No 3-Trick Pony: Champagne’s Indigenous Varieties
Post by Chuck Hayward | December 20th, 2012
JJ Buckley’s latest Champagne Report has just been released with new articles along with new winery profiles and updated reviews. Click here to download a copy. To give you a taste of this edition, today’s post is based on an article that looks at Champagne’s lost varieties which are currently undergoing a renaissance.
If there is anything that wine enthusiasts have committed to their memories, it’s that chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, in varying proportions, are the three grapes used to make Champagne. Like many other details about the wine and the region, that’s just a bit of the actual truth. Because as wine geeks and aspiring MS and MW students know, seven grapes are legally allowed to be used in the production of Champagne. All of a sudden, Champagne drinkers are hearing about grapes such as arbane and pinot blanc vrai, fromenteau and petit meslier in their bubblies. What’s going on and how did this happen?
In the 19th century, when the Champagne industry began the process of becoming what it is today, there were few regulations on what grapes were allowed to be grown. Champagne resembled most other growing regions in France, if not the world, where interplanting of many grapes was practiced. Records from the time indicate that grapes such as chasselas, savignin and gamay were grown in Champagne along with a wide range of lesser known varieties, many of which are now extinct. A census of varieties undertaken in 1910 revealed 39 distinct types of pinot noir in the Champagne region alone, each with a unique name.
As the French wine industry became more regulated around the start of the 20th century (with Champagne among the first regions to do so), one of the first topics addressed was the question of permitted varieties. At the time, the reputation of the region’s wines had suffered due to the introduction of lower quality grapes as well as fruits such as rhubarb and pears from other regions of France. In addition, the region’s vineyards had been decimated following World War I and a replanting regimen needed to be organized in order to ensure that only those grapes of the highest quality were allowed.
Accordingly, laws were organized stipulating what grapes were permitted in the production of Champagne. Starting with regulations set up in 1935, preference was awarded to the three main grape varieties, chosen for their suitability to the region’s terroir as well as to the finished wine. A number of other grapes were outlawed completely but growers were given a period of time before the law would be enforced. The most notable grape affected by this new regulation was gamay which was to be torn up by 1942. That deadline was extended to 1962, due to World War II.
Laws just passed in 2010 outlawed even more varieties, and stipulated that while ancient vines were allowed for Champagne production, new plantings of the outlawed grapes were not allowed. Growers, however, can replant certain designated varieties in any existing vineyards that already have them. These grapes, detailed below, are the main focus for the new wave of Champagne’s heritage vine cuvees. Today, even though vineyards dedicated to Champagne’s indigenous varietals make up less than .01% of all the region’s plantings, they are compensating for their low profile with a renewed share of interest and attention.
The Ancient Grapes
Champagne’s main growing areas, the Montagne de Reims, Vallee de la Marne and the Cotes des Blancs, have long dominated the region’s viticultural focus and commerce. Many of the rules and regulations that were put into effect in the early 20th century were quickly adopted by these areas (close to Reims and Epernay, the centers of Champagne’s commerce) and those grapes that were considered out of favor by the local authorities were quickly replanted as growers attempted to curry favors with the bigger houses that were focused on chardonnay and the two pinots.
The Cotes des Bar, however, was quite distant geographically from those main regions and there was considerable debate as to whether this area should even be included in the Champagne appellation. Most of the grapes in the Cotes des Bar were sold to larger wineries that preferred the riper wines that resulted from the region’s warmer temperatures.
Being a poorer area with a lower profile, change came slowly to the Cotes des Bar. The growers had little incentive to modernize vineyards and the lack of producers in the region meant there was no pressure from local Champagne houses as well. Accordingly, many of Champagne’s ancient vines remained in production, sold to larger wineries and co-ops that cared little about their unique qualities.
Today, the Cotes des Bar has become home to some of Champagne’s newest domaines who have more freedom to experiment with innovative styles, reviving the region’s legacy. And while there are a few wineries in the growing regions closer to Reims and Epernay that have also decided to take a closer look at these ancient grapes, it has largely been the wineries of the Cotes des Bar that have been the strongest advocates for bringing attention to the lost varieties, and they deserve recognition for their efforts.
This is one of the two varieties that are totally unique to Champagne that are still permitted by law. About 2.5 acres remain, with most of the vineyards located in the warmer Cotes des Bar. According to the Moutard winery, the region had significant plantings of Arbane but they lost favor due to the grape’s susceptibility to frost. Global warming, however, has lately allowed these grapes to ripen more easliy and Moutard is one of the few wineries to make a monovarietal bottling – most other houses blend arbane with other grapes.
This rare grape is a cross of gouais blanc and savagnin that, despite its difficulty in the vineyards, is prized for its ability to retain acidity, even in warmer vintages. The grape, however, suffers from low yields and is prone to disease, which is likely what led to its downfall. There are thought to be about 20 hectares of petit meslier left in Champagne as well as a small planting in the Eden Valley of Australia, where it is also made into a sparkling wine. Usually blended with the Champagne’s other indigenous grapes, Duval-Leroy is one of the few houses to still make a 100% petit meslier.
A widely planted grape in Alsace but also prevalent in many other countries, pinot blanc played a considerable role in Burgundian and Champenois viticulture in the 19th century. But as regulatory agencies for those regions began to create ruless governing viticulture, pinot blanc lost its favor among both growers and government officials as chardonnay became the preferred varietal. One can easily understand pinot blanc’s former popularity in Champagne as it was widely used to make cremant de bourgogne in Burgundy.
Known locally as fromenteau gris, the home of pinot gris is nearby Alsace, but it is also widely planted throughout the globe. The fromenteau name also applies to pinot gris grown in the Languedoc where it is used for still wines. It lost its popularity in Champagne due to poor yields and difficulty to ripen in the lower northern temperatures.
For a quick sip on some of the champagnes made with the grapes discussed in this article, check out these wines on JJBuckley.com!