Crémant de Bourgogne: When fizz is the bizz
By Alexandra Reveillon – Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 03 February 2022
World renowned grape varieties, fruit grown over a mosaic of vineyard sites and particularly high standards are some of the defining features of Crémant de Bourgogne, recognised as an appellation since 1975. They have helped establish a reputation for the Burgundy sparkler in wine markets at home and abroad. We dissect the reasons for the wines’ success.
Don't be misled by the official birth date of the Crémant de Bourgogne appellation d'origine contrôlée: the region was home to bubbles long before 1975. Like the Loire, Bugey, Die and Limoux, it has a long-standing tradition of making sparkling wines. By the 19th century, Chablis, Rully and Nuits-Saint-Georges were already hiving off part of their crop to make sparkling wine. The ancestral method, Charmat technique and carbonation were just some of the multiple techniques used at the time, leading to significant disparities between the wines. Despite this, in 1975, INAO decided to define a set of rules for making fizz in Burgundy, just as in the Loire Valley. The Crémant appellation was born, with a shared set of specifications - among the most stringent in the French wine industry - and local disparities, thereby revolutionising Burgundy sparkling wines.
Extremely strict specifications
Burgundy’s premier grape varieties Pinot noir and Chardonnay hold a majority share of the Crémant blend. The wine must contain at least 30% of one of the two varieties.
Hand picking, compulsory use of the traditional method and bottle maturing for at least nine months are some of the prerequisites. “The specifications for Crémant de Bourgogne are restrictive. It requires time, space and manpower”, explains Sylvain Martinand, the winemaker at the Bailly-Lapierre cooperative since 2008. “We are required to harvest by hand and separate the juices... Crémant costs much more to produce than basic sparkling wine, but the constraints are unavoidable if you want to make a quality wine”. Crémant de Bourgogne is a regional appellation, akin to Bourgogne, Bourgogne Aligoté and Coteaux Bourguignons. It is grown on the same vineyard sites and made from the same grape varieties, whose reputation dates back aeons.
Grape varieties with an international reputation
Hence, Pinot noir and Chardonnay must account for at least 30% of the blends. However, downgrading wines destined for still appellations to make sparkling wines is out of the question: vineyard areas earmarked for Crémant must be declared by the spring. “In any case, the vines require different management techniques”, comments Martinand. “For still wines, we manage Pinot noir in such a way that it produces colour and tannins. For a Crémant, we aim primarily for fruitiness”. The reputation of the kings of Burgundy grape varieties is firmly established but winegrowers willingly blend them with more under-the-radar grapes. In Marcenay, in the Châtillon area, Fabien Guilleman gets his creative juices flowing with Pinot gris and Aligoté to make successful wines. Sylvain Martinand is focusing instead on the imminent revival of Sacy, which was traditionally planted in Yonne. “It is a very productive and very late-ripening variety, which should make a comeback in decades to come due to global warming and late frosts that make the earlier varieties challenging to work with..."
The search for quality, outside the specifications box
From Auxerre to Côte Chalonnaise and the Châtillon area, Crémant de Bourgogne producers are not shy when it comes to going beyond the basic AOC requirements in a bid to constantly ramp up quality, using a different varietal range, increasing sourcing options or focusing on single vineyards, and lengthening ageing time. The proof that the strategy is effective is in the tasting... when people actually taste the wines. “Our wines sell well, once we get people to taste them. People rarely come to us, however, on their own initiative”, explains Matthieu Dangin, winemaker and winegrower at Molesme, in the Châtillonnais. Too often compared to Champagne, Crémant de Bourgogne suffers from a lack of awareness. “It's all about image: you'll always make more of an impression with a €10 bottle of Champagne than you will with a similarly priced Crémant, and yet, one is an entry-level wine, whereas a €10 Crémant is already high-end”.
In Champagne’s shadow
Henri Champliau Crémants are matured in the dark, in warehouses where the hygrometry levels are controlled.
The comparison infuriates Sylvain Martinand, who cannot imagine pitting one still wine region against another. “We would never compare a Pommard to a Haut-Brion, or a top white Burgundy to a Condrieu! Crémant de Bourgogne encapsulates our culture and expertise, it is not meant to be compared with the most basic wines from another AOC. There is room for everyone!” Comparisons may well persist in France, but when it comes to exports, Crémant de Bourgogne is on a roll: 44% of the wines are sold outside France, from the United Kingdom to Italy, via North America, Asia and Scandinavia. The percentage is constantly rising, and the pandemic barely put a dent in it. Burgundy sparkling wine undeniably has a bright future ahead of it!
Domaine Guilleman, an unexpected Crémant with a difference
After studying viticulture and winemaking in Burgundy, and completing a placement in Champagne, Fabien Guilleman chose his side: Crémant de Bourgogne.
Welcome to Haute-Bourgogne, aka the Châtillonnais. Located over an hour and a half from Beaune, the Marcenay wine region seems to have more in common with neighbouring Champagne, barely 25 kms away. From a philosophical perspective, Fabien Guilleman’s heart is split between the two. “I studied in Burgundy and did my placement in Champagne”, he quips. One all, next question. Since then, Guilleman has been managing his 4.5 hectares of vines with one objective: to stand out from the crowd. Here, Crémant de Bourgogne has a virtual monopoly over production. At Domaine Guilleman, sparkling wine accounts for 95% of the 10,000 bottles produced annually. “I don't even make Bourgogne every year”, admits Guilleman. From vine pruning – where the canes are left longer to retain acidity – to winemaking techniques, the single-minded purpose is to make Crémant.
Pinot noir and Chardonnay take the lion's share of the varietal range, but Guilleman also has a few small blocks of Aligoté and Pinot gris, which he uses in his blends to add complexity to his sparkling wines. “Pinot gris is a grape variety that very quickly leaves its stamp on the wines. It is more aromatic, less acidic, and more unexpected”, he explains. “Crémant is a blended wine. The more years and tanks you have and the more varied the varietal range, the easier it is to compensate for faults or shortcomings”. Altogether, Fabien Guilleman has six different labels, including one aged in oak, which he sells with the same philosophy. You won’t find his wines in importers’ portfolios or supermarkets, he sells most of his stock to private customers visiting the estate, as well as a few dozen bottles to the nearby supermarket. His finest ambassadors are local English ex-pats, who have a particular weak spot for Crémant!
Domaine Bruno Dangin, the call of organic
It’s pointless looking for still wines here. Most Crémant de Bourgogne producers specialise in the various white and red wine appellations across Burgundy but not so at Domaine Bruno Dangin. Here, sparkling wines rule the roost, which is not surprising considering the property’s history. Bruno Dangin and his son Matthieu, both winegrowers and winemakers, come from a family that has been based in neighbouring Champagne for several generations. They felt the need to produce organic wines. Were they tempted to convert the family estate? “That’s impossible. There are 12 partners and we don't all have the same desires”, explains Matthieu Dangin. The vineyards of Champagne are expensive and organic is not profitable enough, so they quickly proved to be out of reach. There was another option, though. Located 3 km from the village of Les Riceys – capital of the Côte des Bar – the village of Molesmes, in the Châtillonnais, tipped the balance in favour of Burgundy. Since 2011, the two have been growing Pinot noir and Chardonnay on limestone soils with pronounced minerality. “They are so hard that we broke the ploughs on them the first year”, they recall. The vines, planted in the 1970s, were converted to organic as soon as they arrived, and now produce taut, lively and delicate Crémants. It is difficult not to draw a parallel with the Champagnes produced by the family a stone’s throw away. “At blind tastings, it is difficult to tell them apart”, admits Matthieu Dangin. “Even the most seasoned tasters make mistakes”.
Admittedly, the Dangins lavish much care and attention on their sparkling wines. Their Prestige de Narcès label, which is both fruity and mineral, energetic and delightful, is the best example. Produced from the oldest vines on the estate, it is made using single-vineyard fermentation in tanks with no added sulphites. Its fine bubbles bowled over even the American sommeliers at Madison Eleven Park, crowned best restaurant in the world in 2017. “They didn't have any Crémant on the wine list. We are the first, and we have been on the list since 2017”, says a visibly proud Matthieu Dangin. Combining French provenance with bubbles and organic credentials, the wine ticks all the boxes to appeal to foreign markets. Unsurprisingly, exports represent over 80% of the company's sales, spearheaded by Italy, the United States and Denmark.
Bailly-Lapierre, the catalyst for Crémant de Bourgogne
Sylvain Martinand has been the winemaker at the Bailly-Lapierre winery since 2008. He matures the wines for much longer than appellation regulations stipulate.
Founded in 1972, the Bailly-Lapierre winery is inseparable from the history of Crémant de Bourgogne. Sparkling base wines, which were then sold en masse to Germany, were experiencing a serious crisis and winegrowers in the Auxerre region found themselves with vines and wines on their hands, with no storage space or sales outlets. They decided to create a co-operative winery, which they set up in a 4.5 hectare mushroom farm in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux. Three years later, the Crémant de Bourgogne appellation was born, providing the winery with long-awaited prospects. “In the early years, 90% of Crémant de Bourgogne was made at the winery”, says Sylvain Martinand. Almost half a century later, the co-operative is still a key player in the Crémant de Bourgogne market, with sales of 3 million bottles out of a total 17 to 20 million bottles distributed annually worldwide.
Marked by the minerality and tension typical of the vineyards of Yonne, Bailly-Lapierre-crafted Crémants stand out for their Pinot noir-dominant varietal range, which represents 70% of the total. In all, the winery produces a dozen labels, from the Brut Reserve to the Blanc de Blancs, including the Blanc de Noirs and the rosés. The single varietal Pinot noir Blanc de Noirs has a distinctively pale gold colour with silvery green highlights. Its nose, marked by aromas of fresh grapes, plums and mirabelle plums mixed with touches of red fruit, flows into a vinous yet fresh palate. Complex and invigorating, it illustrates the winery’s expertise and high standards, which go far beyond the appellation’s requirements. Produced since 2006, the Vive la Joie label is the co-operative’s premium Crémant. “We keep it on laths for 3 to 6 years, and we disgorge it about 6 months before release”, explains Martinand. “This way, we can leverage conditions and secure the best price points for the wines”. The strategy has attracted interest across the globe. From wine merchants and hospitality outlets to private customers, supermarkets and exports, Bailly-Lapierre is increasing the scope of its sales network in France and abroad. Driven by growing demand for bubbles around the world, Bailly-Lapierre's Crémant can be found in North America as well as in Japan, Germany and Norway.
Domaine Henri Champliau, the personal touch
Alexandre Graffard is passionate about wine and switched to Crémant de Bourgogne just before he turned forty.
When he started making Crémant de Bourgogne in 2016, Alexandre Graffard was convinced that some of his fruit, from outstanding blocks, would systematically feature in his wines. Five years later, his observation couldn’t be more different. “Vintage variation is so significant that we never select the same plot or the same tank!” he recounts. Capitalising on differences in site-expressiveness, forging his own personal style and adding his own personal touch to his Crémants is what the forty-year-old was aiming for when he founded Domaine Henri Champliau. “I wasn't lucky enough to inherit 50 hectares of vines”, he jokes. But Graffard saw the opportunity to establish his own legitimacy by carefully selecting his supplies from vineyard plots specifically farmed to produce Crémants de Bourgogne. “I deliberately did not choose still wines: it would have been more difficult for me to have my own style. Single vineyard blocks depend entirely on the winegrowers. With Crémant, the winemaker can create his own blend, his own maturation style and his own dosage... That’s a real bonus!”
He focuses on Pinot noir, which he favours for its vinous side and to stand out from the crowd. “Chardonnay, which represents 15% of the blend, is only there to impart freshness, tension and an airy touch to the Pinot noir.” The rosé, conversely, contains 10% Gamay, which is prized for its roundness. Matured in a darkened warehouse with controlled hygrometry, Henri Champliau's Crémants are matured for much longer than the nine months imposed by production specifications. The result is fine, balanced sparkling wines, marked by trademark Pinot noir notes of red fruits.
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