That’s right! Despite what some may think, Champagne is not a grape variety! In fact, the world’s most famous sparkling wine is made from a complex blend of various grape varieties, grown in certain vineyards within the Champagne region of northern France. So, which grapes go into Champagne and what are their roles in the blend (or “cuvée”)? Let us take you through in this quick 101, and hopefully the learning cuvée, errrrr curve, won’t be too high!
The Champagne AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controlée, is the defined area from which Champagne can originate. The AOC is kind of a big deal, and holds very technical and dictating rules for vineyards and the grapes they grow. Including things like viticultural practices, pressing of juices, the process to make the wines and even labelling and packaging.
The Champagne AOC is divided up into several sub-regions, all with their strengths and specialties. The sub-areas are Montagne de Reims, Valle de la Marne, Cote des Blancs, Cote de Sezanne and Vignoble de l’Aube.
So, onto the Star Players
Champagne is predominantly made from three varietals:
Chardonnay is a white grape varietal. It accounts for 30% of all plantings in the Champagne AOC and is relatively simple to grow in the chalky soil of the region. That being said, it tends to ripen later and it doesn’t get along with Mr. Frost.
So what does this grape offer to the cuvée? It adds backbone to the blend and provides aging potential, great for those excellent vintage years. When you sip on a glass of the good stuff, and you’re picking up on the floral, citrus and mineral notes, that’s likely the chardonnay coming through.
But is Chardonnay the Beyoncé of the group? Some Champagne Houses think so, which is why they make Blanc de Blancs, or a Champagne solely from this white skinned grape.
2) Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a red grape varietal. It accounts for 38% of all plantings in the Champagne AOC and it’s well suited to the cool climate and chalky terrain. In fact, some would say it thrives there! Another surprise: when pressed slowly and when there’s no skin contact, the juice of Pinot Noir grapes is white.
Pinot Noir is a good match for Chardonnay. It adds backbone and body to the cuvée and has distinctive red berry aromas. That special aroma helps to add complexity to Champagne and can be blended in, with skin contact, to produce Rosé Champagne (yum!). It can also be used singularly to produce a Blanc de Noirs, or a white Champagne solely from Pinot Noir.
3) Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier is always the bridesmaid, never the bride… err, it’s a red grape varietal, we mean. The more mysterious of the three grapes surprisingly accounts for 32% of all plantings. Like its cousin Pinot Noir, this grape likes the chalky soils of Champagne AOC and offers greater cold climate resistance. It can also be pressed slowly without skin contact to produce white juice.
The wine of this grape adds roundness to the Champagne cuvée and its fruity character contributes to your ability to have a glass of Champagne sooner, rather than later. However, it ages faster than its band mates and that’s not so great for vintage years. Some wineries avoid the varietal, others embrace it.
I heard there’s other varietals grown in Champagne
You heard right! The approved grape varieties of the Champagne AOC also include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier. Together, these varietals account for 0.3% of all plantings.
So, now you know: Champagne can be made from a single varietal – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (along with the other approved varieties) – or, it can be blended together. On top of that, great growing years often result in vintage (dated) Champagne and exceptional vineyards commemorate crus (growths) by bottling single vineyard wines.
Don’t be, just grab a glass of Champagne and enjoy it’s rich (technical and sensory) complexity. Or print out and study the handy infographic we’ve put together above and impress all your friends! 😉🍾