The Bugey, halfway between Lyons and Geneva, is one of the tiniest and most obscure wine areas in France. Although the altitude is modest, the terrain is very mountainous, the roads are steep and winding as in the Alps and the villages are built for cold winters – the houses made of gray/white limestones all bunched together on narrow streets.
The vineyards are hard to detect, little patches here and there on steep slopes looking southeast or southwest, lost in the midst of fields with grazing cows and dense forests. The total surface of vineyards in the Bugey covers about 170 hectares and the varietals are borrowed from all the surrounding areas: Gamay, Poulsard (a grape from Northern Jura), Roussette, Mondeuse (both from Savoie) and Chardonnay. Many still wines are produced, but the region’s star wine is the Cerdon Méthode Ancestrale, a demi-sec, pink bubbly made by spontaneous but incomplete fermentation.
Alain Renardat is a respected vigneron in Cerdon, and was a long-time supplier of Alain Chapel’s restaurant in the Dombes. The Dombes, which, like the Bugey, is in the Ain department, is an area of ponds and marshes, known for its fish and small birds. Alain Chapel, who died several years ago, was a chef beloved among chefs, and famous for his love of wine and winemakers. A vigneron selected by Chapel was guaranteed to have great personality and wines. And while the restaurant is now closed after a long run under the helm of Chapel’s widow and sons, the winemakers he’d bring together annually to treat them to dinner remain great friends.
Alain, though technically retired for years, is active as ever. Along with his son Elie, they make their Cerdon from Gamay and Poulsard, and follow the technique of méthode ancestrale (as opposed to Méthode Champenoise plain old carbonation, the preferred method used for supermarket wines). The grapes are picked by hand, pressed and fermented in cold vats until the alcohol reaches about six degrees of alcohol. After a light filtration that leaves most of the active yeast in the unfinished wine, it is bottled and continues its fermentation in the bottle, reaching about 7.5 or 8 degrees of alcohol and retaining a fair quantity of its original sugar. It is more vinous (with grapey primary aromas) than most Champagne, since there is neither dosage nor addition of yeast before the second fermentation.
Cerdon is to be consumed throughout the year following the vintage. It is fragile and requires excellent cellaring and transporting conditions. Renardat’s is delicate, berry-scented, refreshing, and makes a delicious aperitif or dessert wine (even chocolate goes well with it).