I might still be coming to terms with the fact that I don’t lead a life involving the regular and copious consumption of champagne (Oxford hasn’t quite gone that far towards the realisation of Brideshead Revisited-fantasies), but this time of year provides a pretty good opportunity of pretending to do so, and it’s likely that a lot of us will be buying sparkling wine in one form or another over the coming weeks – be it for New Year’s Eve, Christmas, or one of the other various parties which are supposedly taking place constantly over the season. A student budget, though, hardly admits the purchase of champagne, regularly or not, so you may be sent seeking alternatives.
Nowadays, prosecco seems to be the default cheap fizz; bottles are widely available in supermarkets and bars for under a tenner, to the extent that it almost seems to be promoted as an everyday drink. These ubiquitous bottles tend to taste everyday, too: often rather one-note, sweet, even sticky, and bland. If you want something that feels more special and celebratory, there are many other less-promoted, often much better varieties of sparkling wine available, and Crémant is perhaps that which comes the closest to champagne – at least sharing the prestige of a French origin.
Of course, as its name suggests, champagne comes only from the Champagne region of France: being legally protected under an Appellation d’Origine Controlée means that only wine produced to stringent regulations from within a designated terroir in the northeast of France can be labelled as such. And, as is often the case with prestigious names (think Burgundy), wine produced there can be sold at extraordinarily high prices, making it very difficult to get quality without spending a lot of money. The less strictly controlled and much less famous Crémant, on the other hand, can provide a similar complexity for very good value (M&S stocks a Crémant de Bourgogne for ten pounds, Aldi a Crémant d’Alsace for just over eight).
Its production is still carefully regulated: it must be aged for a minimum of nine months (compared to champagne’s minimum of fifteen); hand-picking and whole-bunch pressing are used, ensuring a purer must (grape juice); and, crucially, it is still made using the méthode champenoise. In this process, the initial dry white wine (or cuvée) undergoes a second bottle fermentation, during which yeast further breaks down the sugars in the mixture, producing more alcohol and carbon dioxide (which forms the bubbles under pressure), before being aged ‘on the lees’, or with the yeast remaining in the bottle. It is this which, through contact and reaction with the wine, produces the more complex, often toasty or creamy flavours which can be found in a good champagne – in contrast with the flatter notes of prosecco, which is fermented using the shorter, less labour-intensive (and easier to mass-produce) tank method. Unlike champagne, though, Crémant can be produced in several regions, including Alsace, Bourgogne, Limoux, and the Loire, with different stipulations on ageing and grape variety in each. As a result, it varies more widely in style, allowing more scope for choice based on your individual preferences, as well as the potential for a greater number of more or less ill-informed and outlandish ‘tasting’ comments to be made as you relish your glass…
Naturally, Crémant does vary in quality, and it’s also worth remarking that Prosecco is subject to different levels of regulation, with some very high-quality and tightly regulated versions available. But Crémant is almost always a dryer, more multi-dimensional sparkling wine, much closer in style to its famous counterpart. Plus, its relative obscurity, in conjunction with its old-world kudos, means that providing a bottle might also spark conversation (or monologue) and reinforce a knowledgeable, gourmand (or dull, gluttonous) persona (really, this depends on the outlook of your friends…) For someone who unashamedly conforms to many of the characteristics of the stereotypical student, this is a factor not to be overlooked: pretension and cheap alcohol are both highly important. Crémant, then, might just be the way to realise those highbrow boozing dreams.