WineThe Collection

Blanc de noirs Champagne rarities to relish

Essi Avellan MW explores the dark-skinned sparkling style, a rarity that’s on the rise, in a tasting of some special examples of blanc de noirs dating back to 1990

Words by Essi Avellan MW

Photography by Xavier Young

The Collection

Referring to white wines made of dark-skinned grapes, blanc de noirs Champagnes are surprisingly rare when taking into consideration that around 70% of the region’s vineyards are given over to these darker berries. Pinot Noir had become the most planted variety by 1860, meaning that many of the early Champagne houses established their wine style around the variety. Pinot Noir’s early mutation Pinot Meunier, then again, has been known in the region since at least the 16th century, but its prolific heyday was in the 1950s, when half of the region’s vineyards were dedicated to it.

Due to the high proportion of red grapes, white Champagnes have been made from dark grapes throughout time. However, the term blanc de noirs on labels is a rather recent phenomenon, with the earliest known reference decorating bottles of Palmer & Co Blanc de Noirs Brut Intégral in 1957. Even today, blanc de noirs bottlings are much rarer than the blanc de blancs of pure Chardonnay. This, no doubt, is due to the more challenging nature of the wine. On their own, the dark-skinned varieties often produce very rich, even heavy Champagnes that have a tendency to oxidise easily.

The wine that has almost single-handedly lifted the style to fame is Bollinger’s legendary Vieilles Vignes Françaises crafted from Pinot Noir grapes grown on rare plots of ungrafted vines. It was with the wine’s first vintage in 1969 that Madame Bollinger had the term written on the label. The next champion of the style was Egly-Ouriet, who started single-vineyard blanc de noirs production from Ambonnay’s Les Crayères plot in the late 1980s. When Krug first released its Clos d’Ambonnay 1995 in 2007, it boosted the popularity of the category to new heights. Coinciding with the emergence of site-specific grower Champagnes, new blanc de noir expressions started to mushroom.

An even more recent shift on the blanc de noirs scene is the micro-trend for 100% Meunier wines. The new wave of Champagne producers pioneering Meunier-based blanc de noirs included Jérôme Prévost with his La Closerie Les Béguines in 1998 and Tarlant with La Vigne d’Or in 1999.

Gathering a group of Champagne lovers in Malmö, Sweden, collector Marina Olsson held a vast blanc de noirs tasting as part of her Gomseglet Champagne Connoisseurs club. Over a number of years, she has ambitiously selected a remarkable set of Champagnes that, age-wise, ranged from the 2017 vintage all the way back to 1990. Our 39-strong sample included the most exciting up-and-coming names, as well as the region’s greatest classics in this rare style. They were grouped into themed flights and served to us semi-blind, so we knew what the wines were but not their order in the glasses.

We commenced with grower Champagne, including three iconic blanc de noirs single-vineyard offerings from Jacques Selosse and two from Egly-Ouriet.

Both Philipponnat and Bollinger have recently strengthened their Pinot Noir focus and are now producing several blanc de noirs cuvées. I was most impressed by Philipponnat’s rare single-vineyard Les Cintres 2008, which had developed a lush harmony while managing to maintain incredible freshness. In the mature Champagne flight, both the 1990 and 1995 De Venoge blanc de noirs were in full bloom, perfectly showcasing the mellow and biscuity age-complexed character you’d expect from mature Pinot Noir.

A glamorous quintet made up the grand finale: Billecart-Salmon Clos St-Hilaire 2002, Jacquesson Vauzelle Terme 2009, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008 (which actually comes with 92% red grapes), Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 2006 and Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 2002. With the hefty price tag for the latter two wines, there is little point discussing value for money, but both were spectacular, capable of the kind of complexity and depth that will make you bow down to Pinot Noir’s power and potential.

Essi Avellan MW’s top blanc de noirs Champagnes