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Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Grapes of Champagne

Whether or not you’re joining the Wine-Knows harvest tour to France’s Champagne region this fall, all oenophiles should know something about the grapes used to make the world’s most famous bubbly.  Three main varieties are used in Champagne.  Two of these grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are well known to wine lovers around the globe.  The third, Pinot Meunier, is relatively unknown.  Champagne is a blended wine, thus all three varietals frequently appear together----each one contributing a unique note to the final blend.  

Pinot Noir, the famous red grape of nearby Burgundy (Champagne & Burgundy wine districts are actually contiguous), contributes body, structure, aroma and a complexity of flavors to the blend.  While this grape lacks the color and intensity it has further south in Burgundy, these elements are not required to make the delicate sparkling wines of Champagne.  Pinot Noir accounts for approximately 40% of the grape plantings in Champagne.

The second most widely planted grape in the Champagne district (33%) is Pinot Meunier.  A red variety related to Pinot Noir, the Meunier version is softer and more perfumed than both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It adds fruity and floral profiles to the blend.  Pinot Meunier is an especially valuable varietal as it is less prone than the other two grapes to the damaging frosts that frequently wreak havoc in Champagne, France’s northernmost wine growing region.  In addition, this grape ripens earlier than its counterparts, therefore, is less risky if there are early autumn rains.  The downside?  Champagne made from this grape does not age as well as those made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.  Furthermore, Pinot Meunier does not offer the elegance and finesse of the other two varietals. 

The third varietal in the trio is Chardonnay---the only white grape used in Champagne.  Responsible for producing killer white Burgundies, this variety rarely attains full ripeness in the Champagne district.  While Chardonnay provides finesse, delicacy and acidity to Champagne, most of the time it does not impart the fruit flavors that are typical of this varietal in warmer areas.   

Rarely is Champagne made from only one variety.  Nearly 90% of Champagne is made from a blend of both dark-skinned and light-skinned grapes.  Less than 5% is made from only white grapes…this wine is called “blanc de blanc,” and literally translates to “white from white.”  This Champagne is 100% Chardonnay.   Blanc de Noir,” on the other hand, means “white from black.”  This wine is made exclusively from the two Pinot varietals.

Future postings will discuss the process of making Champagne, vintage vs non-vintage Champagne, as well as important history associated with the bubble industry in France.  Stay tuned.

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