Crémant de Bourgogne in the Cotes d’Or
31st August 2021
The Burgundy region has long been established as the home of high-quality wine. There is evidence that vines were planted there by Celtic settlers in the first century BC and that the Romans also planted and cultivated them in their quest to bring wine to much of Europe. But it is the medieval monks of the Catholic Church who had the greatest influence on the scale and quality of production in the region, as they nurtured the concept and possibilities of the terroir, creating fine wines that were as comfortable adding decadence to their sacramental altars as they were adding grace to the tables of the Dukes of Burgundy. Two hundred million years ago this area was a seabed, now transformed into limestone soil studded with the fossils of sea creatures. From this fertile, mineral-rich earth have emerged the world-famous Chablis, Cotes de Beaune and Pouilly-Foussé. It is on the shoulders of these giants that Crémant de Bourgogne rests.
Sparkling wine has been produced in the region since the 19th Century and in 1975 it gained the appellation of Crémant de Bourgogne. Crémant was a term originating in the neighbouring Champagne region, denoting sparkling wine made in the methode traditionelle with its second fermentation taking place in the bottle to produce the intense bubbles that are acclaimed the world over. The fact that Crémant de Bourgogne is produced in this method and that much of it is made using the same Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, lead many to make comparisons with champagne. However, this is where the similarities end.
Although its style is rooted in Champagne, its heritage, character and structure are entirely its own. Some people will be satisfied to find in Burgundy a cheap alternative to its formidable neighbour. However, those looking to find the unique flavours and essence of the appellation will be captivated by what they discover there.
The chalky earth to the north of Burgundy that stretches across the regional border to Champagne gives way to granite in the south, leading to both challenges and opportunities. Pinot Noir does not grow especially well on granite soil but Gamay thrives on it and the blanc de noirs and rosés produced with a combination of these two grapes burst with flavours of fresh red berries and rose petals. The use of Aligoté, Sacy, Pinot Gris and Melon in the blanc de blancs, long-established in the noble tradition of still whites of this region, take on a spirit of their own in this sparkling incarnation, bringing notes of orchard fruits, gooseberries and toasted brioche.
The rise in demand for sparkling wine across the world has led to a changing landscape in some areas of Burgundy, as fields and forests are transformed into new vineyards to keep up the production levels. Take a tour through the Cotes d’Or and you will see that it is dotted with newly emerging stumps that will soon blossom into the increasingly popular bubbles that are now the drink of choice of many modern wine-drinkers. For one hundred years there was no wine production in the Cotes d’Or after parasites destroyed the crops. In the 1980s production restarted, with crémant at its core and although this region is at the cutting-edge of current trends in wine-drinking there is still an understated charm within the area. Many vineyard owners refer to themselves as simply, ‘farmers,’ like generations of others before them, and the styling of their bottles is often simple and subdued, making the product within seem even more of a revelation.
Take a tour of just a few vineyards along the 120 kilometres of the Route de Crémant de Bourgogne and you’ll soon start to develop a taste for their superb wines. Fabien Guilleman in Marcenay is one such producer, whose award-winning range of crémants will take you on a journey of the flavours of the region and the best that the terroir has to offer. The tasting begins with his sharp, zesty award-winning Brut Tradition, moving through to the woody-notes of the Élégance, the mature sultana flavours of the rosé, the deep brûlée tones in the Lamoureuse and finally to the black label Prestige whose fine bubbles and refined flavours of pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay are as balanced as they are complex. Bursts of fresh green apples and honeydew melon give way to notes of toasted coconut and minerals from the limestone of the ancient seabed. It finishes with ripe gooseberries on the lips. According to Fabien, it is like drinking geology.
In nearby Belan-sur-Ource nestles a laid-back vineyard belonging to the Girard family. Once again, it’s an explosion of flavours as each bottle is sampled. The dominant grape here is pinot noir and it lends itself to some interesting expressions across the range. The rosé is deep raspberry-coloured with rich flavours of red fruits and rose petals. The Blanc de Noir has a slight apricot hue to it when held to the light, known as the ‘eye of the partridge,’ a visual reminder of the deep purple grape skins that were removed before fermentation. This is a truly extraordinary wine, with hints of sherbet, salted butterscotch and melon and a lingering aftertaste of lychee and sweet grapefruit.
Sylvain Bouhelier is both a producer and promoter of crémant de Bourgogne, having established a small Musée du Vin in Chaumont-le-Bois, alongside his tasting-room and shop. He farms on six hectares of land and produces five different crémants. The first in the tasting is a straight chardonnay, extra brut, low in sulphates and high in flavour. Its time on the lees and then its four years of bottle-ageing, result in notes of ripe mango, apples and buttered toast encapsulated in a deep golden wine. Moving through his range he explains the different grapes and production techniques using steel and oak ageing in varying measures to produce the differences in style, colour and flavour. His final offering is the elegantly styled Cuvée Celtisimme, featuring an ancient gold necklace on its label, paying homage to the region’s important history. The necklace was that of a Celtic princess whose decadent funeral room was unearthed in nearby Vix in 1953. Sylvain’s crémant is a treasure worthy of such adornment.
The crémants of the Cote d’Or are truly gastronomic in style: they come to life with food. They are not to be served simply as aperitifs but have enough body and substance to accompany a full meal, especially one that features the fresh terrines and goats’ cheeses of the region or desserts, such as caramalised apple tarts or crème brûlée. These small producers may not yet have claimed their places on the world’s stage but their wine is exquisite, their terroir is rooted in both history and the future and once you have begun to explore the vast range of flavours they offer you will stop comparing them to champagne and start appreciating the sheer splendour of Crémant de Bourgogne in its own right. Who knows, you might even grow to prefer it.
Written by: Angela Chester
Freelance writer specialising in travel, food and wine
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