The end-of-year celebrations approach, synonymous with encounters and good moments spent with family or friends. A good glass of wine contributes to the friendly atmosphere of these beautiful occasions. The sparkling wine is the wine of celebration par excellence. The sparkling Crémant d’Alsace is riding high and celebrated in 2016 the 40 years of the appellation. The village of Riquewihr, with the Dopff Au Moulin estate, has been the birthplace of sparkling wine in Alsace for more than 100 years !
I invite you to accompany me in search of this Alsatian delicacy…
A 40th anniversary that crowns a much older tradition…
Year of birth of the appellation Crémant d’Alsace. At the time, 40 years ago, young journalism student in Strasbourg, I occasionally launched an expedition into the “distant” vineyard on the side of Riquewihr and Eguisheim. As much for the beauty of villages and landscapes as for the wine from elsewhere… I remember a bubble wine that tried a breakthrough (and in our student festivals) as a cheap alternative to Champagne that was a luxury out of reach of our purses.
40 years already. Time has passed, the wines have changed, those who drink them and those who produce them too. But the necessity of partying has remained. The celebration gives the rhythm to our lives as bubbles of optimism in our daily lives. Family, loves, buddies, reunion, drinks party … So many good moments that should be celebrated by raising a flute filled with joyful bubbles! A wine that sparkles! This is essential ! But by what enchantment do these bubbles make us so cheerful? Simply because the effervescence makes the alcohol more readily assimilable in the blood.
The truth was revealed to me a long time ago, one day that I was waiting for a free seat at the restaurant. In the neighboring seminar room, the speaker of a pharmaceutical lab explained that if you wanted to fight quickly against your headache, you had to take an “effervescent” aspirin. The effervescence, he said, made the wall of the stomach more permeable to the active ingredients of the medicine… The medication for a successful feast is therefore an effervescent wine. A delicious Cremant of Alsace for example!
Pilgrimage to the sources of a sparkling wine!
The history of Crémant d’Alsace did not begin with a spontaneous appearance in the summer of 1976. The birth of the appellation Crémant d’Alsace was the completion of a long history of effort and tenacity. In fact, the Crémant d’Alsace draws its roots in the tradition of Champagne…
Often, great discoveries happen by chance. Bubbles have not always been very popular in Champagne! Do you know that until the 16th century the wines of Champagne were exclusively red? And then, fashion has changed. Their rich customers have asked winegrowers to produce more and more clear wines, much more difficult to manage. At the time, the great mechanisms that transform grape juice into wine are still poorly known. The champagne winemakers bottle in the spring wines whose fermentation has been interrupted by the cold of winter. Thanks to increasingly cold winters (the 17th century is experiencing a mini ice age in Europe), the fermentation starts again in bottle in the spring, and makes the wine sparkle. What a catastrophe ! This defect is so great that this wine is called the “wine of the devil.” As the French glass of the time is not of very good quality, some bottles explode!
These damned unwanted bubbles then make the despair of the champagne winemakers!
But the British, who are great buyers of wines from this region come to like it. Here is a default quickly transformed into quality by British who will take a close look at these strange bubbles in wine. Always aware for the bargain, they will buy the Champagne wine in barrels and bottle it in England (their bottles are stronger than those produced in France) adding a little cane sugar (a novelty from their colonies) to favor the creation of the foam. Let’s dare the shortcut: the creators of Champagne are … the British!
In the eighteenth century, German investors from large bourgeois families and fell in love with this sparkling wine invade the vineyards of Champagne … Indeed ! These great champagnes Deutz, Krug, Heidsieck, Moët, Mumm and other Roederer were created by Germans!
In the early 1800s, interest in sparkling wine explodes throughout Europe. Makers experiment all sorts of techniques.
But in Champagne, the method used to produce sparkling wines in two phases, the one of the initial discovery: a normal vinification of still wine followed by a bottling and a foaming in the same bottle. This allowed the Champagne houses to buy wines out of the Champagne region and then transform them in a sparkling one.
I knew that wines from the Côtes de Moselle, around Metz, were integrated into Champagne before 1870. What about the wines of Alsace?
In 1890, Charles Hommell, winegrower and mayor of Ribeauvillé, spoke of what was happening in Alsace before 1870, the date of the annexation of Alsace-Moselle by Germany. “The main outlet for our wines, apart from Alsace, was always German-speaking Switzerland. France always buy very little in our country (to understand “in Alsace”). Champagne makers were hardly the only ones, before the annexation, who bought large quantities of wines from Barr to transform it. ”
Alsace becoming part of Germany in 1870, the outlets to Champagne became complicated. Since the Germans were fond of sparkling wines, why not produce these wines directly in Alsace? Charles Hommell de Ribeauvillé, too, seized the opportunity.
In 1897, the German pharmacists held congress in Strasbourg. In their report (in German), I found and translated a very interesting sentence.
“The Hommell house at Rappoltsweiler (Ribeauvillé – Editor’s note) has been successfully producing, with excellent local products (grapes), sparkling wines of various qualities and at different prices for many years. The quality produced from the (vineyard) Zahnacker is considered excellent (“brilliant” in the original text) ”
And now, we know that the production of sparkling wines in Alsace does not have 40 years of existence but at least … 140!
Some Champagne in Riquewihr!
It was then that a young man of Riquewihr, Julien Dopff, only 18 years old, visited in the year 1900 the Universal Exhibition of Paris with his father. Young heir of a family estate created in 1574, he is fascinated by a demonstration of the new technique of disgorging made by champagne winemakers.
It should be known that until the end of the 19th century, bottles of sparkling wines produced according to the traditional method of Champagne contained the deposit of the yeast residues associated with the creation of foam. Consequently, it was necessary to use a decanter before serving the wine to rid it of the deposit.
Julien Dopff succeeded in convincing his father and spent 2 years in Champagne to become familiar with the production of Champagne. Back in Riquewihr, he will develop and market a “Champagne Dopff” made in Alsace. The musts were bought in Champagne and “imported” in Alsace (then in Germany) for vinification. Vinification, bottling and foaming were done at their Riquewihr cellars. An office in Epernay served as a springboard to the French market and countries outside Germany.
In the aftermath of the First World War, Alsace returned to France. Meanwhile, from 1914 to 1918, the war had finished destroying 90% of the Alsatian vineyard.
But reunification will not benefit the vineyards of Alsace, too small and in competition with other French vineyards which do not welcome them…
Julien Dopff will have to stop making his “Champagne”, the use of the appellation champenoise being, in France, reserved for wines elaborated on the spot, in Champagne.
The wine estate Hommell of Ribeauvillé has disappeared. On the other hand, with its experience, the Dopff estate continued to produce quality sparkling wines using the same Champagne method. On the German market there existed (and still exists) two qualitative designations for sparkling wines: the all-comers are called “Schaumwein” (sparkling wine) whereas the quality wines are called “Sekt”.
However, for the Dopff estate, which had returned to French territory after WW1, only the generic designation of “sparkling wine” was permitted.
In the immense flow of sparkling wines still produced in greater numbers throughout Europe, the consumer tended to mix up all these wines and think of general mediocrity of sparkling wines that were not Champagne.
At the top of the qualitative scale was Champagne. Below Champagne, it was difficult to differentiate the sparkling wines produced from grapes of quality and elaborated by the Champagne method (as Dopff did at Riquewihr) from those from wines coming from all over and treated by the method of the closed vat: all the wine is put into a large vat where it becomes effervescent in barely 10 days. Then the sparkling wine is bottled.
Wines of origin of poor quality + inexpensive method of production = uninteresting sparkling wines but cheap and profitable for those who produce them.
A journey of struggle for the pioneers of the appellation Crémant d’Alsace
Pierre Dopff, son of Julien, then Pierre-Etienne, son of Pierre, produced sparkling wine since the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1970s, three other estates also tried to produce sparkling wine. In Eguisheim, the winegrower’s cooperative (which was to become Wolfberger) was very interested in sparkling wines. In secret, with the help of the winegrower’s cooperative of Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule in departement Allier, they had undertaken to create sparkling with Champagne method with wine of Alsace.
In Alsace, in the early 1970s, only four estates produced a total of 500,000 bottles of sparkling wine.
Certainly, the appellation of origin “vins d’Alsace” was obtained in 1962 but unfortunately, the decree had “forgotten” to mention sparkling wines! Consequently the wines of Alsace once transformed in sparkling wines lost their appellation Vin d’Alsace. It was impossible on the label to distinguish them from the huge crowd of low-level sparkling wines! Such a waste !
As production accelerated rapidly, it became urgent to get the appellation. In 1974, the four pioneering estates of Alsace (Wofberger, Westhalten, Dopff Au Moulin and Sparr, two cooperative wineries and two merchants) joined their forces to promote their work, to shake up the national bureaucracy and to obtain that sparkling wine produced in Alsace could retain the name Vin d’Alsace. But the problem of the name “mousseux” remained intact.
Elsewhere in France, in the Loire Valley, in the region of Die, in Burgundy, we already produced a quality sparkling wine and we faced the same problem of brand image compared to sparkling lower-end. These regions then joined Alsace to create the Syndicat Général des Vins Mousseux de France.
After obtaining the authorization for wines of “appellation controlee” produced according to the method champenoise it was necessary to find a name for this sparkling wine of quality…
Because to interest producers and consumers to this new wine it needed a specific name, synonymous with quality.
Someone then proposed the term “Crémant”, a Champagne term that had fallen into disuse but that once referred to a Champagne with light foam, therefore a wine of high quality. Discussions among the members of the new union … Discussions with the Champagne authorities who agreed to authorize the use of the term “Crémant”.
The success of the operation went through an indisputable quality that allows producers to earn money from this wine without being tempted to switch to wines of lower quality but more profitable. A law was needed to confirm and secure the process. This was done in May 1975. After some adventures, the long-awaited decree of application was finally signed on 24 August 1976 by Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister…
And finally, success!
For the 4 pioneers of Crémant d’Alsace, two winegrowers’ cooperatives and two merchants, a new future, but also new challenges: develop the product while respecting strict quality rules but also develop the number of producers … The early converts were few in the beginning. Then, step by step, the movement grew. More and more quickly.
Today, 40 years after the creation of the appellation, the Crémant d’Alsace producers’ union has more than 500 members, although some do not make the second fermentation (foaming) themselves.
The figures are significant, irrefutable: from year to year, Crémant d’Alsace is gaining a greater success, in Alsace but also in other French and European regions. Consequently the Crémant d’Alsace has become today the first sparkling AOC wine consumed at home in France, after Champagne. More than one in four bottles of wine produced in Alsace is a Crémant. What is the key to success of this rising wine, rising … like its bubbles?
In my next article I will tell you what is in the bottle. Stay tuned.
Sources of information for this publication:
• « L’histoire du Crémant d’Alsace », Nicole Laugel, Editeur Jérôme Do Bentzinger, 2008
•« Festgabe der Theilnehmern an der 26. Jahresversammlung des Deutschen Apothekervereins in Strassburg am 23.-27. Aug. 1897 » – Library of California
•« Vignerons de Ribeauvillé, ouvriers propriétaires et tâcherons, dans le système des engagements momentanés et du travail sans engagements, d’après les renseignements recueillis sur les lieux en septembre 1888 par M. Charles Hommell » – Library of California
•« Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne sparkling wine », Tom Stevenson, Absolute Press 1998
•Archives du domaine Dopff au Moulin à Riquewihr.
•« Deutsche Sektreklame von 1879-1918 » —
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