Traditional Method Sparkling Wines of Europe

Lake Iseo - home of Franciacorta DOCG, Italy's answer to Champagne.

The “traditional method” of making sparkling wine, so famously popularised through Champagne, has found emulation in many other regions of Europe and the New World. Indeed, some regions of France lay claim to a history of making sparkling wine in the traditional method that precedes the Champenois. In this post, I outline the major traditional method winemaking regions of Europe – excluding Champagne – with wines from the New World to follow in a second post.

Crémants of France

The term “crémant” classically refered to a sparkling wine with a lower pressure (3.6 to 4.0 atmospheres) than what we now find in champagne (typically 5.0 to 6.0 atm). In 1994 a deal was struck between the CIVC (governing body for Champagne) and the Crémant AOC bodies that restricted use of the term “crémant” to wines from a Crémant AOC region. In return, the Crémant AOC bodies agreed not to use the term “méthode champenoise” on their wines. Today, “crémant” refers only to the name of the wine region from which a wine originates, and not to the pressure level at all. The regions described here all make wines in a manner very similar to those in Champagne, including pressure levels. The main differences are the choice of grapes used, the allowed yields when harvesting and pressing, the time the wine spends on lees, and of course the regional differences in climate and terroir.

Crémant d’Alsace AOC

Alsace is France’s second-largest sparkling wine producer by volume; production in recent years has been around the 30 million bottle mark, thus about one-tenth of that produced in Champagne. The maximum yields allowed are the highest in France – currently 80hl/ha, although this figure can be adjusted by the INAO on a vintage-by-vintage basis. 100l of must is pressed from 150kg grapes and the grapes must be in whole bunches, which necessitates hand-harvesting. The wine must age for at least 9 months on the lees. Permitted grapes are Pinots Blanc, Gris and Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois and Chardonnay. The latter is interesting as Chardonnay is not permitted for making still wine in Alsace. Rosé wines must receive their colour from Pinot Noir. Gewurztraminer and Muscat are not permitted for crémant production as they are considered too aromatic. Wines are typically dominated by the rather neutral Pinot Blanc, although the better examples will include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris. The presence of Riesling dramatically alters the aromatic profile of the wine.

Crémant d’Bourgogne AOC

While Burgundy produces roughly two-thirds the volume of sparkling wine of Alsace, it is generally more visible on the export market. Sparkling wine can be made anywhere in Burgundy (excluding Beaujolais) although there are a number of regional centres: Auxerre and Châtillon-sure-Seine in the north, and Rully further south in the Côte Chalonnaise. Permitted grapes are Chardonnay, Pinots Noir, Blanc and Gris, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne and Sacy. A maximum of 20% Gamay may also be used. In practice, Chardonnay and Aligoté are used, especially for white wines. Rosé is also allowed, with the red colour typically coming from Pinot Noir and/or Gamay. Permitted yields are lower than Alsace at 65hl/ha, but again, 100l of juice is pressed from 150kg grapes, whole bunches are used, and the wine must spend at least 9 months ageing on lees. The character of Crémant de Bourgogne depends on the final blend and the location of the vineyards. Wines of the north are typically tauter and more lean that the more generous, round offerings of the south.

Crémant de Loire AOC and Saumur Mousseux AOC

Sparkling production for these two AOCs is centred around the area of Anjou-Saumur, although Crémant de Loire also spreads into Touraine. As such, there is some overlap between the two regions, with producers around Saumur able to choose which appellation their wine fits into. The climate here is mostly cool continental, with some moderating influence from the Atlantic and the presence of the various rivers of the region.

Crémant de Loire is considered to be the higher quality region. There is no prescription on grape variety percentages and any grapes permitted in the Loire may be used for both white and rosé sparklings, except Sauvignon Blanc, which is considered too aromatic. Thus the better quality wines will consist primarily of Chardonnay, possibly with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc. Permitted maximum yields change on an annual basis depending on the INAO regulations, though they are typically high – over 70hl/ha (they were 50hl/ha prior to 2007). Pressing level is 100l/150kg and whole bunches must be used. The wine must be aged for 12 months on lees. Typical production volumes are around 8 million bottles/year.

Saumur Mousseux AOC, while not a crémant in name, still produces fully-sparkling wines made by the traditional method. The production depends somewhat on the success of the vintage for still wine production, which fetches a higher price: sparkling in Saumur thus plays second fiddle to the still wines. As such, Saumur wines are considered to be of lower quality on average than Crémant de Loire. Chenin Blanc is prescribed by law to be the base grape from which Saumur Mousseux is made and in practice, it forms the majority grape for most wines. The blend may contain a maximum of 20% Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc combined, and 60% of the wine may be made from black grapes such as Pinot Noir and Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon. Maximum yields are actually lower than for Crémant de Loire (50hl/ha) although the wine only needs to spend 9 months on lees. Typically, more Saumur is produced than Crémant, although the volume depends on still wine production for the vintage.

Crémant de Limoux AOC and Blanquette de Limoux AOC

The production of these two AOCs is localised on the town of Limoux in the Languedoc region in Southern France. The climate is significantly warmer than the regions discussed above, with a Mediterranean influence. The region is very hilly and the best vineyards are at some altitude to preserve acidity in the grapes. Blanquette de Limoux must contain at least 90% Mauzac; the remainder can be made up of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Mauzac has a rather distinct ‘bruised apple’ character on the nose and palate. By contrast, Crémant de Limoux must contain at least 50% Chardonnay (although no more than 70%) and at least 20% Chenin Blanc (although no more than 40%). Other grapes that make up the blend include Pinot Noir and Mauzac. Both AOCs require a maximum yield of 50hl/ha, whole bunch pressing of 100l/150kg and at least 9 months ageing on the lees.

Cava DO

Cava is the second largest traditional method wine by volume in the world, after champagne. The Cava Denominación de Origen (DO) was established in 1986 with Spain’s entry to the EU, although the tradition of sparkling wine predates this by over a century. The Cava DO covers five regions in Spain: Cataluña (where the majority of production is based), Aragon, Navarra, País Vasco and La Rioja. The climate varies with the region, though overall is relatively warm. Therefore, the best vineyards can be found at altitudes up to 700m. The area under wine in the Cava regions is similar to that in Champagne (around 32,000ha); however, due to the low density of vines, which are trained en vaso (gobelet), production is only about two-thirds that of Champagne (i.e. about 240 million bottles per year).

Cellars in Barcelona.

The vinification methods for Cava production have some important differences from Champagne. The minimum lees ageing time is 9 months for standard wines, 18 months for Reserva wines and 30 months for Gran Reserva wines. The minimum legal pressure is 4.0 atm, whereas in Champagne it is only 3.5 atm (though, of course, in practice the pressure is usually much higher). The alcohol level must be between 10.8% and 12.8% a.b.v. Harvesting yields are controlled at 12,000kg/ha for white grapes and 8,000kg/ha for black grapes. Unlike champagne, which can use both the first and second pressing of grapes (the “cuvée” and the “taille”), Cava can only use the first pressing. This means, in practice, that the effective yields achieved are 65hl/ha for white grapes and 53hl/ha for black. Hand harvesting is employed along with whole bunch pressing.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Cava and many other traditional method wine styles is the blend of grapes used. The native Spanish grape varieties of Macabeo (a.k.a. Viura), Xarel-lo and Parellada are to be found in the majority of wines. However, Chardonnay is increasing in popularity and can be found as a minority component in many wines, and even a majority grape, along with Pinot Noir, in top-quality wines. Subirat is also used. Rosado wines use the black grapes Monastrell and Garnacha, along with Pinot Noir. The use of black grapes to make white wines is not traditional in Spain and still not widely practised.

Whereas Champagne production is controlled by thousands of individual growers and dozens of co-operatives in symbiosis with several hundred négociants, Cava production is in the hands of 271 producers. Two of these, Codorníu and Freixenet vastly dominate production; Freixenet alone is responsible for producing up to 200 million bottles per year!

Like champagne, Cava comes in a range of dosage levels. Historically, the fairly sweet semi-seco style was popular; however, this has given way to the dry brut style, which now accounts for about 50% of all Cava produced. Semi-seco has a significant following of about 30% of production – mostly consumed in Spain. Brut nature and seco round out production with about 10% each.

Franciacorta DOCG

While traditional method sparkling wine is made in other parts of Italy – especially in the Veneto region – Franciacorta is currently the only denominazione that requires sparkling wine to be made by the traditional method (“metodo classico” in Italian). Italy’s more famous bubblies – Prosecco and Asti – are not made by the traditional method. Franciacorta became a DOCG in 1995 and its formation has been a story of voluntary self-regulation by the winemakers themselves.

Wine production is centred around a region just south of Lake Iseo, in Lombardy, central-north Italy. The region experiences a continental climate, with a moderating effect due to the lake. Wines must be made from Chardonnay and Pinots Bianco and Nero (i.e. Blanc and Noir). The winemaking approach is remarkably similar to Champagne, although with even longer lees-ageing specifications: 18 months for non-vintage (though with a total ageing time of 25 months before sale) and 30 months for vintage wines (with a total of 37 months ageing before sale). The vines are planted at high densities and so-called ‘big vine’ training systems popular in northern Italy (such as the pergola) are not allowed in order to increase the concentration in the fruit. Rosé must include 15% Pinot Nero and may be made by blending with a still red wine – as in Champagne. The prescribed levels of sweetness are also identical to those in Champagne.

Production of sparkling is around 7 million bottles per year. There also exists a particular wine style called Francicorta Satèn, which is a blanc de blancs and has 4.5atm pressure, rather than the usual 6.0.

Other Sparkling Wine Regions

The above regions are what I would consider the main traditional method sparkling wine regions in Europe. Other regions include Vouvray Mousseux AOC, Crémants de Bordeaux, Die and Jura AOCs in France. Crémant de Luxembourg also produces traditional method sparkling wines. Traditional method wines can be found in other parts of Europe – notably the Veneto in Italy, some top quality Lambrusco, and some German Sekt – although these regions don’t prescribe the traditional method in law.

England is fast becoming a major player in traditional method sparkling wine production. The style is still finding its feet; however, producers are tending to follow closely the example set by the champenois and make taut, champagne-esque wines with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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5 Responses to Traditional Method Sparkling Wines of Europe

  1. Neel Burton says:

    You’re my saviour!

  2. Pingback: New World Traditional Method Sparkling Wines | The Oxford Wine Blog

  3. Pingback: Spanish Cava or Champagne: Both Bubbly, but Distinctly Different | The Rambling Epicure

  4. What a lovely, informative article. Bravo!

  5. James says:

    Thanks Jonell; I enjoyed your “Cava vs Champagne” post too!

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