Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Champagne and Cremant d'Alsace: Comparisons and Contrasts

Champagne is the undisputed king of sparkling wines in France (and the world) but it is not by any means "home alone." Sparkling wines of note are also made in Alsace, the Loire Valley, and Burgundy (Crémant d'Alsace, de Loire, de Bourgogne, and de Bordeaux) while less consequential sparklers are produced in Limoux, Bordeaux, Die, and Jura. In this post we will examine the Alsace sparkling wine in relation to Champagne.

It is most likely that the secondary fermentation process -- the hallmark of Champagne -- was invented by Christopher Merret (1614 - 1695), an English Scientist who is credited with being the first person to deliberately add sugar to wine in order to create bubbles. Champagne's road to AOC-dom is littered with legal pronouncements culminating in the 1927 law which was the basis for the French AOC system. Sparkling wine via the traditional method was being made in Alsace as early as the late 19th century but only gained AOC status on August 24th, 1976.

As shown in the map below, Champagne and Alsace are two of the most northerly wine regions in France (48.793 latitude versus 48.318). Alsace's climate is continental (hot summers, cold winters) with the Vosges acting as a barrier to the prevailing westerly winds as well as providing a rain shadow for the vineyards. Rainfall average in Alsace is 610 mm. Champagne has the lowest average temperature of any French wine-growing region and, consequently, grapes do not ripen adequately over the course of a growing season. The northernmost outposts of the region are about 290 kilometers from the English Channel and are subject to oceanic influences. These areas experience regular rainfall but very little variation in temperature from season to season. As the traveler journeys south, however, continental climatic influences come into play to include: winter and spring frosts; summer sunshine coupled with violent thunderstorms; cold, wet weather in June; and hailstorms. Mean rainfall in the region is 700 mm.

A total of 13 soil types have been identified in Alsace and the diversity of its wine and styles have generally been attributed to the complex composition of the soils. One or more varieties have traditionally been linked with each of the soil types. Some of the identified soil types are as follows:
  • marl-limestone
  • marl-limestone-sandstone
  • granite
  • clay-marl
  • schist
  • sandstone
  • colluvial-chalk
  • volcanic.  
The soil in Champagne is composed of massive chalk deposits interspersed with rocky outcroppings and covered with a thin layer of topsoil (mix of sand, marl, clay and lignite which requires constant renewal through fertilization). The chalk deposits in Champagne are finer-grained and more porous than other French limestone soils -- and have extremely high concentrations of the mineral marls Belemnite (younger and found higher up on the growing slopes) and Micraster (older and located on the valley floors) -- while the rocky outcroppings are 75% limestone plus chalk and marl. Chalk has excellent drainage as well as water-retention properties in that its micro-pores can absorb water during wet periods and slowly release it during drier periods. In addition chalk will also reflect sunlight and heat thus aiding in the ripening of the grapes. The chalk soil allows the vine roots to dig freely and deeply in search of water and nutrients and also retains a constant temperature year round.  One of the disadvantages of this alkaline lime-rich soil is that it prevents the uptake of minerals -- such as iron, copper, and magnesium -- which are needed for the prevention of chlorosis.

Alsace vineyards extend across the Vosges foothills -- on east and southeast-facing slopes at elevations ranging between 200 and 400 meters -- and on the alluvial plain below. A total of 14,000 ha is devoted to grape growing of which 2800 is dedicated to grapes for the sparkling wine. Vines are trained Guyot simple or double and are planted at a minimum density of 4000 vines/ha. There are 32,900 hectares of vineyards in Champagne (3.4% of France's vineyard total) distributed across 319 communities (357 after the most recent revisions are adopted). The best Champagne vineyards are planted on slopes at elevations falling between 90 and 200 meters. Such locations situate the vineyard high enough to be clear of the frost and low enough to avoid extreme weather. The vineyards are predominantly located on south-, east-, and southeast-facing slopes which average 12% but can be as high as 60% in areas.

Cremant d'Alsace vineyards are to be found in the AOC Alsace designated areas. While Champagne grapes can be sourced from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards, that designation is not necessarily an indication of a vineyard's quality. Rather, the designation -- Échelle des crus (ladder of growths) -- is an index of price based on the quality of grapes from classified vineyards. Grapes from Deuxieme Cru vineyards can be assigned scores of between 80% and 89%, grapes from Premier Cru vineyards can be assigned scores between 90% and 99%, while Grand Cru grapes are assigned scores of 100%. As formulated, the score that a grape-lot is assigned within a specific season is an indication of the price that the Champagne House is willing to pay in relation to the pricing for Grand Cru grapes in the season.

Key characteristics of the two wines are summarized in the table below.

Cremant d’Alsace
Guyot: simple or double
Cordon de Royal
Taille Chablis
Valle de Marne
Pinot Blanc (structure, neutral varietal character)
Pinot Gris
Auxerrois (volume)
Pinot Noir (Rosé, fruit and structure)
Riesling (to increase   acidity)
Pinot Noir (35%)
Chardonnay (25%)
Pinot Meunier (40%)
Production Zone
32,900 ha
12.8 tons/ha
13 -15 tons/ha

The method of production is essentially the same for both Cremant d'Alsace and Champagne. Grapes for both are hand-harvested and subjected to whole-bunch pressing. Cremant d'Alsace producers presses 100 liters of juice per 150 kilograms of grapes with the first 50 liters designated as cuvée, the next 47 liters as taille, and the last three liters consigned to brandy production. The cuvée pressing is generally used in prestige wines while the taille, which has more phenols and potassium (potassium increases the pH and buffers wine acidity), is used in secondary wines. Champagne producers press 0.956 liters from 150 kilograms of grape with 4/5ths of the total designated cuvée and the remainder taille.

Cremant d'Alsace grapes are harvested pre-maturity at 11% potential alcohol and then chaptalized such that post-fermentation they will approach 12.5% alcohol. At the conclusion the wines are registered and designated Vin destiné a l'elaboration de Crémant d'Alsace.

The next step in the process sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines. In order to produce Champagne that aligns with the House style, the Chef de Cave has to memorize and blend wines from a broad array of crus from the current vintage plus wines from the reserve as necessary. There is no such blending in Cremant d'Alsace and the wine cannot be bottled before January 1 of the year following harvest. Cremants must spend at least 9 months on lees before disgorgement while NV Champagnes spend at least 15 months and vintage spend at least 36 months. While there is some oak aging in Champagne, there is no such practice in Alsace.

Cremant d'Alsace comes in four styles: Blanc de Blanc (from Pinot Blanc), Blanc Noir (white Cremant from Pinot Noir), Rosé (from Pinot Noir), and NV Cuvees (varietal blends). While there are sweetness designation on Champagne labels, there is no such officially sanctioned practice in Alsace.

Cremant d'Alsace volume has risen from 1 million bottles in 1979, to 2 million bottles in 1982 and 33 million bottles today. Most of the wine is consumed in France. Cremant d' Alsace is a distant second to Champagne which produced a total of 322 million bottles in 2011.  Fifty-six percent of the Champagne produced was consumed in France with the remainder being shipped abroad to the United Kingdom, United States, and Germany among others.

A perusal of prices on wine-searcher showed a low price of $6 and and high of $15 for Cremant d'Alsace. The average price for a NV Champagne is in the $35 range while the top-end cuvées of many of the large Champagne Houses can run into the multiple-hundred-dollar range.

Revised 1/25/14 to add origins of both wines.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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