Champagne Grapes: A Look Into What Makes Sparkling Wine So Great

Informational

White and black grapes on a table in front of barrels

Champagne is a truly luxurious and elegant drink. It symbolizes wealth, sophistication, and celebration. But do you know what grape varieties are used to make this delectable beverage? Unlike red wine or white wine, only a few grapes are allowed for Champagne.

The three major grape varieties grown in the Champagne region of France are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. These are also the grapes used to make this sparkling wine, but the blend may vary. You can also find four other grape types in the wine region, but they are scarce.

If you want to know more about these grapes and a peek into the Champagne-making rules, read on!

What Grapes are Used to Make Champagne?

Champagne glasses, a bottle, and plates of grapes on a buffet table

Champagne isn't just famous for its location and the grapes used in making its wines. Winemakers only use a select few grapes, and this exclusive selection has led to its distinctive flavor. 

However, it's crucial to know that Champagne wines are defined by mixing these grape varieties and different wines from their various vineyards as long as it's inside the Champagne region.

As mentioned, the three prevalent white and black grapes permitted to make Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, which account for almost all the wine region’s grapes at about 99.7%!

Chardonnay

Ripe Chardonnay in a vineyard

Chardonnay is a versatile white wine grape variety that originated in Burgundy, France, growing there for centuries. 30% of the vines in the Champagne region are dedicated to producing Chardonnay, and it reigns supreme on the Côte des Blancs.

Chardonnay is one of the most diverse grapes in taste, aroma, and flavor because many factors can influence them. Its taste changes drastically based on the terroir and climate of where it thrives, its ripeness, and the aging method.

It also produces aromatic wines with pillowy textures. It has notes of citrus, flowers, and other scents and exudes minerality, in some cases. It takes longer to develop than the other two grapes; thus, wines made mainly of Chardonnay are intended to age.

Chardonnay grapevines are known to flourish in chalky, limestone soil. This is because Eastern France has a lot of this terrain - perfect conditions that Chardonnays love! But, it can still thrive in a wide range of soils and climates, as long as it's given enough attention during its growth season!

In addition, the time of harvest can significantly impact the flavor profile of sparkling wine. In areas with warm weather, grapes can ripen fully, which gives them their iconic tropical fruit flavors and lighter acidity than other regions.

Champagnes made of 100% Chardonnay grapes are called Blanc de Blancs, which means "white of whites."

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir grapes hanging from a vine

Pinot Noir is one of the world's most popular wine grapes for a reason. These thin and black-skinned grapes are perfect for producing in areas with cool temperatures. One example is the Burgundy region, where this rich variety originated and is known for its award-winning red wines.

Furthermore, Pinot Noir has a long history as an agricultural commodity and drink for celebrating success throughout French vineyards.

This grape makes up 38% of all planted varieties in Champagne, and it's prevalent on Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar. These areas consist predominantly of chalky terrain where the coolness suits its needs perfectly.

It's a common misconception that Pinot Noir is immune to viticulture hazards. It is tricky to grow because it's so prone to viticulture risks. In tightly packed clusters and with thin skin, Pinots can't breathe! This can lead them to rot in all their vine-killing glory.

The Pinot Noir is crucial in producing wines with rich flavor and aroma. It imparts body and the backbone to Champagne blends while providing distinctive red berry scents, including cherry flavors depending on the vineyard location for this particular grape variety.

Pinot Meunier

Clusters of Pinot Meunier grapes

Pinot Meunier is a unique mutation of the Pinot variety, sharing DNA with other related species such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. The Meunier vine has a floury appearance on its underside, inspiring its name, French for "miller."

It is a robust grape that can handle cold, hard winters. It buds later and ripens earlier than most other types of grapes; that's why winemakers utilize them as insurance grapes.

Meunier grapes are often incorporated into Champagne blends because of their roundness and fruity qualities. Wines with this variety usually age faster than other wines made with the two different grape varieties.

Furthermore, it can soften and smooth out young non-vintage wines, helping them reach their full potential. However, without Champagne partners like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir as allies in this process, Meunier may fall short.

Champagne has about 32% of Pinot Meunier's planting. It can be found outside Champagne too, and it's pretty popular among French regions like Moselle and Loire Valley! In contrast to Blanc de Blancs, Champagnes made of only the two black grapes are called Blanc de Noirs, meaning "white of blacks."

Other Grapes in the Champagne Wine Region 

As you know by now, there are seven grape varieties permitted in Champagne - three of which are widely known, while the other four are not. They are usually branded as the "forgotten grapes."

These varieties are scarce and account for less than 0.3% of plantings today. Only small traditional growers still cultivate them. However, their contribution to the unique flavor profile makes them worth the wine drinking experience!

Pinot Blanc

Pinot Blanc grapes by a post and vines

Pinot Blanc is a white wine grape used for centuries to make various sparkling, dessert, and still wine. It is like an underdog in the world of Pinots, but it has proven itself to be versatile and capable. It is found used throughout Alsace and Alto Adige, Italy!

Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc wines can often be confused for one another. Both have a similar style, which is medium to full-bodied, and both have nice acidity. But there are also key dissimilarities between them that make each wine unique in its way!

Pinot Blanc is a delightfully fruity white grape varietal, often with a light almond and apple tones and an underlying hint of smokiness. The flavor characteristics depend on how winemakers process it. Some styles call for more intervention than others do. It can also give some light mineral qualities which add interest and complexity.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris grapes in a vineyard

Pinot Gris is another white wine grape native to Burgundy, France. In the present day, it thrives in various vineyards scattered around the globe, but it is considered a rare variety in the region of Champagne.

The Pinot Gris is the product of a mutation of dark-skinned Pinot Noir grapes. They are pretty challenging to tell apart from regular Pinot Noirs if not for their color. It can take on many different colors, and it can be seen as orange, pink, or purple - depending on their maturity level and ripeness at harvest time! 

This varietal has been used to add flavor and aroma to wines for centuries. The grapes are naturally low in acidity with high sugar levels. The unique tastes and smells that each region offers to reflect its culture. Whether it's tropical fruits, apples, stonefruit, or wet wool, one thing remains constant: taste varies from place to place!

For most winemakers, oak is a no-no in their Pinot Gris, but some people believe it can be used to create a more desirable flavor. Oak imparts an aspect of creaminess and neutralizes acidity slightly.

Petit Meslier

Petit Meslier grapes on a vine

Petit Meslier is one of the most uncommon kinds of white wine grape. When not blended with another grape variety, which doesn't happen often, Petit Meslier has the rare ability to make crisp wines that are reminiscent of apples.

DNA fingerprinting has been able to identify Petit Meslier due to the cross performed two grape varieties: Gouais Blanc and Savagnin. The former is most notable for being the mother vine that produces Chardonnay and Aubinvert. While the latter is part of the Traminer family.

The Petit Meslier variety is utilized to make both dry wines and sparkling wines. The flavor profiles for these beverages are similar to a light floral bouquet accented with the taste of green Granny Smith apples in it. They also tend to be crisp with a nice touch of acidity.

In the last few years, Petit Meslier plantings have been steadily declining. This variety is planted on a small chunk of land instead of the extensive acres allocated for major Champagne grapes. They are located at the Marne Valley in the western part of Epernay.

Only a few of Champagne's wineries use this grape. However, their blended products are prized as rarest wines that will delight any collector or enthusiast alike!

Arbane

Bunch of Arbane grapes surrounded by leaves

The history of Arbane dates back to ancient times when it was first cultivated in the Southern Champagne region, commonly around Bar-sur-Aube. It is said that the name Arbane comes from a medieval Latin word meaning “white grape,” which still holds significance in Italy.

Arbane is a rare and scenic white wine grape variety that can be found growing on just a few acres of vineyards in the Côte des Bar district. Arbane is a bit of an overlooked grape when it comes to making Champagne, but it can still help produce that sparkling result you want!

One Champagne house that uses Arbane is Champagne Moutard et Fils in Buxeuil, a producer of two different types of Champagnes blended with this variety. One being their single-variety Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes, and the other is Cuvée des Six Cépages.

Rules in Making Champagne

Glasses of Champagne with a bottle and grapes

The Appellation d'Origine Controlée is a system that identifies the geographical origin of goods and regulates their production to maintain authenticity. It ensures products have as much connection with where they come from as possible.

AOC regulations have a much greater scope than simply geographical delimitation. They provide a comprehensive set of standards for all aspects involved in the production, including pedology, climate, technique, method, and resources. For Champagne AOC, here is an overview:

  • Sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne if it comes from outside France's region of Champagne. These are called Cremants.
  • Only seven grape varieties are accepted to make Champagne, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Arbane, and Petit Meslier.
  • Royat, Chablis, Guyot, and Vallée de la Marne are the only accepted pruning methods.
  • The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) defines a base yield of 10,400kg/ha, increasing or decreasing based on harvested quality and quantity. Moreover, the upper limit is 15,500 kg per hectare for AOC production standards.
  • Champagne grapes need to have at least 9% potential alcohol at harvest.
  • The minimum period of maturation on lees for non-vintage Champagne is 15 months, during three years for vintage Champagne.

The Champagne Bureau, USA, and the U.S. consumers, trade, and negotiators work hand in hand to ensure the Champagne name is preserved and protected around the globe. Using the label "Champagne" for ineligible sparkling wines will cause them to be banned in the U.S.

About the Champagne Region of France

Vineyards in the Champagne French Region during summer

The Champagne region is a land of contrasts. It's located in the northeastern part of France, and one of the fascinating features is its dual climate, which can be described as both oceanic and continental.

This unique weather pattern creates an environment where grapes thrive with minimal fluctuations from year to year and a high mean temperature, making it Champagne’s greatest asset.

Furthermore, its soil also makes its wines so unique. It has been the primary component for creating luscious and mellow tastes with a prominent deposit in chalk. The Champagne’s deposition of marine microorganisms, which dates back to the prehistoric era, was prevalent in chalk.

Also, the chalky soil can absorb and retain water during the winter season and release it when the summer comes to feed the vine's roots. In the same way, it can absorb and store heat during the summer and releases it to sustain the plant with heat during the winter.

Grapes of Champagne FAQ

Do Rosé Champagnes use the same grape types?

Rosé Champagne or pink Champagne producers also use the same three varieties to make their wine - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. However, outside of Champagne, rosé producers can use different red grapes as an alternative.

Can you eat Champagne grapes?

Did you accidentally eat a handful of Champagne grapes? Don't worry; they won't poison you. They are edible; however, they're not the best type of grapes you'd enjoy with your salad or as a snack.

As opposed to table grapes, Champagne grapes tend to have thicker skins and seeds, which isn't everybody's top choice.

Do other sparkling wines like Prosecco and Cava use the same grapes?

Champagne, Prosecco, and Cava are three well-recognized sparkling wines, but their compositions are different. There are other grapes used to create these different sparkling wines.

For instance, most grapes used for the best Proseccos are Glera, making up about 85% during production. On the other hand, the typical grapes used to make Cava are Xarello, Parellada, and Macabeu.

Some Cava producers make their blends with other varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are common ingredients for Champagne.

Conclusion

Part of why Champagne is such a fantastic and usually expensive product is how selective it makes. For instance, it requires specific grapes when making it. Nevertheless, one could see the labor and high quality put into a bottle of Champagne; that's why it's worth it.

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