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3 Classic Regions Turn On the Innovation

From Champagne to Rioja, the Old World is exploring new wine styles

James Lawrence By December 20, 2021
“La Côte aux Enfants” vineyard (aka the Children’s Hillside) in Aÿ, Champagne
“La Côte aux Enfants” vineyard (aka the Children’s Hillside) in Aÿ, Champagne. Photo by Leif Carlsson; courtesy of Bollinger.

The subject of Europe versus the New World can be curiously divisive among wine lovers; it has become a touchstone of where you stand on cultural exploration. Are you for traditional wine styles like Chablis, governed by laws that regulate everything from varieties to labeling? Then you must be a reactionary bore.

Alternatively, do you champion the liberty afforded to winemakers in New Zealand and California, empowering them to make any wine style they feel like? You’re obviously a trailblazer, open to new experiences.

Of course, such binary divisions are generally nonsense. When it comes to wine, at least. The truth is that brands working under the American AVA system must comply with certain stringent rules, while Europe can produce wines as innovative and exciting as anywhere in the New World. 

Yet at first glance, many old school European regions are stuck in a time warp. The list of Bordeaux’s classified wines and Burgundy’s Grand Crus has not changed. The rigid hierarchy has not welcomed new members. But a host of factors, including evolving consumer tastes, is nonetheless encouraging classical regions to explore alternative wine styles. 

Climate change is also partly responsible for this paradigm shift, forcing growers to plant new varieties that can better cope with rising temperatures. Even hoity-toity Bordeaux has a surprise or two up its sleeve. The upshot is that there has never been as many esoteric bottles waiting to be discovered in the Old World, despite what you may have heard.

Kooky still wines in Champagne

The region that staked its global reputation on producing luxury fizz is becoming adept at marketing still wines. Louis Roederer launched a pair of “Coteaux Champenois,” the local name for still wine, in 2020, named Hommage à Camille in tribute to the brand’s famous matriarch. Champagne Drappier also released a small collection of still wines last year — others are bound to follow.

But Champagne’s foremost brands are not taking the easy route by exclusively promoting still versions of the region’s signature grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. Drappier, for example, markets a still wine called Trop m’en Faut!, which is based on Pinot Gris. This white grape variety, common to the Alsace region, has not played a role in the sparkling wines of Champagne for over a century.

The House of Bollinger, in Epernay, Champagne

The House of Bollinger, in Epernay, Champagne. Photo courtesy of Bollinger.

Meanwhile, the family-run Étienne Calsac winery produces a still wine based on a concoction of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and the almost forgotten Arbane and Meslier varieties. There has been much talk recently about climate change in Champagne, and the eventual realignment toward becoming a still wine producer. Interestingly, France’s premier fizz region is attempting to secure its future by reaching into the past. 

“There is an expanding niche for high quality and affordable competitors to top-end Burgundy — white Rioja can deliver just that.”

White wine from a red region

Any word association game that involves Rioja has a predictable outcome. For many consumers, Spain’s leading wine region simply means red, red, and more red. For sure, Rioja’s signature export, usually based on Tempranillo, is delicious, velvety smooth, and irresistibly moreish. Yet the region also produces some of Europe’s finest white wines. Surprised?

One of the most esoteric members of this small but expanding club is the Monopole Clasico white. It was pioneered by the CVNE winery in the 20th century as a cross-regional hybrid; Sherry from Andalusia is combined with white wine from Rioja. “This is how Monopole was made for decades — our family blended the Viura grape with a small percentage of Manzanilla Sherry to add structure and complexity,” said CVNE’s CEO Victor Urrutia. 

“CVNE discontinued Monopole in the late 1900s, as consumer preferences realigned towards more pure and fresh styles. But classical Rioja white is back in vogue again,” he says. “After tasting an old bottle from the 1970s, we decided to reboot Monopole in the 21st century and release the 2014 as a Gran Reserva.” 

According to Urrutia, the market for white Rioja is expanding all the time. Typically crafted from the Viura grape, also known as Macabeo, wineries are entitled to blend in a little Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, and Chardonnay as well. The best examples are aged in oak barrels for several years, adding structure and complexity. 

“There is an expanding niche for high quality and affordable competitors to top-end Burgundy — white Rioja can deliver just that,” says Jose Urtasun, owner of Remirez de Ganuza. He reports that several new Rioja blancos are expected to join the party in 2022. Red Rioja’s hegemony is about to be challenged.

Sparkling Bordeaux

Top-class red Bordeaux is now a luxury item, reserved for presidents, oligarchs, and tech titans

Thankfully, such wines represent only 5% of the region’s approximately 900-million annual bottle production, so there is plenty of excitement to be found elsewhere. For although collectors are obsessed with the red wines of Pauillac and Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux also makes a decent quantity of sparkling wine. But how can Bordeaux, an old school region primarily associated with red varieties, make decent fizz?

Calvet sparkling wine being poured

Calvet is at the forefront of the new wave of Bordeaux Crémants. Photo courtesy of Calvet.

By being extremely large and diverse, that’s how. Bordeaux covers a wide variety of soil types and climatic conditions, including the Entre-Deux-Mers sub-region found between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. Some of Bordeaux’s best bubbly is crafted here, under the designation Crémant de Bordeaux. This is a generic appellation for white and rosé traditional method sparkling wines made in the region, and it’s open to any producer. More and more growers are joining the Crémant de Bordeaux bandwagon, hoping to cash in on the expanding market for affordable celebratory bubbly.

However, it tastes nothing like Moët & Chandon or Bollinger. Many growers blend Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle to make fizzy Bordeaux — this is forbidden in Champagne. Nevertheless, the wines are well-made, with bright fruit, fresh acidity, and a modest price tag. What more could you ask?

3 innovative Old World wines to try:

bottle of Calvet Brut Rosé Crémant de Bordeaux NV

Calvet Brut Rosé Crémant de Bordeaux NV ($18)

Calvet’s rosé continues to be one of the best value sparkling wines made in Bordeaux, and the perfect wine for Christmas parties. It offers a wide variety of flavors and will not clash with anything you throw at it. Expect lovely red berry fruit aromas, with a racy, strawberry-tinged palate. Refreshing, delicious, and great value!

bottle of CVNE Monopole Classico White Rioja 2017

CVNE Monopole Classico White Rioja 2017 ($21)

Viura grapes blended with Manzanilla Sherry results in a very distinctive wine, with aromas of yeast, citrus, pine nuts, and apricot. The wine was fermented in stainless steel before being aged in used Sherry casks for eight months. Fresh and saline, the Monopole Clasico is an ideal sundowner.

bottle of Bollinger La Côte Aux Enfants Aÿ Rouge 2015

Bollinger La Côte Aux Enfants Aÿ Rouge 2015 ($160)

Bollinger was one of the pioneers of still wines in Champagne, producing a silky Pinot Noir red from its special vineyard in the village of Aÿ. It is organically farmed and harvested at very low yields. The 2015 is another standout vintage, bursting with aromas of vanilla, cherry, cloves, and cinnamon. The ripe tannins and fresh acidity are very reminiscent of red Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune.