The Flatiron Wines Guide to Crémant de Bourgogne
What do you call sparkling wine made in Burgundy? Delicious? Terroir focused? A great value?
But most of all, you call it Crémant de Bourgogne!
Read on for our complete guide to one of Burgundy’s secret weapons!
Crémant de Bourgogne: Bubbly Burg
Americans love to drink French Crémants (sparkling wines made like Champagne but from a different region) as an inexpensive bubbly -- perfect for supplying a big party on a budget, for instance.
But Crémant de Bourgogne is much more than just that! It is, first and foremost, a wine of Bourgogne (it’s right there in the name!), and as such it offers a fascinating and different view of Burgundian terroir than usually: a view through bubbles!
But before we get to all that, some basics…
What exactly is Crémant de Bourgogne?
A sparkling wine from Burgundy can be called Crémant de Bourgogne if it follows some basic rules.
Grapes: Crémant de Bourgogne is principally made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Technically, Pinot and Chardonnay must be at least 30% of the blend, but most wines are exclusively or mostly made of those two grapes. You will find Crémants with Aligoté and Gamay, which can bring something special to the wines; but, although some other grapes are permitted (Melon de Bourgogne and Sacy) they are very rarely seen.
The grapes must not only be of the right variety (or varieties) -- they must also have been grown in land covered by the Crémant de Bourgogne appellation. Fortunately for Crémant de Bourgogne‘s fans, the appellation is large! It covers nearly 5,000 acres running from the very extreme north (the Grand Auxerrois and environs) all the way to the southern extremes of Beaujolais. It even covers some of the fanciest villages of the Cotes de Beaune and Nuits.
Winemaking: How do you get the bubbles in a Crémant de Bourgogne? It’s a special process which boasts an extra, or "secondary" fermentation.
- First Fermentation (aka Primary Fermentation): The winemaker crafts a regular, but low alcohol. In this case that means hand-harvesting good grapes from a site that is included in the Crémant de Bourgogne regional appellation.
- Second Fermentation (aka Secondary Fermentation): The winemaker puts the still wine into a bottle with a little yeast and a little sugar, then seals the bottle. And this is where the magic happens: the yeast eats the sugar, making alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine making… bubbles!
The traditional method -- an explanation with infographics!
Of course, getting from that low alcohol wine to the delicious glass of bubbly involves more than those two fermentations. For instance, what happens to all that yeast after it's done gorging on the sugar?
Here's an overview:
- Step 1 Primary Fermentation: Make the dry, low alcohol wine in the primary fermentation.
- Step 2: Add yeast and sugar.
- Step 3(a) Secondary Fermentation: The yeast does its thing, eating the sugar and making bubbles and a little more alcohol.
- Steph 3(b) Aging: But what happens to all that yeast after it eats the sugar and makes the bubbles?
In short, the yeast dies. The spent yeast, known as “the lees,” isn’t done though; they start to break down (through a process called autolysis) and keep contributing to wine’s flavor. That toasty aroma that people often describe as “brioche”? That’s from the lees’ autolysis.
The process takes time, though. So local rules require that a bottle of Crémant spend at least nine months “aging on the lees” (or “sur lattes,” as they say in French). Of course, some producers give their wine an even longer rest than that, in order to develop more complexity and depth of flavor.
There are even special categories specifically for longer-aged Crémant de Bourgogne: “Eminent” (24 months of lees aging) and Grand Eminent (36 months). Unfortunately, these are very rarely imported, so you aren’t likely to see any here in America.
- Step 4 removing the spent yeast:
When we drink a bottle of Cremant there's no leftover yeast in it. How do they get it out of the bottle? Very gently!
- Step 4(a) Ridling:
- Step 4(b) Disgorging:
Finally, when the wine has aged long enough sure lattes, the winemaker opens the bottle cap and lets the natural pressure from the bubbles force the lees out.
- Step 5: Dosage:
Shooting the lees out of the bottle can be a bit of a messy business -- some of the sparkling wine is bound to shoot out of the bottle together with the yeast. Before corking and shipping a ¼ empty bottle, winemakers add back a little wine -- sometimes with a touch of sugar in it.
That sugar is called “dosage.”
Why add sugar? Partly because sparkling wines historically could be austere without it. To ensure that there wouldn’t be too much alcohol in the final wine growers would harvest their grapes early -- before they were at their most sugary. But that meant the acidity levels were still very high. Perfect for balancing lush flavors and making a zippy wine, but potentially too auster given that after the second fermentation the bottle would be completely dry and full of bubbles that also feel acidic.
It may also just have been a bit of a historical artifact: today it’s all the fashion to order “a very dry wine.” But back in the day it seems people wanted everything as sweet as possible. Even Champagne was originally sweetened -- until the English market began to ask for dryer bottlings, which the Champenois labelled “Brut,” because of the brutish English taste!
Today Crémant de Bourgogne comes in various levels of sweetness ranging from no sugar added (Brut Nature -- the driest) to Doux (more than 50g of sugar/litre). Most of what is imported to America is either Extra Brut (less than 6g/L) or Brut (6-12 g/L).
Labeling -- or why the Champagne Method is called the Traditional Method everywhere but Champagne
Here’s a funny thing (if you find legal battles over intellectual property rights funny...):
This whole sparkling winemaking process used to be called the “Champagne Method,” but the Champenois didn’t want other regions even describing their winemaking style as similar to Champagne.
So after a long fight, the rest of France’s sparkling wine regions agreed to give up the old name and start describing the process as the “Traditional Method.” In exchange, Champagne gave up its right to use the word “Crémant.”
What does Crémant de Bourgogne taste like?
Generally speaking, Crémant de Bourgogne tends to be a fresh, vibrant sparkling wine.
It’s attractively aromatic, with bright flavors but relatively low in alcohol, making it good on its own as well as with food.
Of course, Crémant de Bourgogne comes in a range of different styles. These styles are affected by where the wine comes from, what grapes are used, even what color it is.
Terroir: Crémant de Bourgogne is a Bourgogne, and like all wine from this region tends to reflect its terroir.
As we noted, Crémant de Bourgogne can come from all the way in the north of the region, around Chablis, and it can come from deep in the south, in the Maconnais or even Beaujolais. And it can come from many places in between.
The northern examples are often from sites closer to Champagne than to the Maconnais, and you can sometimes taste the cool climate in the style: very high toned with fine bubbles. In the south there can be more warmth in the climate -- and in the wines too. Exuberant fruit more like a Macon Villages than a taut Chablis.
This being Bourgogne, the soils matter too! Northerly sites tend to be high in limestone -- not totally dissimilar to the terroir of nearby parts of Champagne. This can give a chalky minerality and the power of limestone.
In the south, on the other hand, there are the Macon's distinct limestone soils and microclimates, which can give a markedly different sense of minerality and tension. There are even some granitic soils (the classic soils of Beaujolais) which can make Gamay an excellent option, too.
In between these extremes there are many variations on the classic clay and limestone terroirs. The best growers take advantage of these variations to harvest the optimal fruit -- be that Pinot Noir or Chardonnay -- and to make distinctive and delicious sparkling wines.
The Châtillonnais: Bourgogne's Kingdom of Crémant - There is one tiny little region on the very northeastern extreme of Bourgogne that specialises in sparklers: The Châtillonnais.
The Châtillonnais is an ancient wine region -- vines have grown there for at least 2,000 years. And like its neighbors in the Grand Auxerrois, it became quite famous in the 19th Century, only to be devastated by Phylloxera and war.
Today The Châtillonnais makes small amounts of red and white wine, but to the extent it is known at all it is for its sparkling wines. The northerly climate is perfect for making super-fresh base wines, and the south-facing slopes give the fruit enough ripeness for balance and pleasure. The hard limestone soils make for refined structures and incredible minerality.
We don't see too many wines from The Châtillonnais in America, but we do see some great ones, including Bruno Dangin.
Color and Grape choice: Crémant de Bourgogne comes in a few styles:
● Blanc: The classic Crémant de Bourgogne is a sparkling white wine with golden overtones and fine bubbles. It will generally have aromas of flowers and minerals and citrus fruit (and sometimes orchard fruit). It will taste of all those with the driving acidity that brings balance to the best sparkling wines. Some examples will also have toasty, “brioche” notes.
● Rosé: Made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (sometimes with some Gamay if made in the south), these wines have lovely pink colors, pretty berry and floral aromas, and a palate that is bursting with flavor.
● Blanc de blancs: A white wine made exclusively from white grapes Chardonnay and Aligoté mainly (so, no Pinot Noir or Gamay), these tend towards the delicate and floral side of the spectrum. Of course, much depends on the terroir and the producer, as always!
● Blanc de Noirs: A white wine made from black (i.e. red) grapes, these can have aromas that include nearly rosé-ish berry tones, and they tend to be a little more powerful than Blanc de blancs and longer too. Although you don’t see them traded in the auction market, if you ever think to try aging a good bottle of Blanc de Noirs you may find that it develops elegantly, with more brioche, dried fruit and even spices emerging.
● Vintage Crémant de Bourgogne: Most Crémant de Bourgogne is labelled NV, short for Non Vintage -- meaning it can be a blend of multiple years.
- But some ambitious producers bottle vintage dated Crémant de Bourgogne, wines that are meant to express not just their terroir but the particular expression of that terroir in a given year.
- On some level these are the apotheosis of the Crémant de Bourgogne experience: a true Burgundy with Bubbles.
The history of Cremant de Bourgogne in a nutshell
People like to compare Crémant de Bourgogne to Champagne. But Crémant de Bourgogne is not a Champagne knock-off and isn’t even recent at all!
In fact, sparkling Burgundy has a long and illustrious history. It was literally the wine of Emperors (Napoleon III was gifted cases of the stuff). The bourguignons have been making enormously popular sparkling wine since the early 1800s. In the 19th century it was actually common to make bubbly versions -- even of some of the greatest wines of Bourgogne. Anyone for some sparkling Romanée?!
Of course, those top wines have been much too valuable to be released as bubblies for a long time.
Crémant de Bourgogne on its own terms: so much more than a “Champagne Alternative”
Sommeliers and retailers love to recommend their favorite Crémant de Bourgogne as an alternative to more expensive Champagnes. They do cost a lot less than Champagne (mostly) and they are delicious sparkling wines that can work in many of the same situations as Champagne.
But if you’ve read this far in our post, you know the truth is a little more complicated.
For one thing, Champagne itself (like Crémant de Bourgogne) is a large region with an enormous diversity of styles. Some Champagne vineyards (notably, the Aube) are only a short drive from Bourgogne’s northern reaches, so it’s only natural that a northern Crémant de Bourgogne will be evocative of those Champagnes.
But given everything we’ve seen about Crémant de Bourgogne’s enormous diversity, it’s clear that anyone pitching the wines exclusively -- or maybe even primarily -- as a “poor man’s Champagne” is missing what they really bring to the table. Many of these wines don’t even taste all that much like Champagne.
What they do taste like are sparkling wines that express Bourgogne’s very essence: the delicious fruit, the wonderful terroirs, the devoted winemakers.
Which is, after all, so much more!