As true champagne enthusiasts, we usually don’t say many words when a glass of fine champagne floods our palate: clinking glasses, a sound of appreciation, and a short moment with closed eyes sufficiently express our moment of joy. When it comes to more elaborate conversations about champagne, however, our most recurring vocabulary consists of three words: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. The mere sound of those names leaves us thirsty for the next glass. But what if Champagne had more to offer and taste than just three grape varieties?
It is no surprise that the names Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier – unofficially known as the Holy Trinity of Champagne – have reached such stardom. Covering over 99,6 % of Champagne’s vineyard surface today, they never seize to amuse our palates with their unique character, aromatic nuances, and ever-changing distinct expressions influenced by specific terroirs, vintages, winemaking choices, or other factors.
Aside from the multitude of styles and tastes that can be found within the limits of these three grape varieties, however, there’s another micro-universe hidden in the appellation AOC Champagne: four well-kept secrets waiting to be discovered by champagne enthusiasts in search of confidential cuvées and effervescent diversity off the beaten tracks.
Representing no more than 0,3 % of the total vineyard surface, the four rare-to-find grape varieties Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc oftentimes get swept under the rug or let’s rather say under the crayères chalk quarries of Champagne, although the appellation’s law lists seven official grapes that may be used for champagne production since 1927, not only three as many people suppose.
Looking back at a long history in the region, these four grapes have been gradually replaced with other, more productive varieties over the span of a century, but in past years, a few dedicated winegrowers and champagne houses have rediscovered their interest in rejuvenating the almost forgotten taste of these fabulous four.
Some of these producers have the chance of owning old vines that date back nearly a century; others have introduced Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Gris to their vineyards using selections from vine nurseries, motivated to give them a new chance to shine.
In the past century, these four grapes did not produce the same styles of champagne we know and cherish today. Under Champagne’s northernmost climate, these early-budding grape varieties suffered from heavy spring frosts during bud-break, unfavorable weather conditions during flowering that caused millerandage – the development of green small berries that are incapable to ripen – as well as cloudy, rainy summer months leading to poor fruits sets, called coulure, or rot.
In consequence of these conditions and the extended list of sensibilities these grapes have to disease, winegrowers were often left with unevenly ripened crops and low yields at harvest time, which is the main rason why these four grapes were usually used in blending rather than turning them into single-variety champagnes.
Arbane and Petit Meslier, for example – both grapes with high acidities and rather dominant aromas – bring liveliness and freshness to overly ripe and slightly heavy wines in warm vintages, and create aromatic depth through their spicy, herbaceous aromas if used in small doses that won’t overpower the blend.
Pinot Gris, on the other side, adds volume, body, and generous complexity to less expressive vintages, whereas Pinot Blanc provides delicate, charming fruit and a soft freshness that make champagnes more approachable in their youth.
Despite all the possibilities that Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc offered in the blending process, they proved to be difficult to handle throughout the growing season and ultimately disappeared from the vineyards over time as winegrowers replaced them plot by plot with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Meunier to secure their yields and, ultimately, their income.
Gladly, these grape varieties have never fully disappeared from Champagne. Nostalgia and curiosity came to the rescue, along with many warmer vintages of the last two decades, and have encouraged a new generation of producers to give these nearly forgotten grapes a new chance to thrive in warmer summers and under modern vineyard management techniques.
Excitingly vibrant, lively, cheerful, and refreshingly powerful cuvées are the convincing results of courageous champagne pioneers who believe in the great potential of these grapes and continue to enrich the diversity of Champagne’s vineyards. We’re proud to have many of them in the Envie de Champagne family. Their dedication inspired a whole new mini-wave of producers to plant, graft and blend new cuvées that are currently sleeping in the dark champagne cellars and will see the light of day in coming years.
Meanwhile, you can taste a delicious selection of Champagne’s well-kept secrets made from Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Gris in our shop: