The “forgotten” grape varieties of Champagne and those who grow them

Feb 15, 2021 • 3 mins

Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, Blanc de Noirs or Blanc de Blancs... These are the Champagne names we have come to know and love. But much deeper secrets lie hidden in the region and its “wine of kings”. As well as the traditional grape varieties and popular blends, some winegrowers are rejoicing in growing some “forgotten” grapes. Let’s take a look at these domaines which have ventured off the beaten track.

Rare and lesser-known grape varieties

The Champagne appellation's specifications currently authorise the cultivation of 7 grape varieties. Three of them make up the majority of the vineyards: one white, Chardonnay, and two black, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The other permitted varieties, Pinot Blanc, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris and Fromenteau, represent only 0.3% of the Champagne vineyards, according to the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).

These “forgotten” grape varieties are the region’s old, abandoned varietals. In Champagne, we find the Arbane and Petit Meslier. Good quality, but with low disease resistance, they produce small bunches with small berries that make them difficult to press. The slow ripening of the grapes also leads to late harvests.

The CIVC preferred more productive and resistant grape varieties to these old varietals, according to Géraldine Uriel, the CIVC’s plant material project manager. However, a few winegrowers, determined to preserve this local particularity, have maintained some small plots of these forgotten varietals. We talked to three of these domaines…

L'arbane : the white gold of Champagne

Lucien and Josette Moutard, owners of the Famille Moutard domaine in Buxeuil, grow 22 hectares of vines and one hectare of Arbane in the Côte des Bar, planted in the 1990s, vatted in 2000 and vinified in 2003 and 2004. The success of the endeavour encouraged them to continue. Today, the domaine attracts an international clientele from California, China and Hong Kong, who are looking for vintage champagnes crafted from rare grape varieties from the Champagne region.

Didié Mélé, oenologist and head of viticulture at the Alexandre Bonnet Champagne House in Les Riceys, tells us that the first Arbane vines were planted on the domaine in 2015. He considers that this varietal’s long vegetative cycle is an advantage when it comes to global warming. The Arbane can be blended or vinified on its own. Its small production, 1% of the domaine's total 45 hectares of vines, enables the Champagne House to diversify its range of wines.

The return of the "other" Pinots

Two other grape varieties can also be regarded as “forgotten”: the Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, which are widely grown in neighbouring wine regions but rarely in Champagne. But you can find winegrowers in Champagne who produce champagne from these varietals.

These include Claire Dérot at Domaine Dérot-Delugny in Crouttes-sur-Marne who tells us that she grows 70 ares of Pinot Gris alongside the three main grape varieties.

These Champagne winegrowers first planted the forgotten grape varieties (authorised by the appellation, but little grown in the region thus far) out of curiosity. But then opportunities opened up: the cultivation of other grape varieties, added value in terms of production, diversification in terms of taste profiles, a broader international clientele in search of something different and exciting. The Famille Moutard, the Alexandre Bonnet Champagne House and Domaine Dérot-Delugny have all realised this and have embraced these old grape varieties.

Before the arrival of phylloxera, other grape varieties such as Blanc Doré, Epinette, Chasselas Rouge, Enfumé Noir or Teinturier were also grown in the Champagne region. Cécile Marchal of the CRB-Vigne (Vine Biological Resource Centre) tells us there are still some plants of these varietals preserved in the Vassal ampelographic collection in Montpellier

These forgotten grape varieties, currently rare in the region, are fragile and more difficult to grow, but they add originality and authenticity to the wines. So, are we right to continue to “forget” them?

Article written as part of an educational project of the Wine Journalism University Diploma of the Georges Chappaz Institute - University of Reims