Bursting bubbles

In these tricky economic times, people are on the lookout for bargains and champagne is facing some competition

In these tricky economic times, people are on the lookout for bargains and champagne is facing some competitionA couple of years ago, I heard a Champagne grower complaining that the region simply had too little wine to sell to an increasingly thirsty export market. As troubles went, I thought, this one seemed like a bit of a luxury, but then those were luxurious times. In the same way that many BMW drivers might have been tempted to send off for Ford’s brochure in the last year, so plenty of traditional champagne drinkers have turned to France’s other sparklers to quench their thirst. The French are, of course, way ahead of their British counterparts in switching their attention to the country’s next best thing’; its evocatively named cr�mants. So while UK supermarkets continue to discount fairly ordinary champagnes to between �10 and �15 a bottle, more savvy wine drinkers are buying some delicious cr�mants for the same sort of money. Cr�mant is made in many regions of France: Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, Jura, Savoie, the northern Rh�ne (as Cr�mant de Die) and the western Languedoc (as Cr�mant de Limoux). These bubblies are made with grapes from their respective regions of origin, and are frequently a blend of many different varieties. The production of cr�mant is essential in regions such as the Loire Valley, where the chenin blanc grape in a cool vintage can be too tart for the production of great still wines, but instead makes excellent cr�mants. Cr�mant is made in the same way as champagne, its bubbles arising from a second fermentation in bottle. But when I met winemaker Pascal Pibaleau near Azay-le-Rideau in the Loire Valley, he pointed out an important difference between his delicious Loire cr�mant and champagne.“Champagne’s second fermentation,” Pascal explained, “requires the addition of extra sugar to boost the wine’s potential alcohol and allow the wine to re-ferment in bottle. The bubbles are a by-product of this process. But,” he added, “I never need to add sugar to my wines. There is enough natural sugar left after the first fermentation to allow a prise de mousse without the addition of cane sugar.” And the wine was indeed delicious. It had been aged on its lees for a full two years, nine months longer than the statutory minimum for champagne. At the time these seemed to be startling and potentially controversial revelations. Could these great cr�mants possibly be  more authentic, better sparklers than champagne? A few weeks later, I asked Champagne winemaker Anselme Selosse for his view. I knew Anselme as an outspoken proponent of the natural, laissez-faire school of winemaking, so I asked him why he didn’t use the residual sugar in his ripest grapes to provide his champagnes with their bubbles.“I already have”, he replied, and added that this was in fact the technique advised by France’s most famous viticulturist Dr. Guyot, for making the purest of champagnes. Anselme then produced the letter he had received from the authorities forbidding the commercialisation of such wines as champagne. The region’s officials apparently consider the method un-Champenois, since, historically, this was not the method used by Dom P�rignon to give his wines their bubbles. I then sat down for a glass of Anselme’s own champagne in the village of Avize. Like the vigneron himself, these wines are unorthodox, challenging and truly brilliant. And for the rest of the week that I stayed in Champagne, I was forced to reflect that although cr�mant may have stolen much of champagne’s thunder as a good value sparkler, the very best champagnes still have no parallel elsewhere in France or indeed the world.Domaine Pascal Pibaleau68 Route de Langeais37190 Azay-le-RideauTel: (Fr) 2 47 45 27 58www.vins-pibaleau.com

• Choice wine: Cr�mant de Loire Blanc Brut NV• Price: �10.49• Taste: A delicate nose of ripe apples, with strong hints of red fruits. A well structured, pleasant summer sparkler.• Best drunk with: A perfect ap�ritif wine• Where to source in the UK:Thomas Panton (Wine Merchants) Ltd, TetburyTel: (UK) 01666 503088www.wineimporter.co.uk