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Cremant - The Bubbly of Alsace

Mellen Candage

The Rhine River forms the border between the Alsace-Lorraine region in the north eastern corner of France and Germany. Strasbourg, on the border with Germany, is one of the well known towns of this region.

Lying on a fertile plain between the Vosges mountains and the river Rhine, modern Alsace takes advantage of its multiplicity of natural resources to produce some of France's finest offerings, among them, of course, wine, which now accounts for 25 percent of the region's agricultural production.

Documents in the archives of the regional capital of Strasbourg attest to the fact that, before the year 900 AD, at least 160 wine producers were at work in the region. Protected by the Vosges, dotted with sunny hillsides, and blessed with an exceptionally light rainfall, the area has potential that has long been clear to vintners. Today, approximately 8,500 growers cultivate 14,000 hectares to produce upwards of 10 million cases per year.

Wines of the Alsace

Five grape varieties grown in Alsace have been entitled to Appelation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) status since 1975: Gewurtztraminer, Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris (Tokay d'Alsace), and Sylvaner. Production of non-noble grape varieties such as Chasselas and Muller-Thurgau is being slowed by government regulations that forbid new plantings; already, most of these varieties are produced by small growers for personal consumption only.

It is only since the end of World War II that Alsatian wines have gradually become recognized outside the borders of the province, largely the result of the formation of wine cooperatives just after V-E Day in 1945 to handle that year's tremendously successful harvest. The region today boasts 18 cooperatives with 2,000 members who produce about one-third of the region's wines. The Alsatian wine cooperative movement is one of the strongest in France, with extremely high standards balanced by competitive prices.

Cooperatives purchase all grapes from all members, for better or for worse, often offering premiums of up to 30 percent for the best grapes from prime sites. The region's soil is unusually varied, allowing for numerous different microclimates and hence a tremendous diversity of wines. Lots from different sites are combined for vinification with peer grapes, demonstrating the importance the Alsace coops place on terroir and distinctions among grapes. What this means to the consumer is good drinking at good prices, and wines that are gradually making their way onto some of the world's best wine lists.

Cremant d'Alsace

In Alsace, no matter how pompous the occasion or how famous the guest, one does not serve champagne. When the silver is polished and the fine lace laid upon the table and the candelabra lit and the flowers arranged, a different sort of bubbly makes its dbut - Cremant d'Alsace, the delicate, delectable regional sparkling wine.

A relative neophyte in the world of wine, Cremant d'Alsace has only been manufactured since the turn of the century, when a pioneering spirit by the name of Julien Dopff applied the mthode champenoise on his own wines and achieved surprisingly good results. Virtually ignored outside Alsatian borders, cremant is nonetheless a shining star on the Alsace table, where it lends a festive air to any gathering and complements perfectly the local cuisine.

The AOC conferred upon Cremant d'Alsace on August 24, 1976, guarantees that it comes only from Alsace and is produced in strict conformance with the traditions and standards of the local growers. Those standards, in part because they include following the painstaking methode champenoise, are extensive.

The principal grape is the pinot blanc (also called clevner or klevner), but riesling, pinot gris, and chardonnay may also be used. Pinot noir and ros are used to produce a pink version of the cremant, in response to recent consumer demand. Whichever grapes are to be used, they are picked several days before the official opening date of the wine harvest. The grapes by law must be transported in non-watertight boxes. They are then pressed (often with the stems still on, a tradition in the area that is said to give the wine an added boost of tanning) and the juice is poured into the concrete and stainless steel vats that have for the most part replaced the ornate Germanic wooden ones used until the last decade. Only 100 liters per 150 kilograms of juice can, by law, be vinified.

After a conventional first fermentation in the vats, the wine begins a second through the methode champenoise, where it will acquire its sparkle and the light, elegant character it is known for. The method requires the undivided daily attention of experts over a period as long as two years. In the dark, dank, and chalky caves, the bottles are first laid flat on their sides for several months until the wine is deemed sufficiently aged. They are then placed in an A-shaped rack called a pupitre, which holds them at first at about a 30-degree angle facing neck down. A master craftsman called a remueur attends to each bottle daily, turning it and gradually tilting it at a steeper angle. After two to three months, the bottles are almost completely vertical, and the sediment has slid down into the neck.

In a step called the degorgement, the cork is removed without disturbing the wine (often by freezing the bottle neck), bringing with it the unwanted sediment. Each bottle is checked, often by candlelight (so as not to frighten it, as I was told by a worker in the Dopff au Moulin caves), to ensure the purity of its contents, then stopped with the traditional cage-shaped champagne cork and wrapped in gold.

In recent years, some of the larger family wine firms of Alsace have banded together to promote the appreciation and consumption of Alsatian wines on the international market. An important member of this group, known as les Grandes Maisons d'Alsace, is Dopff au Moulin, now under the leadership of Pierre-Etienne Dopff. Pierre-Etienne has been pushing the production of his cremants for several years, and Dopff au Moulin now produces about 250,000 bottles annually, representing about a quarter of the total firm production. They are widely considered the best cremants of Alsace. Other well-respected cremants include those from the firm of Armand & Oscar Mur, in Rouffach, and those produced by the Eusenheim cooperative.

Tour a Winery

The Maison Dopff au Moulin is situated at the foot of one of Alsace's most picturesque villages, Riquewihr, a lovingly preserved 16th-century village surrounded by some of the best vineyards in Alsace. A tour of the impeccably organized family firm takes about an hour's time, plus a few minutes for the traditional degustation, at which you can sample several cremants as well as some outstanding rieslings. Afterward, a jaunt through the walled town delights the eye with restored cobblestones and timbered houses, window boxes, and colorful hand painted signs. The gift shops are bursting with green glasses and pitchers, hazelnut branch wine openers, and all the gadgetry of local oenophilia. By the well in the center of town, children dressed in traditional Alsatian costumes sell flowers and pose guilelessly for pictures.

Storing and Serving

A good Cremant d'Alsace will keep for four to five years, if stored properly between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius, with no variation in temperature more than 3 degrees. The ideal environment is well ventilated, dark, and free from odor. A source of moisture, as from earth, clay, or gravel, is ideal, and the bottles should not be subject to vibration. Cremants should be laid on their sides so the cork remains moist.

Serve Cremant d'Alsace chilled at 5 to 7 degrees Celsius in a fluted or tulip-stemmed glass. Cremants go with lighter foods as well as with traditionally rich Alsatian dishes such as choucroute garni. Like champagnes, they can be served before the meal, as an accompaniment, or with dessert.

A good cremant is pale, with a golden sheen, light and subtle in flavor. You can taste hints of the fresh fruits and flowers that bloom on the Alsatian hillsides, but it is at the same time discreet and uncomplicated. Expressing perhaps the duality of the Alsatian nature, cremant remains an elegant, reserved wine even as it effuses bubbles of conviviality.

Wine Etiquette

Alsatian wines are traditionally served by the pitcher. You may order un quart, un demi, or a full bottle. An Alsatian wine is always bottled in the flute d'Alsace, the traditional green-tinted, long-necked bottle. They are served chilled but not iced. All except the most full-bodied varieties from the best vintages should be drunk within five years. A brief description of the common varieties follows.

Gewurtztraminer: Spicy, racy, with an elegant bouquet. As good as an aperitif as it is with dessert.

Muscat d'Alsace: Dry, with a delicious fresh-grape bouquet. Excellent as an aperitif and party wine.

Pinot blanc (Klevner, Clevner): A supple, elegant, well-balanced, all-occasion wine.

Pinot noir: A dry, delectably fruity ros, perfect for picnics, especially good with fowl.

Riesling: Virile, dry, lightly fruited, with a bouquet of great finesse, the King of Alsatian wines is the perfect accompaniment for an elegant meal, particularly fish and shellfish.

Sylvaner: Fresh, fruity, dry, occasionally with a hint of bubbles. Very agreeable with hors d'oeuvres and seafood.

Tokay d'Alsace (pinot gris): Dry and opulent, with a discreet fruity taste. Alsatians favor it to accompany foie gras, succulent roasts, and hearty but fine foods.

Resources

www.tourisme-alsace.com: Tourism Alsace

www.strasbourg.com: Strasbourg Online, travel information

www.vinsalsace.com: Vins D'Alsace


Mellen Candage is a writer and editor and has been the owner/president of Grammarians, Inc., a publishing and translation company in Alexandria, VA, since 1978. In her "spare time" she is a travel consultant for France and gives culinary and other specialty tours in the Perigord and Provence. Her articles on travel, food, wine, and other European topics have been published in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, International Living, Wine Tidings Magazine, Writer's Digest, FiberArts, and Parenting. krokosbackpack.net/lacoste/

© Mellen Candage, 2000

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