Truths about sparkling wine bubble to the surface

France offers dozens if not hundreds of sparkling wines as alternatives to champagne.
France offers dozens if not hundreds of sparkling wines as alternatives to champagne. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 3:13 PM

We tend to call any sparkling wine "champagne," a tribute to the region that even today defines the genre. But that's unfair, not only to the makers of true champagne, who deserve the right to protect their product's image, but also to producers elsewhere, by denying their sparkling wines their own character and identity.

In the end, it's unfair to lump them all together and deprive ourselves of the fun of exploring different styles, flavors and terroirs from around the world. It is more than bubbles, to those of us who care: We want to taste the earth the vines grew in and the sweat of the hands that tended them.

France's efforts to protect the name "champagne" for sparkling wines made in the Champagne region have largely succeeded. The U.S. government, under intense lobbying pressure from a few American producers that had long used the name, won a concession for a few wines to continue being labeled "champagne." Those companies apparently lack enough confidence in their wines to allow them to succeed or fail on their own merits.

I was reflecting on that recently while savoring a glass of Cuvee Ludwig Hahn, a modest sparkling wine with no appellation controllee designation on the label. It is produced in the far western region of France's Loire Valley by Guy Bossard, the owner and winemaker of Domaine de l'Ecu, one of my favorite Muscadet producers. Bossard practices biodynamic viticulture, the "beyond organic" school of farming that inspires near-religious devotion from its followers and cultish opposition from its detractors.

The Cuvee Ludwig Hahn is a blend of Folle Blanche, chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of muscadet) and a surprising dollop of cabernet sauvignon. In no way could it be mistaken for champagne, and, at $24, it isn't cheap. Yet the wine is beautifully expressive of earth and fruit, and full-bodied in an almost casual way that contrasts with the formality of champagne.

It's probably not for everyone, but I love it.

I have never met Bossard, but in tasting his wines I imagine a grower who is comfortable allowing his grapes to express themselves naturally, with minimal intervention. He guides the wines into bottle without imposing preconceived notions of a house style, and he accepts whatever a vintage gives him as the voice of his vineyard's terroir.

France offers dozens if not hundreds of sparkling wines as alternatives to champagne. Most are called cremant, a term that used to apply to a sparkling wine with less pressure (bubbles) than champagne but now refers to wines made outside the Champagne region by the traditional champagne method. Cremant de Bourgogne, typically made with chardonnay, most resembles champagne. Cremants from Alsace and the Loire typically use regional grapes and often are excellent values. Other styles, such as Blanquette de Limoux and Clairette de Die, are lightly effervescent and slightly sweet.

Chenin blanc is the mainstay grape of Loire Valley sparkling wines. Two new ones in our market are particularly good. The Chateau de l'Aulee Brut Cremant de Loire is gutsy and earthy, rich and flirtatious, with flavors of mutsu apples and Bosc pears and a hint of sweetness. The Triple Zero, from winemaker Jacky Blot's Domaine de La Taille aux Loups in the sub-appellation of Montlouis-sur-Loire, is almost the exact opposite in style. Blot uses extra-ripe grapes from 50-year-old vines and does not add sugar: not during primary fermentation, not at bottling (when sparkling wines are often topped off with sugar and yeasts to induce the secondary fermentation and bubbles), not when the bottled wine is disgorged, or cleared of sediment. The result is a nearly clear wine with bracing minerality, a laserlike focus and precision, and gentle bubbles that tickle the palate.

So the next time you raise a glass of bubbly, be it champagne, cremant, prosecco from Italy, Spanish cava or American sparkling wine, take a moment to appreciate what the wine is trying to tell you. You might find yourself uttering another toast: Vive la difference!

© 2010 The Washington Post Company