Synonymous with celebration and occasion, the complexity and variety of Champagne is a hard act to follow. Today’s focus is on two distinctive and intriguing alternatives, first a Cava lookalike for which the secondary fermentation was kicked off using flor yeasts and whose dosage contains Sherry, then a Crémant du Jura whose dosage contains Vin Jaune.
The traditional method used to make champagne is popularly thought of as producing the best quality sparkling wine. It’s key facet is that the transformation from still to sparkling wine occurs entirety in the bottle.
First the grapes are picked, often slightly early to preserve their acidity, then pressed very gently, giving very pale juice. Each variety grape is fermented into still wine, before assemblage, being blended together in the proportions required for the base wine, known as the cuvée. A mixture of wine, sugar and yeast called the liqueur de tirage is added to the cuvée, which is bottled and topped with a crown cap. The cuvée then begins a slow second fermentation in the bottle, which adds about 1.2 to 2% in alcohol and produces CO2 that is trapped in the bottle, carbonating the wine. Once fermentation is complete, the yeast dies in a process called yeast autolysis, with the autolytic yeast particles (the lees) remaining in the bottle. The wine ages upon the lees for typically 4 or more years, during which period it develops further texture and flavour, especially the bread, biscuit and toast notes characteristic of sparkling wines made this way.
After a period of ageing, the wine is clarified by gradually shaking and tilting the bottle in a process called remuage or riddling, so that the dead yeast cells settle in the bottle neck. Traditionally this labour intensive process was done by hand by a remueur, now normally mechanised. This sediment is then disgorged by placing the bottles upside down in freezing brine solution so that the yeast lees freezes in the bottle neck, shooting out when the crown cap is removed from the pressurised bottle. The space left by disgorgement is topped up with a dosage of wine and sugar (the liqueur d’expédition) that will determine the wine’s sweetness. This liqueur d’expédition helps to balance the acidity and helps with flavour development. Finally the bottles are corked, caged and labelled, and are usually aged for a further few months before release, to allow the liqueur d’expédition to integrate. The classic yeasty character continues to develop after disgorgement, and for wines with dosage, the sugar reacts with proteins released during yeast autoylsis, adding further complex aromas of biscuit, walnut, honey and toast.
Colet Navazos Extra Brut 2011
This wine is a result of a collaboration between Sergi Colet and Equipo Navazos, which started when they discussed the commonalities between Sherry and Champagne, both from chalk soils and with aged wines playing an important role. Their initial idea, yet to come to fruition, was to produce a sparkling wine in Jerez, but after some experimentation they settled on this recipe for a Spanish sparkling wine that celebrates the terroir of sherry country. They’ve been making it again every year since 2007, with the latest release from 2012 disgorged in October 2015.
The wine is produced in the Cava appelation of Penedés using Xarel-lo grapes from the Colet vineyards, with the base wine spending some time under flor, similar to sherry. It’s vinified using the traditional method, with some flor yeasts added to kick off the secondary fermentation, then spending 30 months on lees before disgorgement, and a dosage containing some Palo Cortado and Amontillado from Equipo Navazos.
Pale lemon, decisive effervescence on popping the cork, even on the second day.
Obvious sherried, Oloroso character on the nose. Burnt toasty notes, with nutty roasted spice, cumin and coriander seed. Nutty almond and hazelnut, with distinct saline and salty notes.
Very dry on the palate, with rich mouthfeel, tart acidic fromage frais rather than creamy. Dried apple and mild citrus, with salted almond, chalky minerality and steeliness.
Château Béthanie Crémant du Jura Brut NV
This wine comes from the Jura’s latest and oldest cooperative cellar, the Fruitiere Vinicole d’Arbois, which was originally formed on 4th January 1906 by 26 wine growers from the town of Arbois, and has played a significant part in the history and evolution of modern Jurassic wines.
The base wine is made from Chardonnay using the traditional method, with the dosage for secondary fermentation containing 2cl of Vin Jaune, the region’s famous ‘yellow wine’ made with Savagnin grapes, picked late as ripe as possible, then fermented slowly and aged in old oak Burgundy barrels that are never topped up. The wine becomes partially protected from oxidation by thin veil of yeast, locally called ‘voile’, similar to the flor on sherry, and continues ageing in the barrel for at least six years and three months. After this time only about 62% of the wine remains after evaporation, which is bottled in the unusual stubby clavelin bottle holding 62cl, supposedly the volume left of an original litre put into barrel. Characteristically, Vin Jaune is similar to a full bodied fino sherry, but with added viscosity and complex aromas of nuts, dried fruits and curry spices.
Pale lemon colour. Quite a restrained pop on on removing the cork, though a particularly active effervescence in the glass.
Bruised yellow apple and delicate lemon citrus on the nose, and there’s a distinctive salty sourdough starter, salt baked crust, vegetal baked celeriac character, and some honeyed, nutty notes.
Dry, not bone dry though, with more residual than the Colet Navazos. Honeyed and nutty on the palate, walnut and hazelnut, with toast and lees. Bruised yellow apple and delicate lemon citrus fruit, with nice savoury, chalky minerality.
Two fascinating sparking wines with distinctive though subtle characteristics of sherry and Vin Jaune respectively. Each has particular strengths, the Colet Navazos being the most dry and precise, whereas the Crémant du Jura has more richness and a sense of being older than in actuality. Both are very refreshing and quaffable, with infinitely more complexity than the ubiquitous Prosecco, giving superb value alternatives to much more expensive Champagne, their uniqueness making them especially beguiling.