Cremant seems to have it all in terms of image: it has the kudos of a premium French sparkling wine, admittedly not quite as much as Champagne, but definitely the Next Best Thing. At the same time, crémant represents good value for money, something that Champagne doesn't always quite manage.
So it's a shame that the classic French crémants are not better known to UK consumers. Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the subject of this tasting, Crémant d'Alsace, all make delightful aperitifs. Fresh, sparkling and clean, produced by a meticulous and labour-intensive method, often to a high standard and sold at reasonable prices - perfect ingredients for a good house fizz.
Why, then, do they pop up so rarely on restaurant wine lists? Perhaps the concept of a crémant is not sufficiently understood on this side of the Channel. Crémants are French sparkling wines made under strict AOC regulations by the same method as Champagne, the méthode traditionnelle. This means, among other things, that the wine undergoes second fermentation in its bottle, trapping the gas in the liquid under a temporary closure, before the yeast sediment is disgorged and the bottle is topped up and closed with a classic cork and wire. This is the production method by which all the greatest sparkling wines in the world are made.
In Alsace, on the eastern border of France, crémant production is a very important part of the wine industry. An astonishing 500 producers make Crémant d'Alsace, and it accounts for one in every 10 bottles of Alsace wine. It's not the best-known style of Alsace wine in the UK, but whenever I have visited the region, I have been offered plenty of Crémant d'Alsace, usually as an aperitif, and I've been impressed by its fruity flavour, crisp, clean mousse and finely balanced acidity.
Crémant d'Alsace is made from several grape varieties, most often Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but also Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and, more rarely, Chardonnay. The grapes come from throughout the AOC region of Alsace, and they are usually picked at the beginning of the harvest, to make the most of higher acid levels and delicate flavours in the fruit.
Caterer decided to put a group of Crémants d'Alsace to the test. My happy experiences of drinking this wine in situ were one thing - we wondered how these sparkling wines would stand up to a blind tasting and some serious critical appraisal.
We tasted the sparklers in the opulent deep-blue-and-gold-painted Le Pin room of the Hotel du Vin in Bristol. The judges were Sue Crabtree, wine educator and writer; Mathieu Longuère, award-winning sommelier at the Hotel du Vin; Peter Taylor, chef-owner of the River Station restaurant, also in Bristol; freelance wine writer Susy Atkins; and Caterer's wine editor Fiona Sims.
We tasted 19 dry crémants from Alsace. The majority were non-vintage although we did taste a few fairly youthful vintage wines. Most of our samples cost well below £100 per case of 12 bottles excluding VAT. They were made from several different grape varieties.
The tasters' notes appeared to identify two very different styles of Crémant d'Alsace: one that was sherbety, lemony, very fresh and light, and another that was much richer, yeastier and creamier. "There's a wide range here," concluded Taylor, "and the rich ones seemed atypical, even though some of them tasted good. The lighter, fresher flavour is what I had expected, so I am quite surprised to find such a marked difference stylistically between the bottles."
Crabtree agreed that on the basis of this tasting it was difficult to know what to expect from Crémant d'Alsace. "On this evidence the quality is pretty high," she said, "but you really need to know what each producer's style is like when you buy it." Some of the wines were very similar to cava - fresh, appley and clean, but fairly neutral. Then again, maybe that's all the punter is looking for in an inexpensive fizz. Sims chipped in with a similar thought. "I wasn't expecting much complexity, and I didn't get it," she said. "Still, some of these were appealingly fresh and crisp sparklers."
The tasting produced a wide range of marks, with a trio of star wines, a high number of runners-up, and some disappointing duds. At the end of the tasting, the panel agreed that the standard of the best wines was very high indeed. Taylor and Longuère, our restaurant-trade panellists, both commented that they would make excellent house sparklers either served as aperitifs or with light snacks and starters.
The price is the deciding factor, they concluded. "You can put these sparkling wines on a list, as well as Champagne, to give customers a less expensive alternative that still has the sound and style of a classic French fizz." In other words, the top Crémants d'Alsace offer the best of both worlds.