wake up, the sugars left, they create carbon dioxide in the bottle. That’s kind of how it began. And in Limoux, that’s their history of drinking wines like that. What we’re talking about here is pét-nat. I have a whole episode on that, I’m not going to get further into it. I don’t want to say unfortunately, because it’s their thing. It’s what they did.
They’ve relegated the Mauzac grape to a smaller percentage in the blends of their sparkling wines, their Crémant de Limoux. So where once these wines were primarily Mauzac, they now have to be between 60 and 90 percent Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc, which gives a little more depth to a sparkling wine. Mauzac and Pinot Noir can also be used in these sparkling white wines, but no more than 40 percent. And even there, the Mauzac can’t max out beyond 20 percent. I usually don’t go full into percentages like that because it’s a little confusing. But the reason why I’m saying that is that the Mauzac grape did what it did for a very long time. But these winemakers just realized they were at high elevations and they know that these varieties can thrive based on their soils and how high up they are. So these varieties were eventually, I think, thoroughly brought into the region and tested. And then it was like, “Oh, OK, this works, this is great.” So they amended everything because of that. Wine regions do it all the time. Burgundy used to be Gamay. The thing about Limoux is you’re going to see a lot of it because the majority of wines being made into Crémant de Limoux is from cooperatives.
There are 300-plus growers or more utilizing cooperatives to make wines that will eventually come to the United States. There’s nothing wrong with cooperatives. Actually, cooperatives are awesome when a vine grower would rather put all of his or her money into the agriculture and not into the actual viniculture. Then they’re spending all their time in the vineyard and making sure those are awesome varieties. So I guess what I’m saying is co-ops are awesome. But also when wine is made in these facilities, by the time it gets to our market, even through the three-tier system, they’re often very, very affordable. Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux will start at $10 and maybe go up to $20 or $25. If they go into $30 or $40, we’re getting really special. But these are awesome, refreshing French sparkling wines for weeknights because they’re very affordable. They have nice character. I used to sell them in my wine shop. I love them.
And then we have Crémant de Loire, where it all began. Here, they use most of the grapes from this middle part of the valley. They don’t use Sauvignon Blanc. They still don’t think Sauvignon Blanc has what it takes to be part of this whole sparkling wine thing. But you’ll often see wines that are sparkling made from Chenin Blanc and also Cab Franc. I must say, sparkling Cab Franc rosé from Crémant de Saumur is so wonderful. It’s fat and juicy for a sparkling wine. But it has this nice, clean acidity thing running through. It’s just really, really awesome stuff.
Then you have Crémant de Vouvray, and that’s a little complicated. Chenin Blanc is what they use. That is their variety and they make Chenin Blanc into sparkling wine in different ways. And if you want to get into the details of that, check out my pét-nat episode. That’s what you’re going to see on the American market. Now, there are these newer Crémant appellations. There is Jura from 1995. There is Savoie, which is actually 2014. Then there’s Crémant de Bordeaux, which along with the Limoux, became a Crémant. But for our purposes on the American market, Crémant de Bordeaux is kind of ill-defined. There’s really not a lot of heavy rules set. There are only a few of them on the American market. They’re really cool. They’re easy-drinking. They’re not that expensive.
That is changing, though. There’s a new generation of winemakers that are going to concentrate on this particular category. I’m pretty excited to see what the future holds for this Crémant. And the Jura is a very small wine appellation to the east of Burgundy, bordered on the west by Switzerland and is tucked into the Jura mountains. This area became a Crémant in 1995 and very quickly became a dominant sparkling wine region. And today, more than 25 percent of the production of the Jura is sparkling. This is a region that’s very famous for a particular wine called Vin Jaune, which means “yellow wine.” Can’t get into it, but it’s a very unique wine that is aged on a specific kind of yeast called Flor. That’s how it’s known. But now it’s very well known for its sparkling wines. We’re not going to see a lot of them on the American market because it’s so small, it doesn’t produce as much. But they play with grapes called Poulsard, Trousseau, Savagnin. They also have Chardonnay there and they make very unique, very interesting sparkling wines with those varieties. They even have Pinot Noir there, and they have their own limitations and formulas for percentages of varieties in blends. But we’re going to start seeing more Jura, I’m pretty sure, on the market in the coming years.
The last two I want to touch on, just because I want to get them all in here for you. And we’re not going to see a lot of them on the American market, but at some point we might. So the first one is in the eastern Rhône. It’s called Crémant de Die, and like Vouvray and Limoux, it’s a wine region that had a sparkling wine there for a long time. And it was in that musso style, meaning that it was very soft and had very low alcohol like a pét-nat. Again, listen to that episode. They still do make this old-school wine, but they call it Clairette de Die Tradition. Die is the town this all is centered around in the eastern Rhone. Crémant de Die is made up exclusively from the Clairette variety. It’s a white wine variety in this part of France. It’s very interesting that Crémant de Die is made up of only Clairette, but Clairette de Die Tradition is only about 25 percent of Clairette. The rest is made up of a variety I’ve talked about before, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Last but not least, the very small appellation called Savoie, also towards the Swiss border. It only became a Crémant in 2014. So we’re just now starting to see wines on the American market from them. It’s another unique place where they have grapes you may not have heard of. They have grapes called Jacquère, Altesse, Chasselas, oh, and Chardonnay. But they’re often going to be a blend of Jacquère and Altesse. They’re wildly different from winemaker to winemaker. So you’ll have to check them out and see for yourself.
OK, so I went a little long here. But I wanted to get it all in. I wanted you to know the ones that are already here and have been here. And I wanted you to get a sense of the ones that are on the way or a little bit here. There’s a smattering of the new ones, but this is sparkling wine in France. It’s not just Champagne. Again, not saying anything about the Champagne, but there’s so much out there to try. I mean, you can have an entire lineup in your home of sparkling wines from France at different price points for different meals and different events. It’s kind of amazing. So that’s sparkling wine in France outside of Champagne, wine lovers. I hope this really helps you out. So when you’re out there in the wine shops and on the wine lists, you have command of this stuff. You guys are awesome. Let’s talk next week.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shoutout to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.