French Sparkling Wines — They’re Not All Champagne

We were in for a treat last Thursday night at Fine Wines of Stockton. We tasted a collection of French sparkling wines, but none were Champagne. What’s the difference you ask. Well, it boils down to location, production methods and allowed varieties.

According to French wine law, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region, from specific grape varieties and in a prescribed manner may be labelled Champagne. The laws regulating the production of Champagne are very strict and detailed. High standards can come with a high price, literally. Champagne can be very expensive.

Not to worry, there are many lovely examples of sparkling wine made elsewhere in France using similar methods and a variety of grapes that produce delicious and affordable alternatives to Champagne. We tasted six such sparkling wines in this tasting.

2010 Saint-Hilarie Blanquette de Limoux2010 Saint-Hilarie Blanquette de Limouxlight yellow in the glass with abundant, tiny bubbles. Yeasty scents are followed by lemony, steely, toasty flavors. This wine is weightless, has bracing acidity and a long, clean finish. The flavors are delicate and long lasting at the same time. An amazing glass of wine. 12% ABV.

This sparkling wine is named for Abbe Saint-Hilarie, whose Benedictine monks were producing Blanquette de Limoux as early as 1531, well ahead of anyone in the Champagne region. Limoux is located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, near the Pyrenees Mountains.

Blanquette de Limoux is produced using the same method as Champagne. Separate still wines are vinified from each grape variety that will comprise the base wine. The blend is then created and bottled with the addition of liqueur de tirage (sugar and yeast) to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle.

The by-product of this fermentation, carbon dioxide, cannot escape the sealed bottle and is forced into solution creating bubbly wine! The wine must rest for a minimum of nine months before disgorgement and final corking.

Blanquette de Limoux AOC designation requires that Mauzac be at least 90% of the blend with only Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc allowed to make-up the remaining 10%. The Blanquette de Limoux AOC requirements are intended to preserve the use of the indigenous Mauzac variety and thus the Blanquette style. How nice to have tradition maintained.

The blend of the 2010 Saint-Hilarie Blanquette de Limoux is, 90% Mauzac, 5% Chenin Blanc, 5% Chardonnay. The vineyards grow in clay limestone soils that enjoy a Mediterranean climate. The wine is bottle-aged for a minimum of 12 months.

A fun fact: Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Blanquette de Limoux. Me too.

2008 Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Premium Millésimé2008 Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Premium Millésimélight yellow in the glass with lots of medium-sized bubbles. Distinct, but fleeting aromas of pear are followed by yeasty, toasty flavors and green apples. This wine is distinctive for its very round feel in the mouth and its creamy texture. It has good acidity, but the finish is not quite completely clean.

Saumur AOC is located in the central portion of the Loire Valley, where still red and white wines as well a sparkling wines are made from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. Sparkling wines are made in the traditional method, as in Champagne, with Chenin Blanc often comprising the major proportion of the blend.

The 2008 Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Premium Millésimé is a blend of 70% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, 10% Cabernet Franc. Wines are aged in limestone cellars below the vineyards which maintains a constant cool temperature. The producer attributes the roundness of this wine to the Cabernet Franc in the blend.

In case you were wondering, Millésimé on the label indicates all wine come from a single vintage – in this case 2008. It is not an indication of quality.

Both the 2008 Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Premium Millésimé and the 2010 Saint-Hilarie Blanquette de Limoux are vintage sparkling wines, that is grapes used in the vinification of the wine are all harvested in the same year. The following sparkling wines are non vintage (NV), which means wine from more than one vintage may be used in their production.

Marquis de la Tour BrutMarquis de la Tour Brutlight yellow with lots of bigger bubbles. Floral aromas spill over to the flavors along with tropical fruit and toasty, yeasty notes in the background. Very round in the mouth, with good acidity and a bit of citrus pith in the finish, which lingers. ABV 11%.

Marquis de la Tour Brut is also produced in Saumur, in the central portion of the Loire Valley. The base wine is a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Ugni Blanc.

This sparkling wine is made in a slightly different method called Méthode Charmat (you will also see it called Tank Method or Bulk Method). The second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank, instead of individual bottles. After clarification (instead of disgorgement) the sparkling wine is bottled.

This method of vinification is less expensive, and allows the aromatic qualities of varieties such as Riesling and Muscat to be preserved. It is used in the production of Prosecco which is made using the delicately-flavored variety called Glera.

Charles Lafitte Brut Prestige Sparkling Wine

Charles Lafitte Brut Prestige Sparkling Wine light yellow with abundant bubbles in the glass. Wheat and toasted bread scents are obvious, followed by similar flavors along with green tea. This wine has a creamy texture, good acidity for a clean, long finish with complex flavors. ABV 11.5%.

This wine is something of a mystery. Charles Lafitte sparkling wine is made at Domaines Listel, which is noted in small print on the bottom of the label, located near Montpellier in the Languedoc-Roussilon region.

There is no indication as to the production method used to make this wine, so presumably it a Bulk Method wine. If a Traditional Method were used, it would most certainly be indicated on the bottle.

The Charles Lafitte is identified as Brut on the bottle which indicates the wine is considered “dry”, that is not perceivably sweet.

Domaine Bott Frères Cuvée Nicole Crémant d’AlsaceDomaine Bott Frères Cuvée Nicole Crémant d’Alsacemedium yellow, a bit darker than the rest with lots of bubbles. Caramel apple aromas with flavors of ripe, sweeter apples and toasty, yeasty notes in the background. This wine is round in the mouth, and has a long, clean finish. Very complex flavors. Lovely.

Crémant d’Alsace is an AOC designation and requires the use of the Traditional Method used in Champagne.  Only specific grape varieties are allowed, among them Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, which comprise the blend of this base wine. The wine is aged 12 months on the lees, before disgorgement and final corking.

Whenever you see Crémant on a bottle the Traditional Method will be used in its production.

Toad Hollow Amplexus Crémant BrutToad Hollow Amplexus Crémant Brutlight yellow in the glass with lots of fine bubbles. Citrus and grape flavors predominate on the nose and in the flavors as well. This wine is very light in the mouth, has good acidity and a clean finish. ABV 12.5%.

This sparkling wine is produced around Limoux in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France just like the first wine in this group. Because it is labeled Crémant, we know it is made using the same method as Champagne.

It is not labeled Blanquette de Limoux however, though it is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc grapes. I do not have the proportions of the blend, but presume Mauzac does not comprise the required minimum of 90% to be labeled Blanquette de Limoux. No matter, it is still delicious and shares the same very light mouthfeel as the Blanquette de Limoux.

So, next time you are looking for a French wine with bubbles, but can’t or choose not to spend a lot on it, remember you have choices other than Champagne. The sparkling wines in this tasting ranged in price from $14.50 to $25.50.

A Blanquette de Limoux or a Crémant will be made using a similar method to Champagne. Many will have great acidity, a clean finish and interesting flavors. Plus, you’ll have a few extra dollars in your pocket.


Comments are closed.