Rare Champagne grape varieties – this is their story
Under the Champagne laws, three principal grapes are allowed in Champagne, namely Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Together, they account for 99.74% of vineyard plantings. However, there are also four rare Champagne grape varieties tolerated. They are all white varieties, namely Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane. In France, they are the cépages oubliés (the forgotten varieties). One day they will be gone. So this is their story.
The wine laws enshrined in the Champagne Appellation Controlée dictate which grape varieties are allowed. The three principal grapes are considered the most suitable based on quality, yields and aspects of cultivation. Consequently, the laws banned any new plantings of these other four white grape varieties.
However, ‘grandfather’s rights’ means that if these four varieties were already present, they could make Champagne. That was to protect the income of those growers that relied on them. That way, natural vine lifespans would eventually take care of the removal problem.
Hence most of the four varieties have naturally died out, to the point where they are now on the edge of disappearance from the region, which the laws had decreed was their ultimate fate. In context, there are only about 90 hectares left in the entirety of Champagne. As Champagne has 34,400 ha of vineyards, that’s about 0.3% of the surface area.
Of what’s left, Pinot Blanc has the lion’s share with 85 ha. There’s four ha of Petit Meslier, around two hectares of Arbane and one of Pinot Gris. Most, but not all, survive in the southern Aube sub-region. All are now ancient, gnarled and low yielding vines; well advanced into their sunset years. Oblivion beckons.
Also, while some Champagne makers declare the composition of their Champagne blends on the label, there is no legal requirement to do so. Hence those four grapes can be lost in a Champagne blend, and only the winegrower will ever know.
Champagnes made with rare grape varieties.
Finding these grapes needs a little detective work! Fortunately, A handful of Champagne producers have deliberately preserved their identity. Sometimes they are in blends; occasionally they also appear as a single varietal wine. Featured below are those I have encountered, with notes compiled about them, made over a decade or more.
At Buxueil in the Aube, Champagne Moutard owns 23 hectares of vines. They are known for preserving rare varieties, long ageing and the use of oak barrels in fermentation and maturation. Cultivation is sustainable, with some wines made without added sulphur. Their Arbane vines occupy just 1.28 ha. There’s also 1.11 ha of Petit Meslier and 0.55 ha of Pinot Blanc. The origins of Arbane also remain a mystery, yet it was once common in this area of Champagne. It’s thought of as a high-quality variety, but low yields and susceptibility to fungal diseases are unattractive traits.
Cuvée Arbane Vieilles Vignes
This cuvée is a Vintage Brut Blanc de Blancs from 100% Arbane. It’s fermented and aged in oak barrels then given four years maturation on the lees. Only 1,370 bottles made. It’s delicate and refined, with full aromas of white flowers, maybe Hawthorne. Then come flavours of apple and quince, with tiny bubbles and a dash of salinity. A well-balanced and excellent wine. Not available in the UK, €200.00 cellar-door. If you can cope with the eye-watering price, it’s an indulgent experience.
Cuvée des 6 Cépages
This Brut Vintage blend comprises six grape varieties in equal parts. Only Pinot Gris is missing from the mix. So it contains Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc as well as the principal three. Fermented in old Burgundy barrels, and then aged on the lees in bottle for seven years. Brut Nature style. Bone dry, exotic fruits, creamy, leesy and rounded body. Length and depth. 10-14,000 bottles made. In the UK it’s usually about £50.00, so a real bargain for £37.50 at Wineman. There is also a Rosé version, which I’ve not yet tried or ever seen in the UK.
Precious Parcel Petit Meslier
An oak-aged Vintage Champagne made in the Côte des Blancs, northern Champagne by the excellent Champagne Duval-Leroy. There are minuscule quantities, with just 988 bottles in 2005 and 3,717 in 2007. It’s floral and leafy, reminiscent of Lemon Verbena, with a rounded peachy body and an extra-brut bone-dry style.
As an aside, Petit Meslier is a high-acid and low alcohol variety that’s susceptible to fungal diseases and frost. It’s expensive but deliciously different. This wine was previously known as Authentis. Champagne One, £100.00.
BAM! is the name of Tarlant’s rare-grape cuvée, an acronym for the blend of 27% Pinot Blanc, 27% Arbane and 46% Petit Meslier.
The Tarlant family have been growers at Oeuilly in the Marne Valley since 1687, down twelve generations. They make some of the most exciting terroir-based Champagne cuvées, exclusively from 14 hectares of their grapes, grown organically. The house style is for bone-dry Brut Nature barrel-ferment wines with long maturation times.
This NV is an exciting experience, with only 900 bottles made. Citrus and white flowers on the nose, with great purity and precision. Bright acidity and chalky minerality and a long length, with a savoury undertow and touch of smoke. It’s like a Grand Cru Chablis with extra bubbly vif. BAM might be an acronym, but it’s an accurate descriptor. Christopher Keiller, £123.00
Champagne Pierre Gerbais
L’Originale is 100% Pinot Blanc, known locally as Pinot Blanc Vrai. It’s NV and Extra Brut, made by Champagne Pierre Gerbais in the Aube. Pierre Gerbais started in 1930 and has 18 hectares of organic vines. Ten are Pinot Noir, with four Chardonnay, and four Pinot Blanc. There are 3,000 bottles each year. It gets three years maturation before a further six months bottle age. Ten are Pinot Noir, with four Chardonnay, and four Pinot Blanc. The Pinot Blanc for L’Originale is from 0.5 ha of ancient vines dating to 1904 and so are now a whopping 116 years old.
It’s a compelling statement, with just 3 g/l of dosage and low sulphur too. Yellowish colour. Brioche and white blossom aromas. It’s light and airy, with pear fruit to the fore, backed by a creamy texture. An attractive hint of ginger spice and cashew nut appears on a lengthy fade, a feature which increases with bottle age. AG Wines, for £59.99.
Cuvée Resérve Extra Brut
The Gerbais an entry-level NV which unusually has 25% Pinot Blanc alongside 50% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. A terrific bargain! AG Wines £29.99. This same blend also appears as Grains de Celles Extra Brut NV, The Wine Society, £29.00
Champagne Drappier is one of the superstar Champagne Houses in the Aube, at Urville, with 100 hectares of vineyards. Long known as masters of Pinot Noir, there’s also no or low sulphur, rare grape varieties and organic viticulture. Their new Pinot Gris Champagne cuvée is not yet on the market. It’s still maturing and will be a demi-sec style.
Blanc de Blancs
This Brut NV sometimes has 5% Pinot Blanc alongside 95% Chardonnay for a little extra complexity. It’s a bold, ripe statement reminiscent of a yeasty apple crumble, which makes it an excellent food partner. Champagne One. £41.45.
Blanc de Quatre Blancs is their homage to the rare Champagne grape varieties, being 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Pinot Blanc Vrai (25%), alongside 25% Chardonnay. Quattuor means number 4 in Latin. Golden colour, a low dosage preserves Brut freshness to accompany the creamy body and long finish. Aromas of citrus fruit and white flowers, tiny bubbles. Figgy fruit, mineral edged, poised and persistent. An excellent gastronomic wine, worth every penny. £75.95 at Champagne One.
This comes from Champagne Aspasie, in the Marne valley at Brouillet. 40% Petit Meslier, 40% Arbanne, and 20% Pinot Blanc.
Almost water-white colour with steady bubble streams. Brioche and almonds on the nose. Brut-style with creamy pear and pastry flavours and a long length featuring marzipan. Excellent quality wine, N/A in the UK, around €70.00 cellar-door.
Rare Champagne grape varieties – are they worth it?
Given the amount of these grape varieties left in production, their obscurity and the risks and challenges involved with cultivating them, are they worth it?
The answer is, they certainly are. These aren’t mere novelties, or only of academic interest. They are deliciously different expressions of Champagne, which would be poorer without them.
Under the current rules, when these vines pass away, they will, sadly, disappear. Some of these Champagnes are undoubtedly expensive, reflecting difficulties of cultivation, tiny quantities, long maturation and their transformation by devotees into mostly prestige cuvées. Therefore there has been an extraordinary effort to make the best wines possible.
Perhaps if these grapes were only making basic commercial Champagnes, they might not compare well with equivalents made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – but that situation isn’t the case. Their peers are in the prestige category, where they comfortably hold their own.
Meanwhile, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris feature worldwide, hence there is no risk to their survival. However, Arbane and Petit Meslier are closer to extinction.
The Champagne authorities do recognise the threat posed by the climate emergency. Champagne’s prestige, quality, style and taste are in danger. Champagne cannot afford to lose this battle, which will intensify over the coming years. There are research programmes underway on how best to combat climate change. The rare varieties may possess characteristics and DNA useful for the times ahead.
It could be that one day soon, other grape varieties may once again appear in Champagne’s vineyards in quantity. Which ones are anybody’s guess, but perhaps these rare Champagne grape varieties might be candidates?
Why not discover this particular Champagne road, it’s undoubtedly one less travelled. I bet that there could be more examples out there. So if you know of any, please let me know!
There are plenty of other articles about Champagne on the Wine Alchemy website, so please take a look. Maybe start here.