A Serious Case for Sweet, Fizzy Wine

Artisanal off-dry, fizzy wines—of which Bugey-Cerdon is the poster child—have made headway amongst some of the wine world's avant-garde. But will they ever really happen? Jon Bonné on what's held these "happy wines" back, and why they deserve a place at the table.

sweet fizzy wine jon bonne bugey

Dinner was at Night + Market in Los Angeles, not a spot for timid tastes. Larb comes laced with pork liver and pork blood. Snacks involve fried pig tails and a polite-but-firm footnote chides the timid: “spice level cannot be altered.” Yet the moment of hesitation came when we ordered a bottle of Moussamoussettes, a fizzy mix of grolleau gris and gamay from Agnès and René Mosse, in the Loire’s Anjou area.

Our server paused. Did we understand it was a little sweet and a little funky?

Wasn’t that the point? Kris Yenbamroong’s cooking is unapologetically feral, without losing that quintessential Thai balance: sweet and fiery, sour and salty. The flavors howl, but they howl in harmony. That’s what makes a good bottle of the Mosse such a pleasure, too: Its sweet and savory sides (lily bulbs, black sesame) come together on the fringes of taste. The wine’s quiet, even mischievous touch of sugar is a defiant reminder that it’s made from grapes, and grape sugar.

I mention the Moussamoussettes, in this particular context, because it represents a curious category of wines that has found a fashionable sort of traction: slightly sweet, fizzy wines that come not from an industrial tradition, a la Asti Spumante, but from the farm.

The poster child for these wines is probably Bugey-Cerdon, a cherished but little-known mountain appellation due west of Geneva. Sparkling Bugey-Cerdon, made from gamay and poulsard, is one of those irresistible orphans beloved by wine people. Strawberry-scented, mineral-edged and always refreshing, it is constantly championed by very serious sommeliers and buyers. It appears, and inevitably disappears, from wine list after wine list. It sits quietly on shelves, tucked behind the Prosecco. I recall my moment of conversion, near 12 years ago, when a bottle of Alain Renardat-Fache’s Cerdon—the appellation’s gold standard—was described to me as “the happiest wine in the world.” I was sold.

How often have I returned to the Renardat-Fache, which always makes me happy when I see it? Once a year? Twice?

It’s no different with other standard-bearers of the bubbly and slightly sweet, like Jean-Paul Brun’s FRV100 (read it out loud in French and it says “effervescent”), made from gamay in the southern Beaujolais. We love these wines, we advocate for them, and yet they never quite achieve escape velocity. We’re like Gretchen in Mean Girls, always trying to make the word “fetch” happen. On a serious level, we just haven’t quite managed to make sweet fizzy wine happen.

I have been hoping that it might be different today, because the latest round of pét-nats and their siblings seem to have found a modest traction, mostly in what we’ll loosely call naturalist wine bars but more broadly as well. The Moussamousettes was espied not long ago at Brooklyn’s Four Horsemen; same with Lemasson’s “Pow Blop Wizz,” which I drank last week with fried squid at Wildair on the Lower East Side. It’s not exactly mainstreaming (but then, the mainstream is no longer the mainstream) but these wines need every bit of partisanship they can get.

Given the latitude afforded small producers today, I see an opening for the artisan versions of these wines. The neuroses of the past are, I believe, largely left with the drinkers of that era. That you can eat pork-blood larb with your Moussamoussettes today, rather than ketchup-y sweet pad Thai, is a sign that we’re evolving beyond the narrow tastes of the past. And the fact that these wines are honest products from small farmers plays in contrast to the sweet fizz of the past, which was almost inevitably factory-made.

The recent sightings underscore these wines’ true value: That bit of sugar can help balance out the fringes of flavor in food—intense acidity and spice, but also, at times, fattiness and fishiness. Ramp up the counterpoint of flavor to a Night + Market level, and it seems almost crazy that we’re not drinking sweet fizzy wine with edgier examples of Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese—even eastern European food.

Lately, more specimens of these wines have appeared, which gives me hope that this time might be different. The Côte Roannaise, a tiny gamay stronghold in the very upper Loire, is exporting off-dry sparkling versions from Robert Sérol and from Romain Paire of Domaine des Pothiers, among others, made in traditional ancestrale style. A handful have appeared from the ever-fashionable Jura, too, although that area (like the Loire) is more interested in Champagne-style crémant, and its quirkier sparkling wines seem to vary their sweetness from vintage to vintage. You never know what you’re going to get.

That instability of style might help to explain the Mean Girls-style drubbing. But even the Cerdon or FRV100, which are always consistent, have never managed to hit breakout status—even with all of the good wine-nerd juju circulating around them.

That brings us to what I think is the real concern unmasked by these wines. The more cynical (or maybe clear-eyed) among wine people love to talk about how Americans talk dry but drink sweet. I was told this by way too many sparkling winemakers in California, mostly as justification for their cloyingly sweet—but, per their label, “dry”—wines.

They’re not wrong, though. For three decades or more, Americans have been sold on the notion of drinking “dry” wines, where “dry” is an analogue for “quality.” Often these “dry” wines are anything but, which might mean a wisp of phantom sugar lurking in a buttery chardonnay, but can extend all the way to a wine like Gallo’s Apothic Red (technically, not sold as dry, but also never with sweetness mentioned on the label), a wine with so much sugar that the Germans might qualify it as halbtrocken—or, half-dry. But the moment you unmask a wine’s sweetness to American drinkers—or at least drinkers of a certain generation—it becomes a pariah. Our neuroses on that front, which help to explain why sweet German riesling has been an uphill battle for decades, could fill a Freudian textbook.

It extends even to extra-dry, sec and demi-sec Champagnes, all of which have more sugar than “brut,” and all of which have been essentially ignored—even though they’re closer to Champagne’s historic flavor than today’s brut wines.

And so we’re left facing a tough bit of aesthetic dissonance: Whether or not Americans like to drink sweet, we still need to talk dry. Consider it the last remnant of the great, awkward maturing of our wine culture. All through the 1980s and 1990s, we were taught that serious wine was dry wine—and that sweetness was lowbrow.

What, in turn, caused that? In part, the sugary tendencies of the cheap jug wines of the day, and the “dryness” of new varietal chardonnays or merlots that stood in classy contrast. But the fear of sugar also emerged from the very thing I’m now championing: sweet fizzy wines. Dial back a generation and look at the popularity of Cold Duck; or of Asti Spumante, the cheap, sweet analogue to the more refined Moscato d’Asti. (Moscato’s returned success in recent years should be heartening to those who think it might be different this time. Come to think of it, Gallo isn’t exactly complaining that their Barefoot Moscato is going unappreciated on the supermarket shelf.) Or look at the enduring success of Riunite, whose—again, generally sweet—Lambrusco was, for much of the 1970s and ‘80s, the most popular Italian wine in America. When we were less neurotic about our sweet teeth, sweet wine reigned—fizzy sweet wine, in particular.

Given the latitude afforded small producers today, I see an opening for the artisan versions of these wines. The neuroses of the past are, I believe, largely left with the drinkers of that era. That you can eat pork-blood larb with your Moussamoussettes today, rather than ketchup-y sweet pad Thai, is a sign that we’re evolving beyond the narrow tastes of the past. And the fact that these wines are honest products from small farmers plays in contrast to the sweet fizz of the past, which was almost inevitably factory-made.

All that remains, then, is for us to close the gap between what we say and what we do. If Bugey-Cerdon is the happiest wine in the world, I need to step up and drink it more often—along with all of its counterparts. I need to accept that even I have fallen prey to my American neuroses about sugar. Drinking these wines should be the complete opposite of a newbie move. It should reveal just how mature and enlightened a drinker you are. And the Gretchens among us can enjoy a twinge of joy knowing that we’ve made something happen.

Sweet, Fizzy Wines To Try:

NV Agnès & René Mosse Moussamoussettes Vin de France Sparkling | $22
The Mosses are near Coteaux-du-Layon, best known for its exquisite late-harvest sweet wines. Nothing of that sort here, but this mix of grolleau gris, gamay (and cabernet franc in the latest release) has a particular fan base among their large range of wines. It barely edges into sweet territory (just 8 grams of sugar) so the sweetness is more a fruitiness. Drink it with cured meat. [BuyImporter: Louis/Dressner Selections

2014 Les Capriades Piège à Filles Vin de France Sparkling | $23
Pascal Potaire and Moses Gadouche, in the Loire’s Touraine area, are downright precise in their sparkling winemaking—including a precise level of residual sugar. Piège à Filles means, essentially, “girl trap”; while you decide how you feel about that, I’ll say that the sweetness in this mix of chardonnay, chenin blanc and the indigenous menu pineau is clear but never intrusive, accenting its herbal side. For summer salads. [BuyImporter: Selection Massale

NV Olivier Lemasson/Les Vins Contés “Pow Blop Wizz” Vin de France Sparkling | $26
Lemasson, a former sommelier and naturalist vigneron in the Loire, draws from this rosé mix of grolleau and cabernet franc the muddled fruit and slight chile-like aspect of those two varieties. On the notably sweeter side, but not too far—and just fine on its own. [Buy] Importer: Louis/Dressner Selections

NV Domaine des Pothiers Bulles By Romain Paire Mousseux | $24
An outperformer from the Côte Roannaise, in the very upper Loire, made of Gamay (here the local Saint-Romain cultivar) grown on granite. A Meyer lemon and green-tea freshness add subtlety to the fun, quietly sweet fruit. Look for other Roannaise examples like Sérol’s Turbullent. [BuyImporter: MFW Wines

NV Jean-Paul Brun FRV100 Sparkling Rosé | $21
If you visit the sedate old town of Charnay, in the southern Beaujolais, it’s hard to imagine it as the source for this, with its disco-riffic label. Lightly floral, brightly flavored and always with just the right balance of sugar. Rarely crosses 8 percent alcohol. [BuyImporter: Louis/Dressner Selections

2014 Renardat-Fache Bugey-Cerdon Sparkling Rosé | $23
Darker than most, both in color and flavor. The sweetness is distinct, but so is its bright mineral high tone. Still one of the originals in the category, and deservedly so—the “happiest wine in the world” remains exactly that. [BuyImporter: Louis/Dressner Selections

 

OTHER STORIES BY JON BONNÉ:

The Jura Wines Nobody’s Telling You About
Where Have All the Other Summer Wines Gone?
Champagne’s Next Revolution Is Now
So Long, Seahaven: Wine’s New Mainstream 

 

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