What do most people think of when they consider the sparkling wines from France? You got it: Champagne. And while Champagne is lovely stuff, let’s face it, the buy-in is a bit much for most except on special occasions. But fortunately for fans of French fizz there are plenty of other delicious and food-friendly options.
This was brought into full focus at a series of complex wine-pairing dinners I participated in recently. Being it was during the holidays, of course, we needed Sparklers and with the variety of flavors from the food side, we needed versions that were able to match, balance and add to the experience. My wine-collaborator was Liz Obritsch, who runs the wine program for the pop-up dinner series at Cedar House Sport Hotel’s Stella restaurant in Truckee. It was she who suggested we go with an all-French lineup. The strategy was to procure from the lesser-known regions for their variety, quality and relative affordability.
We started in the beautiful, cool Loire Valley commune of Vouvray where the Chenin Blanc grape reigns supreme. Grown in unique calcareous soils called tuffeau, this grape finds its highest expression here making delicious and complex wines. These vary from bone dry to quite sweet and from still to sparkling. Fermenting and ageing take place in steel or neutral wood to preserve the vibrant stone fruit flavors and to allow the minerality to shine, as well. They also feature a unique wooly, spicy quality that is their signature to oenophiles.
Our wine tour took us next to Alsace, which is a region in northeast France that borders with Germany and is decidedly Tyrolian in character and produces wonderful wines from aromatic white grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Sparklers here are called Crémant d’Alsace and the one we chose is made from Pinot Blanc, which can be character challenged elsewhere but becomes magically delicious in Alsace. This was no exception with bright Mandarin orange notes driven by bright acidity finishing with a touch of cookie spices.
From Burgundy we chose the French bubbly most similar to Champagne because it is made with the same grapes — mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — that is labeled Crémant de Bourgogne. That is made with the classic Burgundy grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are also protagonists in Champagne. They are typically grown in Burgundy’s warmer areas which makes for slightly riper grapes that bring a dose of red fruit notes and a softer entry than most Champagnes.
Quality versions of all can be had for less than $20 and even the top cuvees we chose would get you change from a $40 bill. Best of all these wines are unique, delicious and food friendly.