|My drinking buddy, the police commissioner of Beaune|
For more than a century, two of the three best wine regions in France fought a vicious war of words, calling each other's wine unhealthy. Only when Champagne fully committed to sparkling wine did this wine war end. Today, red wines from Champagne are so obscure that I've never seen one on a wine list.
But Burgundy makes plenty of sparkling wine: Boisset alone makes more than 10 million bottles a year at Maison Louis Bouillot. However, Champagne-Burgundy hostilities are unlikely to restart because everyone accepts that Champagne is the best place for bubblies -- if you spend enough money.
However, in the daily-use price range, Burgundy is a better bet. It's hard to find any bottle of Champagne for under $30, much less a good one, while good bottles of Crémant de Bourgogne can be had as cheaply as $12.
"People abroad do not know Crémant de Bourgogne," says Agnès Vitteaut, owner of Sarl Vitteaut-Alberti. "The reference is Champagne. So our job is to prove our wine is as good as Champagne. It's difficult even in France.
Maybe Champagne is the wrong reference point. I'd rather drink Crémant de Bourgogne than Prosecco or Cava, its main price competitors. Burgundy has a huge advantage over other affordable sparkling wine regions: it grows the same grapes as Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. On the downside, grapes from the best vineyards in Burgundy go into still wines. This more than anything else puts a glass ceiling on Crémant de Bourgogne. I'll bet some of the Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis could make 95+-point bubblies if they wanted to, but they get more money making Grand Cru Chablis.
I spent a morning tasting Crémant de Bourgognes that are available in the US and chatting with winemakers about them. Here were my favorites.
The wine has a noticeable floral, herbal nose. It opens with light strawberry and finishes with floral notes.
Mourllion says when it's time to replant the vineyard, the company will look to Alsace for some Pinot Beurot grapes and try to get special authorization to use them.
I asked why the wine is called "chataigner," which means oak tree. I expected it to be oaky, but it's not at all.
"It has nothing to do with the wine," Mourllion says. "We have a big oak tree in the plot. It's bothering us; if you want to drive a tractor, you have to go around it. But it looks nice."
I also liked Maison Albert Sounit Crémant de Bourgogne, the simple entry-level wine, for its bright lemon fruit and good acidity.
Maison Louis Bouillot "Perle d'Ivoire" Crémant de Bourgogne blanc de blancs and Maison Louis Bouillot "Perle d'Or" Crémant de Bourgogne 2007 rosé: You'd expect the region's largest sparkling winemaker to have some good wines in its portfolio. The Perle d'Ivoire spends three years on the lees before disgorgment, amazing treatment for a wine I can find online for under $15. Its earthy nose with hints of pepper add gravitas to a palate of bright lemon fruit.
The rosé, made entirely from Pinot Noir, has an earthy, mushroomy nose like a still wine, and elegant mouthfeel and a nice finish with plenty of strawberry on the finish.
Enologist Frédéric Brand is from Champagne, and has been working at Louis Bouillot for three years. I asked the obvious question: What's the main difference between Burgundy and Champagne? His answer was part obvious and part not: "The terroir and the grape varieties, because we use Aligoté and Gamay along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We also press a little bit more than Champagne." About 70% of Louis Bouillot's portfolio is made by the Charmat method, essentially carbonation, but those wines are sold very cheaply in France; the wines exported to the US are made by the traditional secondary-fermentation-in-bottle method.
This wine is 100% Pinot Noir and I'd compare it to vintage Champagne because, unusually for Crémant de Bourgogne, it has a fairly minerally nose. The fruit is juicy and peachy, and there's just a hint of Sherry on the finish. Wish I'd spent an evening with it.
Maison TMF Crémant de Bourgogne Cuvée F Argent and Maison TMF Crémant de Bourgogne "Les Bulles d'Or" rosé: The argent (silver) reminds me of some grower Champagnes with its earthiness, though there's also plenty of lemon fruit. The rosé is delightful, with light strawberry fruit that's just a pleasure to drink.
At last night's dinner, I was unexcited about getting beef bourguignon, probably the best-known dish from Burgundy. I never order it in the US because I find it heavy and boring.
Wow, it's different here.
Good food writing requires enthusiasm, and I probably should rave about how great the dish was. In fact, it's still not my favorite; I'd rather eat a nice piece of meat expertly grilled. But it was eye-opening to know that I formed my judgment of beef bourguignon based entirely on a few experiences with what were essentially false versions made for the American palate.
Think how that applies to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.