Champagne vs Crémant sparkling wine: What’s the difference?

Champagne vs Crémant

Crémant sparkling wines can be a delicious, affordable alternative to Champagne, and the wines are produced in a similar way, although the reputation of Champagne houses and growers for making some of the world’s most complex and long-lived styles is unrivalled.

Geography

Champagne can only come from designated vineyards within the Champagne region in northern France; its intricate web of vineyards and miles of underground cellars sit on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Crémant sparkling wines can only come from specific regions, too, although many are more famous for producing still wines. They include:

  • Crémant de Bourgogne
  • Crémant de Loire
  • Crémant de Limoux
  • Crémant de Jura
  • Crémant d’Alsace
  • Crémant de Bordeaux
  • Crémant de Die – in the Rhône Valley
  • Crémant de Savoie.

Beyond French borders, you can also find Crémant de Luxembourg.

The Method

Champagne and Crémant wines get their sparkle from the ‘traditional method’, which involves creating the conditions for a secondary fermentation inside the bottle. You might have seen this referred to as the ‘Champagne method’.

Prosecco, for example, is better known for using the ‘tank method’, also known as the Charmat method.

Bottles of Crémant and Champagne must also be aged ‘on lees’ for minimum periods, which can bring extra body and complexity to the wines.

Lees, which are essentially dead yeast cells left over from fermentation, can also bring those brioche and bread-like aromas to a sparkling wine.

Rules stipulate at least nine months of lees ageing for Crémant in many cases, although there are variations and some wineries choose to extend the process, too. The ‘Eminent’ and ‘Grand Eminent’ tiers for Crémant de Bourgogne wines involve extended lees ageing.

In Champagne, non-vintage styles must be aged for at least 12 months on lees. The minimum ageing period for vintage wines is three years, according to the Comité Champagne. In reality, many of the best Champagnes are aged for much longer.

Taste

You’ll find lots of variation in house styles, not to mention climates, but the use of different grape varieties can affect flavour.

Champagne is mainly all about Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

Many Crémant wines tend to reflect grape varieties grown in their home regions, as Sue Style explains in more detail in this article on premium French Crémant wines to try.

Decanter’s James Button recently praised the balance of apple, creaminess and freshness of this Crémant d’Alsace, made from 63% Auxerrois, with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, for example.

Georgina Hindle praised the blend of summer red fruits, biscuit-like hints and balanced acidity of this Crémant de Bordeaux rosé, made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

While a number of regional Crémants use Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir to a greater or lesser extent , you can expect see Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc exerting their influence in the Loire Valley, Clairette in the Rhône, or Trousseau with some Savagnin in Jura, too.

In Limoux, Crémant is predominantly Chardonnay and Chenin, with Mauzac in support. However, Blanquette de Limoux, another traditional method sparkling wine, is where the local Mauzac grape dominates.

Crémant de Bourgogne has a natural bias towards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, its principal grape varieties for Burgundy’s world-famous still wines, although others are cleared for use. There can be up to 20% Gamay in rosé, for example.

Do Crémant wines keep in the cellar like Champagne?

Not all Champagnes improve with age, and some vintage Crémants can age for years, as Andrew Jefford highlighted after tasting a 2005-vintage Crémant de Bourgogne from Louis Bouillot.

However, vintage Champagne is renowned as one of the world’s most complex and long-lived wines. Crémant does not currently rival Champagne in terms of the sheer number of ageworthy wines that are widely available from different houses and growers.

‘Like Blanquette de Limoux, Crémant de Limoux should be enjoyed preferably within two years of purchase and chilled to 6 or 7°C,’ says the Limoux producers’ union.

Rob MacCulloch MW previously told Decanter that Crémant wines did not generally age as well as Champagne.

‘Crémants generally have a higher pH and phenolic content than Champagne, with low levels of both being crucial for longevity in sparkling wine,’ he said.

Disputed history

If you travel to Limoux, south of Carcassonne, you may hear that Benedictine monks created the world’s first sparkling wine at nearby St-Hilaire in 1531. Some believe that this may have been accidental, as Oz Clarke notes in his book ‘the history of wine in 100 bottles‘.

Champagne houses, however, are credited with perfecting and popularising the traditional method over several centuries, even if the English lent a helping hand at the beginning, as some have argued.


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Source: Chris Mercer