Like most of you, my normal Valentine’s Day drink of choice is Champagne. Tom Cannavan has just recommend a selection of tempting rosés Champagnes, but this year, with every other news headline focused on the economic crisis, strikes and job losses, there must be alternatives to opening a bottle – or two – of something that’s going to cost at least 20 quid a pop.And it seems I’m not along – Champagne sales have fallen by over 20% in recent months, according to figures released by the CIVC (Champagne’s trade body). Whether this is in response to last year’s price rises or this year’s recession, I’m not sure – but I suspect there are going to be a lot of people looking for alternatives to Champagne this February.
Cava and Prosecco are the obvious choices, of course – not to mention New World Champagne-alikes – but it’s well worth looking beyond the obvious and discovering some of France’s other sparkling wines, the crémants.
If you’re not familiar with them, it’s not much of a surprise – they’ve tended to get overlooked in recent years in the stampede for the Champagne aisles. Many of France’s wine-growing regions have long made sparkling wines using the Champagne method – or traditional method, as it has been known since the 1980s – but none of them have the renown of their northern French cousins. Key regions producing crémants that are fairly widely available in the UK are (in no order other than alphabetical) Alsace, Burgundy, Loire and Limoux. Saumur and Vouvray, in the Loire, also make some very classy sparklies.
Crémant d’Alsace can be made from the Pinots – Blanc, Gris and Noir – along with Auxerrois, Riesling and even Chardonnay. One of the best I’ve tasted recently is Tesco Finest Alsace Crémant Riesling 2005 (£8.99), which is packed with zesty citrus fruit. There’s a bit of residual sugar to round out the crisp acidity on the palate. This would be my pick if I was going to tuck into some Thai seafood on the 14th – the lime and lemongrass notes on the wine would complement the Thai flavours while the residual sugar would help to tame some of the chilli heat.
Crémant de Bourgogne
Burgundy is a fine source of some Chardonnay-based crémants and, to a lesser extent, some rosé versions based on Pinot Noir (although sometimes some Gamay is added). Waitrose Sparkling Burgundy Blanc de Blancs NV (£8.99) caught my eye at a recent tasting thanks to its pleasantly honeyed palate. It’s so rich and ripe that it could take on a dish with a fair bit of weight – monkfish with spiced lentils would be my Valentine’s Day recommendation. Marks & Spencer’s Sparkling Burgundy NV (£9.99) is also worth a look.Also very reasonable is the Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé NV (£9.50, Waitrose) which although it lacks complexity, is very pretty and fruity. Serve it with oven-roasted salmon that you’ve marinated in ginger, soy, star anise and sesame, accompanied by a simple udon noodle salad.
Crémant de Limoux
Limoux in the Languedoc, is a relatively cool zone, which makes it a great place to grow white grapes, particularly Chardonnay. There’s a good dollop of Chardonnay in Antech Cuvée St Laurent Crémant de Limoux NV (£7.95, The Wine Society, 01438 737 700), along with some Chenin Blanc. All together, it adds up to a gently sparkling wine with notes of bruised apple and nuts on the palate. It’s a great apéritif wine, but it also has enough body to stand up to white fish dishes, or even roast pork with apple sauce.
Crémants of the Loire
Moving north, once again, the Loire is a particularly strong source of crémants, many of which are made from Chenin Blanc. I was lucky enough to have presented a range of them late last year to a group as part of a food and wine matching exercise. Among the wines we tasted were Domaine Champteloup Tête de Cuvée Brut 2005 (£8.54, Tesco) and Ackerman Rémy-Pannier’s Cuvée Privée Brut NV (£7.10, Hayward Brothers), both blends of 70% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay and 10% Cabernet Franc. They were paired with a dish of tangy goat’s cheese salad, earthy wild mushrooms, sweet beetroot and walnuts and although the differences between the two wines seemed negligible when they were tasted alone, when matched with the food the differences between them were more apparent. The linear Champteloup cut through the richness of dish while the rounder Ackerman worked to enhance its full flavours.
Another Loire Crémant worth trying is the Langlois Crémant de Loire Rosé NV (£10.99, Oddbins), made from 100% Cabernet Franc. It’s a fairly rich cuvée, with plenty of fruit and weight. Although we tasted it during the presentation with a restaurant dish of roast quail with a spiced apple chutney, I prefer the way I serve it at home, with roast quail or chicken breasts that I marinate in a mixture of ras-el-hanout (a blend of spices from Morocco) and olive oil for several hours before cooking. Serve with a green salad spiked with pomegranate seeds and chopped walnuts for the full effect.
Finally, when it comes to wines from specific appellation zones within the Loire, Bouvet Ladubay Saumur Brut NV (£10.49, Majestic) and Huet Vouvray Pétillant 2001 (£12.50, The Wine Society) both punch way above their weight. I’d want to drink them with a dish of roast halibut wrapped in smoky bacon and served with a gently caramelised onion cake, creamy mashed potatoes and a tangy beurre blanc sauce.