Crémant de Bourgogne
Burgundy should have the potential to create world-class sparkling wine. It’s just south of Champagne (Chablis is particularly close to Côtes des Bars) and plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dominate. However, Burgundy’s sparkling wines fall short of Champagne, for one simple reason: in Champagne, the focus is on some of the greatest sparkling wine made in the world, in Burgundy that focus shifts to still wine.
Nevertheless, sparkling wine production has some history in Burgundy, dating back to the nineteenth century (when both Champagne and Burgundy were at their height of popularity). In 1975, the Crémant de Bourgogne appellation was created to promote the sparkling wines of the region. Overall, the Crémant appellations have never quite worked, in part because all the Crémant regions around France - including Alsace, Loire, and Bordeaux, as well as smaller regions such as Die and Limoux - are inconsistently made in different styles from a range of grape varieties. But in Burgundy too many producers have also not taken the style seriously enough, making bubbles from leftover grapes not good enough for still wine.
I attended a tasting promoting Crémant de Bourgogne, focusing on a handful of producers who concentrate on making sparkling wine. I went into the tasting with the dual question: is Crémant de Bourgogne a category that local producers are taking seriously and should the consumer too?
Crémant de Bourgogne accounts for 10% of all Burgundy production, a surprisingly high amount, much of which is consumed domestically (only 34% is exported). The grapes, which must be hand-harvested, are of course Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - they have to be 30% of the wine - with Aligoté and Gamay used in small amounts. The best grapes for Crémant are grown on foothills or cool plâteaux, producers looking for a balance of ripeness and acidity. The wines are usually made in the Brut style, a touch of sweetness balancing the fresh acidity. (There's also red sparkling wine, Bourgogne Mousseux, of which just 6,000 bottles are made each year.)
In an attempt to improve the quality and increase the appeal of Crémant de Bourgogne, two new categories have been introduced. Eminent refers to a wine which has been aged for at least 24 months on its lees in the bottle, while Grand Eminent must be aged for at least 36 months - the same as vintage champagne - and must be made from the first press from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes.
The seven Crémants I tasted were all consistently good quality and good value, all between $15 and $30. Cave de Lugny in Mâconnais and Bailly Lapierre, based just south of Chablis, are the two biggest producers of Crémant de Bourgogne. Cave de Lugny's 2016 Blanc de Noirs, made from Pinot Noir and Gamay, was fruity, chewy, almost tannic, and lacking finesse (€11; ✪✪✪). More successful was Lapierre's 2014 Blanc de Blancs, made from Chardonnay grown in the much cooler north-west Burgundy - reserved, almost austere, with high acidity, and faint aromas of green apples and limes ($15; ✪✪✪✪). Another large producer is Veuve Ambal, whose Grande Cuvée is made from all four permitted grape varieties. This was a fun wine, fruity, yeasty, spicy, and easy drinking ($15; ✪✪✪✪). The highlight was from Louis Bouillot (owned by Boisset). Their 2009 Perle d'Or (80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir) has seen a little bit of oak and was complex and mature, with aromas of red apples, peaches, honeysuckle, bread, brioche, vanilla beans, cinnamon, white pepper, and - yes - crabcakes ($30; ✪✪✪✪✪).
This was the one wine which would hold its own alongside champagnes, but, despite the similarities in climate and varieties, perhaps that is a comparison one should not look for in Crémant de Bourgogne. Instead, the focus seems to be on consistent quality at good value - there's certainly no way one would ever find champagne at these prices. As the best grapes will always be for still wine, this approach makes sense. The challenge is for enough producers to focus on Crémant de Bourgogne to create a commercial niche for the wines.