There are just three main grapes used to make champagne. And what may totally surprise you is that two out of the three of the champagne grapes are RED grapes!
All three of the main champagne grapes – Chardonnay (white), pinot noir and pinot meunier (both red) – are beautifully suited to the Champagne region’s climate and soil. They can be (and are!) grown in other areas around the world but when they are planted and harvested in the Champagne region, the effect of the cool climate on ripening produces lower sugar and higher acidity which give champagne its hall-mark characteristics (more here in case you missed it).
There are actually 7 grapes producers are allowed to use… chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane, petit meslier but few use the last four varieties.
And the three different champagne grapes are perfectly suited to each other. Especially when blended with the Chef de Caves’ ‘magician’s touch’.
Here’s the B&F Champs School 101 on Champagne Grapes…
About 38% of all grapes grown in Champagne are pinot noir and are mostly grown in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar (brush up your regions here). Being an Aussie, I think the best way to describe the effect of the pinot noir is that it brings some “balls” to the champagne. But I’m pretty sure Chef de Caves all over Champagne will be horrified by that description. More refined types might use words like vigour, complexity, fullness, or strength.
Pinot noir offers champagne flavours like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, and blackberries. If you think of it like a colour spectrum, pinot flavours are represented by the darker, red, black or blue fruits which bring the champagne its deeper, richer, heavier characteristics.
Trivia – Pinot noir grapes are the earliest to ripen, highest in sugar, have the thickest skins, and suit south or south-west facing aspects
32% of grapes grown in Champagne are pinot meunier. Pinot meunier is characterised by its resilience as a robust grape that can handle the cooler weather better than pinot nior. This is why it’s grown mostly in the Marne Valley, an area that cops harsher frosts.
As a champagne grape, meunier gets a bit of bad press, being seen as ‘less worthy’ than pinot noir and chardonnay. In reality, it’s widely used in non-vintage blends where it is valuable to soften or round out the youth of NV wines. Meunier also helps blend the ‘opposition’ of the pinot noir and chardonnay grapes but is generally used in wines that are destined to be be consumed now rather than cellared. Because of this characteristic, meunier are traditionally rarely seen in vintage wines or cuvée de prestige.
Meunier brings flavours of fruits that I would describe as more yellow or orange… like peaches, apricots, mandarins. Meunier also has a quite distinctive bread-like or yeasty bouquet. For example, Moet and Chandon NV, which I find has one of the stronger yeastyaromas, has a high proportion of meunier.
Trivia – The word meunier is actually French for Miller (as in a flour mill) and the grapes earned their name for a white powder coating on the under-side of the leaves that looks like a miller’s flour dust.
30% of champagne grape plantings are chardie which I find brings “freshness” or lightness to champagnes. Almost the opposite of the depth and intensity of pinot noir, Chardonnay is the lightness and elegance, characterised by citrus flavours, minerality, and the famous champagne acidity.
Chardonnay will bring bouquet and flavours that I describe as white-fleshed fruits… things like apples, lemons, pears, maybe lychees.
Trivia – Chardonnay ripens later than the other varieties (hence the higher acidity at harvest) and also develops more slowly in a wine meaning wines with lots of chardonnay will age particularly well.
Bringing them all together
I find it helps to think of the three grapes as bringing flavours which sit on a spectrum from dark fruits and rich character (at the pinot noir end) to light fruits and bright, fresh character at the chardonnay end. Meunier occupies the middle ground, acting as the diplomat to coalesce the almost opposite characteristics of pinot noir and chardonnay.
Alas, meunier the diplomat isn’t often used in vintage and cuvée de prestige champagne where generally only the premium grapes are used (but that isn’t a rule and it is changing a lot.. read here about Meunier coming up the world). In these wines, the grape style and vintage characteristics are given the freedom to show off rather than blended or softened so they should be more apparent and embraced at their very best.
Every house uses a particular blend of the grapes for its wines, a signature recipe if you like. Once you start tasting more champagne and consider the grape proportions, I find most people get a better understanding of what drives their preferences for one house over another. Because most people tend to gravitate to liking houses that use either higher pinot, or higher chardonnay, or a more even blend.
Do you have a fave champagne grape? If you are trying out different blends, make sure you post a pic and tag @bubbleandflute #happychamper
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