Cremant, the main rival to champagne in France, is enjoying substantial and sustained growth. For publication in the week starting 3 April 2017.
Cremant is sparkling wine made in France using the same method as champagne. Though it is not as well known as champagne, sales are booming domestically and internationally with growth of 5 to 7 per cent per annum in recent years.
In Europe a bottle sells for between 8 and 10 Euros, meaning cremant offers good value for money compared with champagne, which is sometimes seen as a luxury item. The biggest markets outside France include Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, plus the United States.
Eight regions of France make cremant. The National Federation of Cremant Growers and Producers, founded in 1982, is the governing body. The Savoie region in eastern France, in the foothills of the Alps, was the most recently admitted to the federation, in 2015. From the start of January last year the region was entitled to sell its wines as “Cremant de Savoie”.
To mark their admission, Savoie hosted the annual national congress of cremant makers at the end of March. A total of 707 sparkling wines were entered in the 26th competition to find the best fizz. Judges awarded 222 medals, including 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.
The eight regions are Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Die, Jura, Limoux, Loire and Savoie. The Alsace region is by far the biggest producer, making almost 35 million of the 80 million bottles of cremant sold last year. Alsace submitted 159 wines to the competition and won 59 gold medals, or 46 per cent.
Sales of champagne globally totalled about 306 million bottles last year. This was a marked decline on the figure for 2015 of 312 million bottles. Decanter magazine reported that champagne sales have been steadily declining in France since 2010, but last year was particularly tough, mainly because of the country’s ongoing economic crisis and a drop in tourism linked to the terrorist attacks in 2015 and last year.
France remains the biggest market for cremant and sales are doing well, which suggests that during tough economic times people tend to look for cheaper alternatives to champagne. On average about 15 per cent of cremant is exported from the eight regions. But averages are misleading because almost half of the 5 million bottles of cremant from the Limoux region in southern France are exported.
Burgundy is the second biggest cremant producer, making about 18 million bottles each year. They entered 153 wines in the competition and won 53 gold medals. Newcomer Savoie submitted 24 wines and got six golds. Michel Quenard, president of Wines of Savoie, said his region was honoured to host the event and said Savoie was seeking a place “at the top of the pyramid of sparkling wines”. Savoie has about 2,000 hectares of vineyards.
The “traditional” or “champagne” method to make sparkling wine involves bottling the base wine with a mixture of sugar and yeast. These trigger a secondary fermentation in the bottle in which the wine will eventually be sold. Champagne is made from three grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Cremant has come to mean any French sparkling wine made using the champagne method but not those grape varieties.
Another key distinction is the pressure in the bottle. Champagne has five to six atmospheres (or bars) of pressure in the bottle. To put this into perspective, that is almost twice the pressure in a car tyre. Cremant has about three to four atmospheres. English sparkling wine is usually about six bars.
The amount of pressure is partly determined by the amount of sugar added at the start of the secondary fermentation, known as the dosage. More sugar produces more carbon dioxide gas and thus more pressure in the bottle, which is the reason for the wire “cage” around the cork. European Union regulations define a sparkling wine as any drink with an excess of three atmospheres of pressure.
The word cremant translates as “creamy”. The lower pressure from carbon dioxide was believed to give the wines a creamy rather than fizzy mouthfeel. One of the attractions of champagne and English sparkling is the mousse, that explosion of flavours in the mouth when we first taste the wine.
Cremant from Alsace is made from several grape varieties including Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Auxerrois and Pinot Gris. Cremant is usually made with grape varieties distinct to each region. Thus cremant from Burgundy involves a minimum of 30 per cent of the classic grapes from the region, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Cremant from Bordeaux includes the white grapes from that region, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Cremant from Limoux is mostly made with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while cremant from the Loire employs Chenin Blanc. Cremant from Jura is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard. Cremant from Die is traditionally made only from Clairette but lately Aligote and Muscat are being added (up to 10 per cent or 40 per cent respectively). In the Savoie region the main grapes are Jacquere and Altesse (the blend must contain a minimum of 60 per cent Jacquere). Other permitted grapes include Chasselas, Chardonnay and Aligote.
More than four in five bottles of cremant are white. The rose version can be delightful on a sunny day with a plate of charcuterie. In Bordeaux, rose cremant is made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Regulations require that cremant be aged for at least nine months in the bottle. For champagne the minimum ageing for non-vintage wine is two years, which partly explains the higher price. Machines gradually turn the bottles upside down so the dead yeast cells, known as the lees, accumulate in the neck. They are removed via a cooling process similar to champagne before the cork and cage are added.
Cremant can only be produced from grapes that are hand harvested. It takes 150kg of grapes to make 100 litres of wine, higher than the figure for still wine of 100kg of grapes to make 100 litres.
Details of the wines that won medals, including the “press prizes” chosen by the 25 wine journalists at the event, can be found at http://www.cremants.com/ though as of early April the web site was not available.
Disclaimer: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the National Federation of Cremant Growers and Producers, and a judge for the journalists’ prize for the best cremant from each region at this year’s national awards.