The Pinots Of Champagne

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The World’s Most Luxurious Sparkling Wine

Champagne makers must adhere to very strict appellation rules during every step of the growing and winemaking process.  This includes the use of three principal grape varieties when making Champagne which can be made either as a single varietal wine or a blend.  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier make up 99.7% of the vineyards in the Champagne region.  The Pinots of Champagne are stars when it comes to making the most luxurious sparkling wines on the planet.

From Burgundy to Champagne: Pinot Noir is firmly established

Pinot Noir has been made into world-class Burgundian wines for centuries and is one of France’s oldest grape varietals. Unlike the rich red wines of Burgundy, the first red Pinot Noir wines made in Champagne were thin and unremarkable.  However, when the Champenoise winemakers started making sparkling wine, Pinot Noir suddenly rose to stardom and had a very important role in the winemaking process.  

Described as being “delicate”, its distinctive red fruit and flower aromas (notably roses and violets) coupled with the body and structure that it adds to wines and long aging potential makes it an important part of the blend. It can also be made as a single varietal or in tandem with Pinot Meunier to make Blanc de Noirs (white wine from red grapes).  Pinot Noir makes up 38% of all vines that are planted in Champagne. 

Pinot Meunier:  The native grape of Champagne

Pinot Meunier is a genetic modification of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes. It is most commonly associated with Champagne production even though it is cultivated in other parts of the world.  The first reference to its use in a Champagne blend was in the 1800s. It can be part of the Champagne blend or be made as a single varietal wine.  One Champagne house makes a 100% Meunier Champagne. It is usually the smallest component in a traditional Champagne blend, adding fruitiness, freshness, and floral aromas to the wine.  Champagnes that have a large quantity of Pinot Meunier have a shorter aging potential than those that are mainly composed of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Pinot Meunier makes up 32% of the vineyards in Champagne.  It should be noted that Pinot Meunier is rarely used in Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines.

Key players in the Champagne Blend

Though Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the key players when creating the Champagne blend, two other additional Pinot varieties are permitted under the Champagne appellation rules:  

The White Pinots:

Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris also known as les cépages oubliés (the forgotten grape varieties, there are four in total) are rarely used as stand-alone varietals in Champagne.  They are often added in tiny quantities and lost in the traditional Champagne blends. Champagne Drappier is one of the few Champagne producers that uses these forgotten varieties and one cuvée is made with 75% of these rare varieties in the blend (with 25% Pinot Blanc and 25% Pinot Gris).  Appellation rules do not require that varietals used in Champagne must appear on the label.  Blanc de Gris Champagne is made solely from Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grapes.  

The Grandfather Law:

Under the rules of Champagne production, these varieties (.03% or 90 hectares) are only permitted because they existed before the three official varieties were designated as the permitted grape varietals to meet the Appellation d’Origine rules of Champagne production.  These varieties are permitted through a law called “Grandfather law”.  Sadly, replanting of these varietals is not permitted therefore once all of the vines have died, these rare Champagnes will cease to be produced as the vines are headed for extinction in the region.  

Not just any Sparkling Wine:

Though Champagne is famous for its sparkling wines there are also still wines that are produced in very small quantities and fall under the AOP Côteaux Champenoise appellation.  They can be made either as a red or white wine. The still red wines are made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier or as a single varietal.  

Champagne! Champagne! And Champagne!