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Thursday 17 April 2014
Ben Kennedy
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Mon dieu! Are those bubbles I see before me?

9th December, 2013 by Ben Kennedy

A sparkling surprise is in store for visitors to the ancient underground caves of St Emilion.

Remuage sur pupitre

Remuage sur pupitre

We have almost 60 different appellations contrôlées in the Bordeaux region, a couple of which I have not yet had the pleasure to taste (namely Haut Benauge and far-off Bordeaux Ste-Foy).  They cover the full spectrum of wine styles that you would expect from the region, dry red and white table wines and of course the famed pudding wines such as Barsac and Sauternes.  One thing that you may not know, though, is that we also have two AOCs for Crémant de Bordeaux, in white and rosé, for sparkling wine made by the méthode champenoise.

Last week I took a group to visit the oldest producer of this local peculiarity, Les Cordeliers de St Emilion, tucked away in the picturesque village.  They occupy the ruined cloisters of the Franciscan abbey on the hill on the east side of the village, easy to miss if you’re on a day trip and heading straight for the ‘downtown’ restaurants and wine shops.

Unbelievably, the whole building, which originally lay to the east of the village, was dismantled in the 14th century, brought within the walls for fear of pillage, and reconstructed.  Of course the whole thing was ransacked anyway in the revolution, and a tonsured pate has not been seen since.  The name of the building, and the wine, comes from the fact that the brown-robed monks wore a corde liée, or knotted cord, around their waist.  Production began here in 1892 and has remained privately-owned since then.

It feels rather strange going down into a traditional St Emilion cave, where originally building stone was quarried but where now we’re quite used to seeing stocks of red wine ageing, and to find a full-blown Champagne-style production taking place.  The bottles are racked and riddled in exactly the same way as in the grand houses of Reims or Epernay, a process which takes six months for the sediment to reach the neck of the bottle ready for disgorgement.  When one of my charges pulled a bottle out and turned it round to get a better look, our guide understandably let out a very Gallic expletive, arms and all.

It’s also a bit of a surprise to taste sparkling wines made from 100% Sémillon or Cabernet Franc, among the seven white and 12 red varieties permitted by the INAO when they made the appellation official in 1990.  And by the way, if Latour or Lafite wanted to make a blanc de noirs from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Pauillac, the AOC would allow it!

The basic cuvées were fresh and crisp but did not offer that much in flavour profile, although the bulle was very tight and pleasing to the palate.  There are a couple of semi-dry wines which I struggled with, just because it’s not my style, or at least they really needed a tarte tatin to be at their best.  However, the higher quality, Grand Vintage range were really rather good, in particular the white which was firm and rich, with a nutty edge.  (Some of this found its way into the boot and will be enjoyed over Christmas, maybe as a breakfast wine or when the occasion does not merit the expense of the real McCoy.)

A surprisingly large amount of crémant de Bordeaux is made: 2012 CIVB figures show a volume of white roughly equivalent to the Blaye reds, although it is very hard to lay your hands on it anywhere outside France.  This is probably for the same reason that you will not find half of France’s cheeses in your local deli – they find a ready market at home, so why export?  That said, the current owners of Les Cordeliers are making moves to exploit the local tourist traffic and communicate their wares in preparation, no doubt, for a push in export sales.

A lot is said about English sparkling wine these days (à propos, my own favourite is Ridge View, partly because as a teenager I lived on the farm that is now their vineyard), and consumption appears for the time being to remain staunchly domestic.  The best crémant de Bordeaux are approaching a similar price level, but I cannot see our local production reaching for the serious recognition sought by the leading English producers.  At less than 7 € a bottle most crémant is just a very affordable way to enjoy bubbles, and if it’s local, so much the better.  And of course if you’re visiting Bordeaux on your summer holidays and you are looking for something a lot more refreshing than a Grand Cru Classé, you should pay a visit to the caves of Les Cordeliers and enjoy some of the local fizz, steeped in history.

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