Cremant d’Alsace pops with success

Cremant d’Alsace is France’s go-to sparkling wine. The French consume more of it at home than sparkling wine from any other wine area than Champagne, according to the Conseil Interprofessionnel Vins d’Alsace, Alsace vintners’ trade association.

Cremant, literally “creamy” in French, is the term used for appellation-specific sparkling wines made all over France, from Alsace to Limoux, using the traditional method for making Champagne. With slightly less pressure in the bottle than Champagne, cremant is indeed often creamier and less angular.

Alhough Jean-Philippe Archambaud, director of Simonnet-Febvre, a leading producer of Burgundy’s Cremant de Bourgogne, describes overall cremant sales as “through the roof in Europe,” the rise in popularity of Cremant d’Alsace is particularly striking.

It has become so popular that it now comprises about a quarter of Alsace’s entire wine output, 30 million bottles annually, up from 2 million bottles a year in 1982. Alsace producers embrace production of cremant because they can harvest the grapes for sparkling wine earlier than for still wines to capture acidity. The earlier harvest means less risk of a harvest ruined by fall rains.

As for consumers? They have caught on that it’s a value-packed alternative to Champagne. U.S. sales for Cremant d’Alsace are relatively small, about 300,000 bottles a year, compared with 18 million bottles of Champagne. But they seem to be climbing as well, according to David Netzer, co-owner of the Wine House in San Francisco. Sales of all his cremant, including Cremant d’Alsace, have risen steadily. Netzer’s theory is that consumers were driven to it during the depths of the economic crisis three or four years ago as a cheaper alternative to Champagne. Since then, they became converted when they discovered its quality.

In the past, and still today, some Champagne houses such as Mumm or Lilbert-Fils produced a cremant Champagne. But recently the Champenois agreed to a change in appellation regulations. They agreed to drop the term in return for sparkling-wine producers eliminating “methode champenoise” from their labels. You now see “methode traditionelle” on bottles of Cremant d’Alsace; both indicate that secondary fermentation occurred in the bottle and that the wine aged on its lees, practices that enhance complexity.

Of course, Champagne is typically made from three grapes: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s more complicated for Cremant d’Alsace.

Pinot Blanc is the mainstay grape for blancs de blanc, although producers are authorized to use Auxerrois, which adds substance; Riesling, which adds additional energy to the flavors; Pinot Gris for roundness; and even Chardonnay, a grape not widely grown in Alsace and permitted only for cremant.

But to my mind, the real standout Cremant d’Alsace is rosé. In those, producers must use only Pinot Noir.

A Taste of Cremant

NV Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé Cremant d’Alsace
($18; 12.5% alcohol): Appealing hints of strawberry fruit burst forth from this beautifully pink bubbly. Its creaminess makes it an excellent aperitif. But it has plenty of verve and body to stand up to food. Albrecht is in bankruptcy and has just been purchased by Wolfberger, an Alsace cooperative. It says nothing will change, but I’d stock up just in case. (Importer: Pasternak Wine Imports)NV Allimant-Laugne Brut Rosé Cremant d’Alsace ($21; 12.5%): Think wild strawberries enveloped by a creamy mousse. A great choice for a celebration, but its firm backbone also makes it perfect for the dinner table. The complexity of Pinot is apparent in its showstopping finish. (Importer: Vigneron Imports)NV Gustave Lorentz Brut Cremant d’Alsace ($22; 12.5%): Lorentz, a top Alsace producer, has fashioned a soothing yet invigorating dry version with plenty of density from Chardonnay (60 percent) and equal parts Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Sushi, anyone? (Importer: Quintessential)2009 Dirler-Cadé Cremant d’Alsace Brut ($19; 12.5%): Dirler-Cadé, another top Alsace producer, has been certified organic and biodynamic since 2007. This blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Auxerrois imparts a lush combination of red fruit, creaminess and minerality. Don’t miss it. (Importer: APS Wine and Spirits)

November 26, 2012