Great Escapes

12.21.13

The Drink All You Want Holiday Wine

Wondering what to drink while you’re preparing your Christmas feast? Sommelier Jordan Salcito recommends the little known appellation of Bugey-Cerdon for wines that are fresh, lively, and low on alcohol—perfect for sipping all day long.

“Whoever receives friends and does not participate in the preparation of their meal does not deserve to have friends.”
– Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

During the holidays, everyone wants to talk about what to drink along with dinner. We are bombarded with recommendations for Cru Beaujolais with Thanksgiving turkey, Champagne with New Years, and robust red wines with a Christmas roast. But an equally important question is what should one drink while preparing these holiday feasts? What’s the perfect holiday daytime drink?

I bring this up because there is a perfect holiday wine, and it’s one that not nearly enough people know about. This piece, in short, is an ode to a wine from the tiny French appellation of Bugey-Cérdon, historically known as a “Christmas wine” and one of the most versatile, quaffable wines around.

Wines from Bugey-Cérdon are sparkling and alive. They taste of red and black berries, currants, cranberries, strawberries, mulberries and cherries, tart and sweet. There are tiny festive bubbles in every sip. The grapes are grown on steep hillsides in a tiny, remote region situated at the nexus of much more famous regions. Bugey is located in Eastern France, just west of the Savoie (the Alpine area that includes the slopes of Mont Blanc), north of the Rhône Valley, east of Burgundy and south of the Jura. As Kermit Lynch’s website aptly notes, it’s a region in which one can view “both palm trees and snow within eyeshot.”

“Back in the day, it was a Christmas drink,” he explains. “The heat of spring would cause the bottles to restart fermentation and explode from the pressure. As a result, the locals consumed all the wine over the holidays.”

In Cérdon, a sub-sector within Bugey, the air is as crisp as the Alps and the soil is a calcareous limestone that transmits minerality and lift into each sip. The bubbles are as festive as the color, a red hue similar to cranberries. In addition, alcohol hovers around eight percent, so it's easy to imbibe all day long without incurring any mid-day fatigue or botching too many recipes.

The small appellation of Bugey manages to encompass a host of styles, including still red and white wine wines, as well as sparkling and rosé. Bugey-Cérdon is the only sub-region within Bugey to produce entirely sparkling wines. Wines labeled Bugey-Cérdon are made from the Gamay grape, often blended with a bit of Poulsard. They are effervescent, pink, slightly off-dry, refreshing, and are generally made in an ancient process known as the Méthode Ancestrale.

Despite their long history, the wines are relatively new to the United States, and the appellation only gained official appellation status from the French governing body, the INAO, in 2009. Romans planted and tended vines in the area centuries ago. Later, the Dukes of Burgundy appropriated the land and vines were revived by medieval monks.

Several years ago, I became transfixed by winemaker Pattrick Bottex’s single wine that he calls “La Cuille,” after the tiny hamlet in which he lives and makes wine. In an interview with his importer, Bottex lends texture to the wine’s history. “Back in the day, it was a Christmas drink,” he explains. “The heat of spring would cause the bottles to restart fermentation and explode from the pressure. As a result, the locals consumed all the wine over the holidays [to preemptively avoid the springtime explosions].”

I went to go visit Bottex this past July. His winery is located in old building at the base of La Cueille that overlooks the glistening Ain River and is shrouded in lush trees and forest. Romans founded La Cueille. They built a church that still stands today, which overlooks the hillside and Ain River. The terrain steep and mountainous, the air crisp and alpine, and the ground a pale mix of calcareous clay and limestone soils (not unlike Burgundy). Bottex provided a brief history of the village as we walked through the unpaved street. La Cueille exists in another time. It currently home to only thirty inhabitants. (Before World War Two, the population had been one thousand.) The town square includes a “town oven.”

Bottex is not the only one to make wines from the region. Other notable examples are available from producers including Domaine Renardat-Fâche, which is lean and refreshing, and Domaine Balivet, which boasts a beautiful texture and is rife with mineral precision.

Wines from the region boast notable historical fans, too. According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, “these were the wines with which the notable gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin grew up.” Surely, he drank it while preparing holiday meals with friends.