Parlez-vous crémant?

“Champagne, in victory I deserve it.  In defeat, I need it.”

This quote, attributed to Napoleon, says a lot about Champagne.  It is an emblematic, almost talismanic, substance which transcends mere wine.  When marking an important event, nothing fits the bill like Champagne.

You can test this out by popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne and just wait for someone to ask “What’s the special occasion?”  Don’t try this when on your own, obviously.

Sometimes though, we might just fancy a bottle of fizz, without the extra baggage (and hefty price tag) of Champagne.  British drinkers have taken Italian Prosecco to their hearts in recent years.  Very different in style from Champagne, it’s all about fresh fruit, lightness and frothiness, allied to a little sweetness.  I’m all for a glass of it at the start of the evening, but one is usually plenty.

If you are craving the more restrained and dry style of Champagne, then the other French fizz – Crémant – could be for you.

And what is Crémant?  Literally “creamy”, very simply, it is sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne, but from outside the Champagne area.

French wine law is based on the principle of guaranteeing the origin of what you are drinking – that the wine in the bottle is from the area designated on the label. Champagne, for drinkers, may just be shorthand for any sparkling wine.  However, in legal terms, in order for Champagne to appear on the label, the contents must be sparkling wine from the Champagne region around Reims in northern France.

It also has to conform to a certain method of production – more of that in a moment.  So, if you are a winemaker in any other part of France, and wish to make a sparkling wine in the same way as Champagne, your product can be called Crémant.

How is wine made to sparkle?  In its simplest form, carbon dioxide can be forced into any still wine, resulting in a fizzy one.  Anyone with a SodaStream will be familiar with the process – and if you do have one, why not do a little experiment with any cheap bottle of wine and see the result?  I’m confident that a bottle of Gallo White Zinfandel could be immeasurably improved in this way.

The other, more classy way, to make a sparkling wine is to provoke a second fermentation in a still wine.  This is done by adding yeast, and sugar for it to feed on, to the wine.  The resulting alcoholic fermentation produces carbon dioxide and, if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, will become dissolved in the wine.  This second fermentation can take place either in the bottle, which is the only way permitted for Champagne, Crémant or anything labelled “traditional method” sparkling wine.  Or it can be carried out in a sealed tank, which is used for Prosecco and many other good quality sparkling wines around the world.

Second fermentation in the bottle permits long ageing on the dead yeast cells (or lees) and the development of complex flavours and fine, long-lasting bubbles.  However, those dead yeast cells need to be extracted somehow, if the final wine is to be crystal clear and not murky with sediment.  This is achieved firstly by gradually tipping the bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position over a number of weeks (if done by hand) or days (if done in a specially designed machine named a gyropalette), a process known as riddling.

bollinger bottles in pupitres
Bottles in a “pupitre”
gyropallet
A gyropalette
sediment in bottle
Sediment in a bottle

Then, to extract the sediment the process of disgorgement takes place.

The necks of the upturned bottles are dipped in a sub-zero temperature solution, creating a frozen plug of sediment.  This is then ejected by turning the bottles upright and removing the bottle cap.  The frozen sediment shoots out under pressure from the carbon dioxide-induced fizziness in the wine.  The bottle is then topped up with wine, plus some sugar solution (or dosage) to give the required sweetness level from ultra brut (no sugar) to demi sec (40grams per litre or so).  Cork on and voilà, the wine has completed its transformation into fizz and just needs to rest and recover from all the excitements of riddling and disgorgement.

yeast cells in neck of bottle
Sediment in the neck of a riddled bottle

Many French wine regions produce Crémants, some of which more or less resemble Champagne, especially if they use the traditional Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Crémant from the Loire will be dominated by Chenin Blanc, which is plentiful there, giving it a different flavour profile.  Alsace, which is the biggest Crémant producing region, tends to make its Crémant from the fruity and neutral Pinot Blanc. There is fun is to be had – and of course keener prices than back in the UK – if you come across a crémant producer on your own travels in France.
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