French sparkling wines to rival Champagne on price and taste

Why not opt for a Crémant this Christmas? We talk to a fizz producer in Burgundy about making wine for savvy consumers

Maison Louis Bouillot, in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Burgundy, is one of the main producers of Crémant de Bourgogne
Published Last updated

The market for Crémant de Bourgogne hasn’t stopped growing for the last twenty years.

“Of course, there was Covid, which didn’t help us, but now business is very good again. So much so that we don’t have enough grapes to meet demand.”

From his office in the emblematic town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, Marcel Combes, Director of Maison Louis Bouillot, one of the main producers of Crémant de Bourgogne, is undoubtedly not the only one delighted by the enormous success that Crémant sparkling wines are enjoying in France and abroad.

With their fine bubbles, their glistening colour and their taste quite similar to Champagne, these sparkling wines, produced in eight regions of France, have succeeded in carving out a comfortable niche for themselves between Italian proseccos and Champagnes, thanks to their excellent price-quality ratio.

For the holiday season, consider them!

Read more: Here's how to save money on good French wine

Record breaking sales

After a severe downturn in 2020, sales of French crémants set an all-time record last year with 96.6 million bottles sold, compared to 90 million in 2019.

Sales could reach 100 million bottles this year – compared to 300 million bottles of champagne sold annually – but it is difficult to predict accurately, as 35% to 40% of annual sales take place just before the holiday season, in November and December.

In between Champagne and prosecco

“The international sparkling wine market is divided between five big players: Champagnes, crémants, which are increasingly more well-known, proseccos, Spanish cavas and sparkling wines,” explains M. Combes.

“I think the current craze for crémant is because when you buy a crémant, you make a ‘smart purchase’.

“Crémant buyers, whom I call ‘savvy’ consumers, are shoppers looking for new discoveries and bargains. The ‘traditional method’ guarantees a relatively serious wine style and, in the case of Burgundy crémants, the basic grapes required – chardonnay and pinot noir – are almost four times cheaper than those in Champagne.

“In addition to offering a very high-quality product, the price is attractive: between €8 and €10 per bottle in supermarkets and between €10 and €15 in wine shops. Crémants are therefore somewhere between Champagne and prosecco, with a more serious side lacking in prosecco; more of a festive and easy wine.”

Same method as Champagne

Produced in Alsace, Burgundy, the Loire, Limoux, Jura, Bordeaux, Die and Savoie, French crémants, all protected by a PDO since 1975, are close cousins of Champagne, whose production technique they share: the “méthode traditionnelle” (“traditional method”), formerly known as the “méthode champenoise”.

Complex and costly, it consists of transforming still wine into sparkling wine with a second fermentation by adding yeast at the time of bottling, which converts sugar in the grape must into alcohol and produces carbon dioxide.

Read more: Champagne bottles in France may soon be wrapped in eco-friendly paper

The result: sparkling white or rosé wines, often exquisite, originating from a wide variety of terroirs which, at a reasonable price, can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with an entire meal.

Note that the word “crémant” is originally a Champagne term for Champagne whose second fermentation, which gives rise to the famous bubbles, was not completely successful.

“Crémant de Champagne”, whose production was abandoned in 1990, was therefore something between sweet sparkling wine and failed champagne.

Hence its nickname of “poor man’s Champagne”, whose insipid taste was sometimes hidden by adding crème de cassis.

Today, this bad reputation has disappeared and it’s common to find crémant bottles that have been aged for several years before sale, the equivalent of vintage Champagne.

Special classification for the best vintages

Among the vast choice of crémants, the Burgundies, which represent only 20% of production, are among the most famous, along with Crémants d’Alsace.

Produced since the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the localities of Nuits-Saint-Georges and Rully as historical cradles, their appellation area extends over the departments of Yonne, Côte-d’Or, Rhône and Saône-et-Loire and they represent 10% of Burgundy vineyards.

Now present in fine restaurants, they benefit from special classification for the best vintages: “Eminent” for minimum ageing of 24 months and “Grand Eminent” for ageing of more than 36 months.

Last year, Burgundy crémants performed even better than other production regions: 23.3 million bottles sold, an increase of 20.4% compared to 2020 and an increase of over 15% in exports.

Propelled by the great appellations of Burgundy

Maison Louis Bouillot has, of course, benefitted from this trend. Founded in 1877 and specialising in crémants, offering eighteen different styles, it put 3.6 million bottles on the market last year and sales continue to grow. “It’s not an exploding market but it’s more than stable with slight growth,” says M. Combes.

“Compared to other crémants, we’re propelled by the great appellations of Burgundy, the premiers crus, the grands crus and we can show that we make great crémants.”

Read more: French wine appellations AOP and IGP - what is the point?

Broader range of grape varieties than Champagne

In addition to differences in the vinification method, crémants differ from Champagnes in the use of a broader range of grape varieties varying by region.

Champagne must be made from chardonnay, pinot meunier or pinot noir, whereas riesling is the most common grape for Crémant d’Alsace and cabernet franc for crémant from the Bordeaux region.

For Crémant de Bourgogne, the grape varieties authorised by the appellation’s specifications are chardonnay, pinot noir, gamay and aligoté.

“Gamay brings an extra touch of fruity freshness to our blends and added pizzazz to our rosé crémants,” explains Frédéric Brand, the oenologist at Maison Louis Bouillot. “As for aligoté, it allows us to obtain wines with exotic notes and minerality.”

Equipment needed to make crémant is expensive

Beware: not all crémants, whose interests are represented by the Fédération Nationale des Producteurs et Élaborateurs de Crémant (FNPEC), are equal. Some producers use lesser quality grapes than those used for their still wines and make mediocre crémants.

Others, on the contrary, take great care in grape selection, vinification and ageing.

“But you must realise that the materials and equipment needed to make crémant are expensive,” says M. Combes. “To produce crémant, the entry fee is high and not all small winemakers make it because they don’t necessarily have the equipment.

“To equip oneself to make 20,000 bottles isn’t profitable. In Burgundy, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 winegrowers but only 250 to 300 crémant producers – one in ten.”

Indeed, it is this vast network of winegrowers which, in part, weighs on the price of grapes and therefore, on the price of the bottle.

Crémant de Bourgogne prices will increase

“In the last twelve months, prices for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes have risen significantly due to a poor harvest,” says M. Combes.

“So, in terms of raw material we find ourselves under some pressure. We, as producers of Crémant de Bourgogne, will have to increase our prices to be able to pay more for grapes and align ourselves with prices charged by those making still burgundies.”

The conclusion is inevitable: “For Burgundy crémants, I think that, in the coming years, the €10 mark will be passed in supermarkets,” says M. Combes. “But going beyond these prices will be a bit complicated since other regions such as the Loire, Alsace or Bordeaux continue to pay less for their grapes and will therefore be able to stay below €10.”

He adds: “Thankfully, we are lucky to be Burgundians. Burgundy is a magical name. For us, the solution isn’t to fight on price against the Loire or Bordeaux crémants. It’s to make quality.

“When you drink our crémants, I want you to find in them the elegance of Burgundy chardonnay, the finesse and structure of Burgundy pinot noir. I want you to taste Burgundy, not Champagne.”

Related articles

‘I fight for wine in French culture, heritage and economy’

Beaujolais Nouveau Day: ‘quality’ year but fewer bottles available

Five things they don’t tell you about entertaining in France