Pinot Noir

European bottle fermented sparkling wines

This is a (very) non-exhaustive analysis of European sparkling wines made in the traditional method, excepting champagne.  They are all distinctive in their own ways and require good theoretical knowledge of the styles (i.e. you have to know the varieties for each style at a minimum).  

The differentiating features are about climate (fruit ripeness and acid integration), autolytic pick up and acid structure (both variety dependent) and the ‘X factor’ for each style - the distinctive character unique to each style.

Sparkling wines require particularly careful tasting to identify successfully in a blind tasting, but these tips should help.

English sparkling wine - Champagne varieties

  • The acidity is the giveaway here.  Not only is it high or even bracing, it is also resolutely separate from the fruit/body of the wine - not integrated.  The acid structure can really be the dominant feature of the wine.

  • The wine as a whole can be austere

  • The acidity itself can taste a touch green, or unripe

  • Chardonnay dominant wines - and there are many Blanc de Blancs - are powerfully linear.  They really course along.

  • Can show excellent autolytic character

  • Less ripe fruit character even than champagne; sometimes you find a green, ‘hedgerow’ character which comes both from the flavour profile and the quality of the acidity

Cremant d’Alsace - usually Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois

  • Can have moderate to high acidity, which is a little surprising given the texture (see below)

  • Aromatically intense, but does NOT pick up autolytic notes 

  • Only moderately fruited

  • Can have good concentration on the mid palate and (sometimes like Menuier in champagne) for that reason can appear higher in quality than it really is.  The trick is to let it warm up a little and the wine becomes flabby and oily in texture.

Cremant de Loire - almost any variety can be included, but Chenin Blanc is most typical

  • The Chenin Blanc is the key here, and gives a similar acid structure to still examples of the variety

  • Look for a particularly mouth watering, bracing acidity on the finish

  • Not autolytic

  • A certain aromatic funkiness - in addition to the usual honey, wax and bruised apple, a kind of saltiness

Cremant de Jura - Chardonnay and Savagnin

  • Any wine with a good quantity of Savagnin in it will have that distinctive, meaty, gamey note that is so distinctive

  • Chardonnay must be 50% of the blend, but even Chardonnay here has a certain aromatic funk - salty and nutty

  • High acidity

Cremant de Bourgogne - Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

  • The Cremant most similar to champagne, but lacks the complexity or length

  • Slightly richer and fuller than champagne thanks to the warmer climate, but obviously a similar aromatic spectrum

  • The most autolytic of all the Cremants

  • Can be red fruited on the nose and have a more energetic mousse than champagne

Cremant de Bordeaux - all the red and white Bordeaux varieties

  • Rarely seen on export markets so not worth dwelling on

Cremant de Limoux 

  • This is not Blanquette!  Blanquette is the local name for Mauzac, so that variety predominates in Blanquette.  As a result, Blanquette can be intensely bruised apple with very high acidity

  • Cremant was created in 1990 for a more international style, with a particular emphasis on Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, although Mauzac is permitted too

  • A driving, linear acidity from the combination of Chardonnay and Chenin, felt particularly on finish

  • Not as ripe as Cava to the south, but still more flavor dimension than Loire/Bourgogne/Alsace

  • Earthy and funky

Cava

  • Simply riper than any of the above, owing to the warmer climate

  • Can have an earthiness which may be confused with Limoux

  • But greater range of fruit expression beyond just citrus

  • More rounded and gourmand a wine than the French sparklers

  • Acidity is better integrated and less conspicuous 

  • Commercial examples can have notable dosage

Franciacorta - Chardonnay/Pinot Nero/Pinot Bianco

  • The closest lookalike to champagne with the exception of English sparkling wine

  • High quality autolytic notes, often showing considerable complexity

  • Acidity is often racy, especially in Blanc de Blancs styles

  • Riper fruit and more mid palate weight than champagne, as befits the more southerly origin

  • Look out for a telltale waxy/meaty note on the nose, a bit like the smell of the rind on a cured meat.  I used to think this was the Pinot Bianco, but have subsequently found it in non-PB wines too



Identifying varieties in sparkling wines

Identifying grape varieties in bottle fermented sparkling wines is one of the most difficult things to do in blind tasting.  Here are a few guidelines I think about.

CHARDONNAY


In a way, Chardonnay should be the easiest of the three major champagne varieties to recognize.  Yes, a lot of people talk about the finesse of Blanc de Blancs wines and the high quality texture, but for me - as ever - it’s about structure.

Chardonnay is the white equivalent of Cabernet Sauvignon in that it’s a wine with a very strong sense of direction.  It’s really linear and is really going somewhere.  And in sparkling wines you see this so clearly.  There’s a really thrusting acidity which courses along in the mouth - it’s quite a ride.  Anytime it is this pronounced you should consider whether it’s largely or entirely a Chardonnay wine.

PINOT NOIR

Pinot has a more concentrated, dense mid palate sensation than Chardonnay does.  It’s more compact and felt on the mid palate, and lacks the drive of Chardonnay.  And of course, look out for red fruit notes, or - what I have been finding quite useful recently - hints of a mature, mulchy, red Burgundy, aromatically, or, an intense and complex spiciness (especially from the Aube).

MEUNIER

No longer called Pinot Meunier in Champagne!  In (increasingly common) 100% versions from the Vallée de la Marne, can be very broad, ripe and fruity on the mid palate.  Obviously would be confused with Pinot rather than Chardonnay, but ultimately lacks the finesse and subtlety of Pinot Noir, and can be a bit of a fruit bomb.  But when made in a dry style, quite a big, imposing, structured wine - nothing insubstantial or forgettable about it.

BLENDS

Most sparkling wine remains blended however, and as with any blended wines, the above-discussed attributes will be rounded out or blunted just a little.  Single variety wines tend to be more pronounced - but importantly, not necessarily more complete!