So, pricey, ostentatious and consigned to being sprayed over newlyweds, new ships or Grand Prix champions, Champagne doesn’t play anything like the part other wines do in wine lovers’ lives. Who considers it, for instance, to go with food (for which it’s well-suited and versatile), or as an aperitif on a Tuesday?
Yet the lightest and driest Champagne, a Blanc de blancs (made from 100% Chardonnay) is a great aperitif and, with floral and citrus notes, roundly accompanies meals with simple flavours; a Blanc de noirs (made from berry-flavoured Pinot Noir and/or fruity and floral Pinot Meunier) goes with more robust dishes. Food pairing options are extended by Champagne’s wide range of styles: brut, sec, demi-sec, doux (from dry to sweet). It comes in pink, too.
However, the good news for wine lovers in France looking to bring sparkle into their wine lives is the many domestic rivals to over-priced Champagne. Almost every French wine region produces a forcefully bubbly Crémant or Mousseux made like Champagne, by the Méthode Traditionnelle – with a second fermentation in the bottle – and some are made with Champagne grapes. They are equally versatile with distinctive personalities from unique terroirs.
Arguably the best are the crisp and clean Crémants d’Alsace. The finest are floral, herbal and even spicy blends of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. A ‘Top of the Pops’ should also include the Loire’s Chenin Blanc-based Vouvray Mousseux. The best are fresh, dry, complex and savoury, with telltale notes of apple and honey. Sadly, a fair amount of Vouvray is industrial and imperfect.
Still, the Loire produces France’s most famous other ‘Champagne’, Saumur d’Origine; and one that’s supposed to be better than all the Loire’s sparklers: Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc-based Crémant de Loire. Tourraine Mousseux is worthy, too. Choose carefully, there are excellent wines here.
Crémant de Bourgogne is high in the top 10. Made from Burgundy grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc, good examples have refreshing mineral dryness, austerity and balance reminiscent of Champagne. Aged 9 months before release (3 years for Champagne), they’re made exclusively from the first pressing.
‘Honourable mention’ goes to Crémant de Die, the crisp, clean and cheerfully unassuming Clairette-based Rhône Valley sparkler; and two Languedoc bubblies: the crisp, apple-scented, Mauzac-based Blanquette and the Chardonnay-based Crémant de Limoux. A ‘hardly ever mentioned’ category would include the delicate, pinkish bubbly from tiny Bugey and the ho-hum Crémants from the Jura and Bordeaux.
France also produces less frothy, lower alcohol Méthode Ancestrale wines (bottled before the first and only fermentation is over). There’s the naturally sweet and light Mauzac-based Ancestrale from Limoux; the semi-sweet, slightly herbal, anonymous Gaillac bubblies; the Rhône Valley’s somewhat grapey Clairette de Die; and tiny Clairette de Bellegarde from around Nîmes. But we are far from Champagne now.
Jancis Robinson says it’s hard to find a worse-value wine than cheap Champagne, as industrially-made versions are a dumping ground for unripe grapes and bulk wine. So, for the same money, buy a quality rival. Ultimately, of course, there is nothing finer than the tautness and grace of a quality Champagne. That’s what Dom Pérignon discovered when he exclaimed to his Hautvillers Abbey brothers, “I’m drinking stars.”
Astronomical comparisons aside, though, let’s not forget Champagne is sparkling wine, and just enjoy it more!