The third Burgundy

Sunday, 27. May 2018 - 15:00

Albert Bichot Headquarters

Whenever sparkling wine is discussed, Burgundy wants to be included in the conversation. But what its role at the table should be is not so easily determined. The price of its Crémant de Bourgogne, as its sparkling wine is called, can range from bargain-basement cheap to penthouse rare. So where does it fit? 

The Crémant difference
At its best, Crémant is a blend of only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes grown on soils similar to those of Champagne, its benchmark neighbour to the north. But at its lower price levels, those two noble varieties are joined by lesser grapes such as Gamay and Aligoté. While Crémant is too proud to compare itself to Champagne, many consumers with discerning palates have confused its best with sparklers from the Valley of the Marne. But for now, Crémant — the third Burgundy — is fighting for success at all levels.

In recent years, one of the most competitive worldwide wine markets has been the sparkling category with an annual production of about 24.1m hl or 3,213.3m bottles. It is predicted to increase steadily for the foreseeable future. Since the turn of the century, part of this growth can be attributed to an increasing diversity of styles now available to drinkers, from the rise of rosé bubbly as a socially acceptable option, to the spectacular growth of the fruitier, non-Champagne-like flavours of Prosecco. Additionally, the number of places that make sparkling wine has also diversified, with England suddenly becoming a serious producer and with New World bubbly production growing by about 30 per cent over the past half-a-dozen years. As a result, there are multiple choices of affordable sparklers for every budget.

While Crémant de Bourgogne is not a newcomer to world markets, how much of it is made may surprise some observers. Of every dozen wines produced in Burgundy, about seven would be white, four would be red and one would be Crémant de Bourgogne, which employs the traditional method of in-bottle secondary fermentation. The official production breakdown, according to the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB), is 62 percent white, 29 percent red, eight percent sparkling and one percent rosé.

“Crémant de Bourgogne represents 18m bottles sold in the world,” says Pierre du Couëdic, director general of the Union des Producteurs Elaborateurs de Crémant de Bourgogne (UPECB), Crémant’s governing association. He explains that it’s produced on 2,500 ha by more than 1,000 wine growers and 118 “elaborateurs” or merchant-producers. Most Burgundy Crémant is made with the same grapes as are Burgundy’s best still wines — and the same as in Champagne — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

But to have continued growth, Crémant de Bourgogne must successfully deal with several hurdles. They include being able to source more grapes in competition with regional Burgundy table wines, contend with higher production costs that dictate higher market prices, overcome the twin negative images Millennials hold of all Burgundy as being pricey as well as being their parents’ wine, in-country competition from trendier Crémants from other regions and export competition from new areas where production costs are lower. Yet after a few years of holding steady, Crémant de Bourgogne production grew by two per cent last year, in spite of the fact that there were fewer grapes to be had after several low-production, weather-ravished harvests.

One of the larger producers of Crémant is Maison Veuve Ambal, which makes about 7m bottles annually in its 22,000sq ft, highly mechanised facility just outside Beaune. As Ambal’s François Piffaut points out during a facilities tour, Crémant wines must have minimum amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but are allowed to use lesser amounts of Gamay, Aligoté, Melon and Sacy, depending on the cuvée. As is done in Champagne, base wines are re-fermented in the bottle and, at major producers, all the steps involving dosage, riddling and disgorging are done mechanically. 

Pricing issues
Of course, using premium grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and having bottle fermentation, along with the many steps which that entails, comes at a figurative and literal price — it costs more to make a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne than it does competitive sparkling wines such as Cava and Prosecco. “One of the things we constantly hear in the marketplace is, ‘We love your wines but not your price’,” says Manon Remy, whose family owns the producer Maison Paul Chollet, which annually makes about 250,000 bottles of Crémant using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. 

That perception of priciness is reinforced by the image of Burgundy itself. “People who [might] buy Crémant rather than Champagne because of the lower price tend to think of the region as not affordable,” says Paul Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co, a Beaune-based exporter specialising in small domaines, including Parigot. “Bourgogne is not necessarily a selling point to that crowd.” Even within France, Wasserman says the perception of Burgundy as being snobbish helps competitive Crémants from other regions, such as Jura and the Loire, which are considered trendier.

Increasingly, however, producers and négociants are looking to capitalise on the flip side of Burgundy’s luxury image by using it as a guarantee of quality and reliability for consumers less concerned with what is trendy. While there will continue to be producers willing to compete at the lower end of the bubbly market where margins are paper-thin, some of the same producers are also spending more time exploring what is a tempting price void just beneath the $30 and lower limits of Champagne.

“There is more of a temptation from buyers to compare Crémant de Bourgogne to Champagne than to other Crémants because of their similar varieties and Burgundy’s proximity to Champagne, the limestone terroir and similar northern climates,” Wasserman points out.

Jeanne-Marie de Champs, owner of Domaines et Saveurs Collection, which also specialises in small estates including Paul Chollet and Louis Picamelot, says: “Twenty years ago, social [events] such as weddings served only Champagne. Today, we sell lots of Crémant de Bourgogne for those events.” Several exporters also report that, particularly in the US, crémant is being used as an upscale wine-by-the-glass pour in many bars and restaurants, one of superior quality yet less pricey than Champagne.

Perhaps to add to the perception that Crémant de Bourgogne is the closest sparkling wine in taste, style and winemaking process to Champagne — and, indeed, the only Champagne substitute made in France that is comparable the its higher-priced fizz — producers decided in 2016 to officially add two higher-quality levels. This is something that individual producers have already been doing in creating their own special style and terroir-based cuvées. Those new designations, now just coming to market, are “Éminent” and “Grand Éminent”. 

Éminent wines must spend two years on their lees during secondary fermentation, while Grand Éminent cuvées must also use no more than three grapes — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and up to 20 percent Gamay (in the rosé only) — spend three years on their lees and an additional three months in bottle after disgorgement. All Grand Éminent wines must be made Brut (less than 15 grams per litre of sugar) and vintage dating is optional. For example, the producer Louis Bouillot, which is owned by the Boisset family as part of its Boisset Collection of wineries and which produces about 2.8m bottles annually, has already introduced Éminent and Grand Éminent wines under its Perle Noire label.

Remy of Paul Chollet says her winery has paid close attention to feedback from the marketplace about refinements consumers want. “Customers told us they want less-sugary wines, so we produce cuvées that are less than six grams per litre,” she says, “which gives a more elegant mouth-feel and finish.” Paul Chollet also produces an Oeil de Perdrix rosé, a revival of a traditional style of lighter table and sparkling wines once popular in eastern France and Switzerland.

Producers and distributors have also targeted several foreign markets for expansion and growth. According to Couëdic, about one-third of Crémant production is currently exported, with the US being the largest customer, buying almost 2m bottles annually. Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden, other states of western Europe, Japan and Australia follow in importance. There is the feeling that the US is especially ripe for increased sales, and distributors continue to raise the image of Crémant as an option in consumers’ minds alongside Champagne, Prosecco and Cava. Then, of course, there is the huge Chinese market, where there have been minimal sales to date.

Burgundy and Beaujolais
Crémant has one huge production problem faced by few other sparkling wine producers elsewhere in the world. That is fighting to source grapes that other segments of Burgundy winemaking, especially regional table wines, also want, especially when demand for Burgundy table wines is high and crop levels low. Indeed, sometimes there are fights within corporate wine producers as to which division gets the grapes. “Of the five recent vintages, all with small harvests, it was sometimes difficult for the Crémants de Bourgogne, which are based on quality, to have access to enough grapes,” explains de Champs.

There has been some relief for those producers who use grapes other than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since the Beaune establishment has recently embraced Beaujolais as a true part of Burgundy. That has resulted in more Gamay being an approved grape source in regional wine and in Crémant de Bourgogne. “It’s a win-win for growers,” says Jean-Charles Boisset, head of the Boisset Collection. “There is a lot of Beaujolais production going into Bourgogne sparkling wine, which can be up to 15 percent Gamay.” 

Wasserman wishes that there were a similar acceptance of the white grape, Aligoté, in the production of Éminent and Grand Éminent sparklers. “The exclusion of Aligoté is really tragic,” he says. “There is a huge uptick in the interest of good Aligoté for Burgundy in general. It is one of the few wines that the hipster and younger crowd can afford.” He adds that Aligoté’s “acidity, salinity and energy” make it ideal for making sparkling wine.

De Champs is confident that market growth will come as consumers are educated to accept Crémant de Bourgogne as a category, rather than relying on the occasional proprietary brand they might have tried. “We still have a potential of progression with the recognition of the name ‘Crémant’ and discovering its quality and how it is produced,” she says.

But in the end, it should be noted that other regions which produce quality, higher-priced sparkling wines, such as Franciacorta and Trentodoc in Italy, have recently tried to chase after Champagne prices with only minimal success. Although gains have been made, the question is still in play: will Burgundy’s wine bubble continue to sparkle? Or will its fizz simply fizzle? 
Roger Morris

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International. For more great articles, why not subscribe?