Presently, three classic varieties are utilized in the production of Champagne. While Chardonnay and Pinot Noir considered the most significant varietals in terms of producing quality wine, Pinot Meunier also provides a unique set of characteristics that, when grown in optimal areas, and masterfully vinified and blended, endow Champagne with its exceptional character. Think of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the leads in a film, with Pinot Meunier as a great supporting character that, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, often turns in an inspiring, memorable and sometimes downright brilliant performance.
% of vineyards planted to varietal: 45
Principal region: Valley of the Marne
Growing cycle: Buds later than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, matures early.
Attributes: Because of late bud-break, it is less prone to spring frost. Planted extensively in the lower vineyard sites (like the Valley of the Marne) where frost can post a problem to vine growth.
Sensitive to: Powdery Mildew and Botrytis
Characteristics imparted: fruit, earthiness, roundness/rondeur. Helps to ‘flesh’ out a wine.
General consensus: Pinot Meunier based wines tend peak earlier than those based on Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. In my experience, this is not always true.
% of vineyards planted to varietal: 25
Principal region: Cote de Blancs
Growing cycle: Buds earlier than Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, but ripens later than both.
Attributes: Relatively hardy and resistant to cold temperatures.
Sensitive to: Spring frosts, due to its early bud-break, Powdery Mildew, Botrytis
Characteristics imparted: Finesse, acidity and length. Relatively neutral flavor of its juice works benefits the expression of certain autolytic characteristics that develop due to extsended lees ageing during after the secondary fermentation.
General consensus: Chardonnay, being higher in acidity than both Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier also tend to produce the most age worthy wines. Blanc de Blancs can often taste more austere and one dimensional in their youth, however after extensive ageing can reveal a multitude of wonderfully complex flavors including roasted nuts, honey and toast.
% of vineyards planted to varietal: 30
Principal region: Montagne de Reims
Growing cycle: Buds later than Chardonnay and before Pinot Meunier but is the earliest ripening of the three varieties.
Attributes: High pulp to skin ratio yield abundant juice. Most planted varietal in Premier and Grand Cru vineyards. Early ripening lends its suitability to vineyards sites that face south/southwest.
Sensitive to: Powdery Mildew, Odium, Gray Rot.
Characteristics imparted: Weight, structure and depth of flavor, more aromatic fruitiness.
General consensus: Pinot Noir, while not imparting as much finesse or length as Chardonnay, will often endow a wine with added structure, intensity and depth of flavor. These characteristics are even more evident in young Champagne. Example: Taste compare a recently released Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay) next to one with 50% or more Pinot Noir in the final blend.
In addition, the following 5 varietals are also authorized in the production of Champagne, however they are rarely utilized, and there are restrictions on new plantings of such varietals.
Fromenteau (Pinot Gris)
Interestingly, L. Aubry Fils in Jouy-les-Reims has made it their raison d’etre to resuscitate these traditionally planted varietals and restore them to their former glory. The Nombre d’Or is a masterful blend of Fromenteau, Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Substantial, lush and almost “salty”, I find it to be one of the most unique wines from the region. Definitely a wine for gastronomy perhaps assorted funghi, sweetbreads, or aged cow’s milk cheeses, or my favorite, uni.