By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
Champagne Friday: Tasting the Varietals
One of the best and easiest ways to get more enjoyment out of Champagne is by getting an understanding of the grape varieties used in the region. A simple tasting of three wines (or four if you want to be a complete imbiber!) over dinner is all that is needed to get a pretty firm handle on these grape varieties. I promise this won't just be educational- it will also be fun!
The most planted grape in all of Champagne is Meunier, a variety that used to be thought of as a relative of Pinot Noir but is now recognized as completely indigenous to Champagne. The second most planted variety in the region is Pinot Noir and like the third- Chardonnay- is an import from Burgundy just a few hundred kilometers away. These three grapes make up more than 99.9% of the vineyard in Champagne, but they are not the only varieties in the region. Before phyloxera struck the region in the late 1800’s, Gamay, Pinot Blanc and local grapes Arbanne and Petite Meslier were widely planted. Now, these grapes are making a comeback among some of the best and most adventurous growers. Arbanne and Meslier are especially prized for being late ripening and high acid- two great properties in a warming environment.
To start off the tasting, I would recommend a blanc de blancs to cover Chardonnay. These bracing wines are perfect for the aperitif, and if you plan on doing the tasting over a dinner make a fine wine for the welcome of guests. You can easily transition from the aperitif into oysters, scallops or crab salad with this wine, since its lively acid and chalky character flatter shellfish like nothing else. I would recommend using the Launois "Cuvée Reserve" Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($34.99) for this as it is round enough to be friendly on its own, but packs enough cut to pair with the richest of crustaceans.
In this bottle you will find classic Champagne Chardonnay aromas and flavors like white flowers and strong minerality. You can learn more about Launois here.
I would follow up with Meunier, which is often dismissed as simple and fruity by the big houses, but is capable of gorgeous purity and deep savor when handled by a contentious grower and made by a talented wine maker. If you are pairing the wines with food, nothing brings out the best in Meunier like pate or mushrooms. Cinnamon and I have treated ourselves many times to old vintages from the master Rene Collard paired with foie gras, but the wines shine just as brightly with a mushroom tart. I would recommend the Michel Dervin Brut Champagne ($32.99) for the representative of this varietal- the blend is 80% Meunier and 20% Pinot Noir, but the Meunier takes command.
By tasting this you will get plenty of the apple and pear fruit that this variety is known for, as well as a hint of the chantrele and truffle components that makes Krug prize this grape so much.
After the Meunier move on to Pinot Noir and taste the Elisabeth Goutorbe "Cuvée Eclatante" Brut Champagne ($34.99). While this wine is only 70% Pinot, the power of this variety, in this case primarily from the top village of Ay, is firmly in control of this Champagne. Pinot dominated Champagne loves a piece of salmon, and if it is warm enough my favorite preparation in on a cedar plank on the grill. Pinot Noir is hard to ripen in Champagne, and the last variety to be harvested, and even though the wines have no color, they still have the cherry aroma and flavor that one expects in the reds.
This is the most structured variety in Champagne, and you will feel the difference in concentration and power in the Goutorbe.
If you want to go for a bonus round, we have a very special bottle for you that is composed of 40% Meslier, 40% Arbanne and 20% Pinot Blanc. If you taste it, you will be among very few in the world to ever have had these ancient varieties. The Ariston Aspasie "Cepages d'Antan" Brut Champagne ($99) is worth every penny, and is high toned, incisive, exotic and long finishing. This would be excellent to open alongside the Goutorbe with the main course! You can learn more about this wine from the winemaker here.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to talk about Champagne tastings! A toast to you!