I’m not much of a wine drinker. So, in the wine region of Burgundy where I grew up, that makes me a bit foreign to my friends and relatives. “There goes the American!” they say when I decline a glass of red.
But there’s a local drink I love: Crémant de Bourgogne. It’s a sparkling wine made in nearby vineyards. And at this festive time of year, it sells by the crate and shamelessly rivals the more uppity Champagne.
Just ask anyone in my family. Crémant is the official effervescent beverage of our celebrations, as it was recently for my niece's 18th birthday. That’s the legal drinking age in France, by the way. My niece, Jeanne, is certainly familiar with Crémant.
“I like to drink some with my friends,” she says. "I have a bottle in my apartment always, in case.”
My brother, Fred, swears by the stuff. He’s always got some in his cellar for special occasions. He says it’s just like Champagne, and for good reason.
“It’s made like Champagne, tastes like Champagne,” he says, “but not made in the Champagne area, so it can’t be called Champagne.”
And he takes offense when I tease him about this Crémant being just a “bubbly.”
My brother is right, this sparkling wine is made exactly like Champagne, just not on the same soil — the terroir. So, I decided to drop by the village of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux to get the scoop on this winemaking process.
Bailly Lapierre is a winemakers co-op set in an ancient underground limestone quarry. It’s a gigantic cave, almost 10 acres underground, with tall ceilings — so big, you can actually drive inside and park your car next to the enormous wine tasting bar and lounge.
Corinne Pasquier is in charge of guided tours here, and she takes me around. It’s clear she loves this unusual place.
“Well, you know, it’s a particular place here,” she says. “It’s an amazing place.”
She tells me the cream-colored limestone carved here during the Middle Ages was hauled on river barges some 100 miles north to Paris, where it was used to build parts of Notre Dame Cathedral and other famed monuments. But the reason it’s now a great winery is that the natural conditions are ideal for maturing wine. It's dark, humid and cool, year-round.
Looking at the walls of bottles around us, I ask Pasquier whether we are looking at tens of thousands of bottles.
“Well, millions,” she says. “We have a capacity of storage of between 8 and 9 million bottles.”
Bailly Lapierre produces 3 million bottles a year, and 500,000 of those are exported to North America.
Pasquier explains the winemaking process. She says the grapes are pressed and the juice sits in large tanks where it begins to ferment. Two months later, a mixture of natural yeast and sugar is added to this base wine before bottling. It will then take six weeks for the bottled wine to achieve the right fizz.
The bottles also have to be spun on strange computerized racks called "gyropalettes."
The goal of this slow spin is to collect the deposit left by yeast. At the end of a 52-hour spin, the deposit is lodged in the upside-down bottle’s hollow stopper, which is frozen to be easily removed before the bottle is corked for good.
“Then we let the wine maturing on racks like you see in these very good conditions,” she says, “and it lasts one year or 18 months.”
So there you have it — the recipe for "non-Champagne Champagne" from Burgundy.
For this Burgundian expat in the United States, it was a thrill to stumble on bottles of that Crémant at a Trader Joe’s store in Massachusetts, years ago. It enabled me to continue French family traditions in my American home. And the truth is, at about at $10 a bottle, it’s much cheaper than Champagne, and many would say there is little difference in taste. Here’s how my brother puts it:
“I can’t say that I love every Crémant, I can’t say that I love every Champagne,” he says, “but I definitely prefer a good Crémant to an average Champagne.”
Then he adds that because we need four bottles of the stuff just for opening Christmas presents, he plans to get a dozen.
Just to be safe.