The Grape Varieties of Champagne
In most cases, Champagne is an extremely complex blended wine — not only a blend of grape varieties, but also a blend of wines from vineyards throughout the Champagne region of France. The blend, called the cuvée, combines the strengths of each vineyard. Champagne is also typically a blend of wines from different vintages.
Champagne is made mainly from three grape varieties:
Pinot Noir (a red variety)
Pinot Meunier (a red variety related to Pinot Noir)
Chardonnay (a white variety)
A few minor grapes — such as Petit Meslier, Arbanne, and Pinot Blanc — still survive in some of the region’s vineyards and are still permitted, but they cannot be replanted and are of little consequence.
About 85 to 90 percent of Champagnes are a blend of about 2/3 red grapes and 1/3 Chardonnay. A few Champagnes (less than 5 percent) are 100 percent Chardonnay (they are called blanc de blancs); fewer yet are 100 percent red grapes (called blanc de noirs). Rosé Champagnes, a small category, are usually, but not always, made from a blend of white and red grapes.
The reason that most Champagnes are blends of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay is that each grape variety has strengths to contribute to the final blend:
Pinot Noir adds body, structure, aroma, and a complexity of flavors. This difficult variety likes the cool climate of the region, and it grows well in the chalky limestone soil.
Pinot Meunier contributes fruitiness, floral aromas, and a precocious character (readiness-to-drink sooner).
Chardonnay, a star performer in the Champagne region, gives freshness, delicacy, elegance, and finesse. For this reason, many producers make a blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) Champagne.
Pinot Meunier is especially valuable because it buds later in the spring than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is therefore less prone to damaging frosts and can thrive in areas like the Marne River Valley, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would not be successful. It also ripens earlier in the fall than the other two varieties, thus often avoiding autumn rains. But Pinot Meunier has a disadvantage: Its wines tend to age more quickly than those of the other two varieties. Also, many producers think it is not quite so fine as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and therefore do not use it in their most prestigious Champagnes.