Champagne, Cava, Cremant – What’s The Difference?

champagne glassesWe get lots of questions about the names and terms used for different sparkling wines, so here’s a quick primer for anyone who is feeling a touch confused.

The big name in the field is Champagne, a label that used to be applied to many different kinds of fizz. Today – after years of negotiation and some fairly aggressive litigation by the Champenoise – the “Champagne” name is restricted to wines that:

  • Come from the Champagne region of France
  • Are made from seven authorized grapes (but mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Menieur)
    Get their bubbles from a secondary fermentation that takes place in bottle
  • Rest on the lees – dead yeast cells – from that secondary fermentation for at least 15 months for non-vintage or 30 months for vintage dated wines

The story of how Champagne was first created and popularized is long and winding and full of myth (no, Dom Perignon did not “invent” Champagne – he tried to stop it from fizzing!), but it’s ended up with Champagne holding the title of, arguably, the best sparkling wine in the world and certainly the most expensive. So while drinking “real” Champagne is a treat – and something we all should do more often! – it’s not surprising that many other sparkling wines have emerged to try to slake our thirst for fine fizz at more reasonable prices.

Sparklers from Italy, Spain and the U.S. Many Americans start their sparkling wine adventure with crisp, fruity wines from Italy like Moscato di Asti or Prosecco. We love them both, but neither uses Champagne grapes or even the Champagne method to create fizz. These wines undergo secondary fermentation in a large tank and are then bottled with the fizz already in the wine. It’s a less expensive process that won’t give you the same texture or toasty flavors found in méthode champenoise wines.

The best of Spain’s sparkling Cava wines can deliver much more Champagne quality at a fraction of the price. These wines are made using the méthode champenoise (although they’re not allowed to use that term on the label – nothing to suggest competition with Champagne is allowed!), and can show some of the creaminess and yeasty, toasty notes we love in Champagne. But Cava is usually made with different grapes – macabeu, parellada and xarel·lo are most common – which give the wines different flavors and often a nuttier, more oxidative character.

Most top-notch American sparkling wines are made with Champagne’s fermentation methods and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, and in many cases, the companies and even the same winemakers who make the best wines in Champagne create these American wines. But most grow in warmer climates and in richer soils than you find in Champagne, so they tend to be a bit heartier and seldom quite as finely textured as true Champagne.

France’s Cremant. So, what about Cremant? The term was originally used to denote wines from Champagne that had a little less fizz than regular Champagne, but that style and usage have fallen away today. Now the French use “Cremant” to designate sparkling wines made outside of Champagne using the Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. You’ll find Cremant wines from all across France, many – like Cremant d’Alsace – using very different grapes from Champagne (e.g. Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even Riesling).

Cremant de Bourgogne. Which brings us to the Cremant wines of Burgundy: Cremant de Bourgogne. Sparkling wine in Burgundy dates from the mid-1820s when the brothers Petiot, who owned vineyards in the Cote Chalonnaise (Burgundy’s southern regions), hired a bright young winemaker from Champagne to make their still wines. Recognizing the grapes he’d seen grown at home (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and the same type of limestone-rich soils, he soon persuaded the Petiot brothers to let him try his hand at making fizzy Burgundy.

It was a hit, and over the next 150 years sparkling Burgundy became a popular wine with both consumers (who loved the fizz and savings) and winegrowers (who were able to make it using grapes that didn’t ripen well enough for still wines). Naturally, some Cremants were excellent wines made by meticulous winemakers, and some were utter plonk made by folks out to make a buck.

To control quality and help establish sparkling Burgundy’s brand, in 1975 the French government created the Cremant de Bourgogne appellation. To qualify as Cremant de Bourgogne, the wine must be made from legal Burgundy grapes (Beaujolais’ Gamay can be up to 20%) and undergo secondary fermentation in bottle. Critically, the rules require a minimum of one full year’s aging on the lees before release, ensuring that the wines have time to soften, gain depth, and add extra layers of flavors.

Cremant de Bourgogne used to be made from vineyards across Burgundy, including from grapes grown in what are now 1er and Grand Cru appelations in the Cote d’Or. With soaring demand and prices for grapes from these sites, today most Cremant comes from vineyards in the far north (Auxerre) or the far south (Cote Chalonnaise) of the region. As the Oxford Companion to Wine says, “Cremant made in the north is usually much lighter and crisper,” while “Cremant from southern Burgundy can be full and soft, a good-value alternative to bigger styles of Champagne.”

International Wine Review’s comment, “Good-value alternative to bigger styles of Champagne,” describes Cremant de Bourgogne, and especially Domaine Michel Sarrazin’s Cremant de Bourgogne to a “T’. Although at these special prices, “great-value” might be more accurate still!

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