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Reviving the ancestral grapes of Champagne

Wines from Champagne are dominated by three varieties but an increasing number of grower Champagne producers are experimenting with the four ancestral grapes also permitted. Essi Avellan MW discovers what winemakers see in these grapes for the expression and sustainability of Champagne

Words by Essi Avellan MW

A view of Viviers-sur-Artaut in the Côte des Bar
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Vineyards surrounding Viviers-sur-Artaut in the Côte des Bar, an region instrumental in the survival of Champagne's ancestral grapes

Champagne’s grape trio of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay is widely celebrated but in its shadow persist four other permitted varieties. Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris were heading towards extinction before producers including Moutard, L.Aubry Fils and Drappier spearheaded their rescue.

Today, these ancestral grapes represent a minuscule fraction – 0.4 per cent, to be precise – of Champagne’s plantations, but over the past 20 years their planting has grown by 45 hectares to a total of 136. Even if these varieties do not pose a threat to the ‘The Big Three’, they bring versatility to Champagne and another dimension to its story. And they may also have a say in combatting the effects of climate change.

Sheep grazing in a vineyard in Champagne
A vineyard of ancestral grapes in Champagne enjoys the maintenance work of grazing sheep

It is believed that in the Middle Ages, Champagne vineyards were dominated by two varieties: Gouais Noir and Fromenteau (aka Pinot Gris). By 1860, Pinot Noir had established itself as the most popular variety, yet until the ravages of phylloxera at the turn of the century, there was still a myriad of varieties planted. Their presence dwindled as growers replanted varieties that were easier to grow and considered more qualitative, notably Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay.

Thus, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris were set on a course to oblivion. By 2000, a single hectare of Pinot Gris and 1.1 hectares of Arbane remained. The little left was mainly cultivated down south in Côte des Bar, where such tiny lots of the ancestral grapes were customarily sunk into the press together with the mainstream varieties.

High acidity and finesse are two qualities that make Arbane of potential interest to winemakers

Luckily, Lucien Moutard kept the Arbane tradition alive when, in 1952, he replanted vines from his grandfather’s nursery. Only one clone is today certified for Arbane (1178) but plantations have slowly crept up to five hectares. It remains the least planted of the four ancestral grapes mentioned and this is due to its poor, unreliable yield. High acidity and finesse are two qualities that make it of potential interest to winemakers, even if it tends to produce notably more aromatic wines than Chardonnay.

Arbane is now to be found as part of the seven-grape blends of the region, such as Domaine Alexandre Bonnet La Géande 7 Cépages and Mouzon Leroux Les Fervins 7 Cépage featured in this Grower Champagne Report. It is also included in the blend of Etienne Calsac Les Revenants and Champagne Geoffroy Les Houtrants Complantés. Pure varietal Arbanes are rare but one can savour it on its own in Moutard’s Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes and Olivier Horiot’s Arbane.

Les Revenants label, featuring names of the ancestral grapes
The aptly named 'Les Revenants' is a blend of three of the four ancestral grapes; 50% Pinot Blanc, 43% Petit Meslier and 7% Arbane

Olivier Horiot also offers a varietal Petit Meslier, another one of Champagne’s local curiosities, which is an ancient cross of Gouais Blanc and Savagnin Blanc. This vine was once reasonably popular in the Côte des Bar but by 2000 its surface area had shrunk to 2.8 hectares. Since then, a number of producers have rediscovered the grape and there are now 14 hectares planted.

Etienne Calsac has planted Petit Meslier on his single-vineyard site for Les Revenants cuvée in the Sézanne and believes it to be a variety of the future. ‘I will be planting more Petit Meslier. It needs to ripen properly to avoid overly herbaceous characters and to show its fine pastry and exotic aromas. In the warming climate this will be possible while the wine still retains its excellent freshness’, Calsac states.

Pinot Blanc is more particular and interesting than Chardonnay in our terroir

Pinot Blanc (or Blanc Vrai as it is referred to in the region) used to be widely planted, even in the Côte des Blancs, and there was once much confusion arising from the belief held by some that Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay were one and the same grape. For this reason, more significant plantations remained intact, especially in the Côte des Bar.

Today, 110 hectares are cultivated and the more sizeable plantations enable its wider use in blends. Domaine Alexandre Bonnet’s Blanc de Blancs is a blend of equal proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. ‘Pinot Blanc brings structure and balance as well as aromatic complexity with exotic notes, white flowers and sweet spices. It is more particular and interesting than Chardonnay in our terroir, and we are committed to crafting wines that reflect the identity of southern Champagne and Les Riceys in particular. As a testament to that, we planted also 90 more acres of Arbane last year, probably to join the blanc de blancs blend in a few years,’ states Arnaud Fabre, president of Domaine Alexandre Bonnet. Rémy Massin & Fils Spécial Club is a rare 100% Pinot Blanc coming from two plots totaling 60 acres. As a variety, it is considered particularly interesting for the future, as its budburst takes place late, which aids in lowering the frost risk.

Finally, we have the remaining member of the Pinot family, the pink-skinned Pinot Gris, which is locally called Fromenteau. Historically an important variety, its plantations had shrunk as low as one hectare by 2000. Since then, six more hectares have been planted and Drappier is one of the very few producing varietal wines from it. Pinot Gris’s lower acidity and more expressive aromatics relative to the other ancestral grapes dampens interest in its use for Champagne in the future.

Etienne Calsac
Etienne Calsac, who is creating single-vineyard wines from ancestral varieties that have been planted and pressed together

Heirloom varieties have largely been a tool of grower producers but from early on, houses have also contributed to starting this micro trend. Moutard, Duval-Leroy and Drappier have been early pioneers but now many, including Bollinger, are at least experimenting with them. Louis Roederer recently planted all seven varieties in equal proportions on an 0.6-hectare plot in Cumières. Here, the varieties are planted randomly and picked and pressed together, practicing so-called field-blending rather than Champagne’s traditional way of blending base wines.

Returning to the historical way of co-plantation and co-pressing is gaining in popularity, especially when it comes to the ancestral grapes, and there is a highly practical reason for that, as Calsac explains: ‘It would not be possible for me to vinify the varieties separately as the batches are very small. Perhaps blending later on would bring more precision but I am making a single-vineyard cuvée and it is important for me to taste the “lieu-dit” [the character of the site]’.

A view of Cumières
The village of Cumières, where Champagne Geoffrey is planting Pinot Noir, Meunier, Chardonnay, Petit Meslier and Arbane on the same plot

Indeed, co-planting and co-pressing may well erase some of the varietal effect from the grapes and put terroir in the limelight. Louis Roederer’s chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is also intrigued by co-planting for the sake of biodiversity, which he believes may aid in building resistance to viticultural problems – mildew during flowering, for example.

Agrapart has long produced a co-planted vine cuvée called Complantée in Avize. Geoffroy’s concept with Les Houtrants Complantés is truly unique too, with Pinot Noir, Meunier, Chardonnay, Petit Meslier and Arbane planted on the same mid-slope plot in Cumières. Production began in 2008 and since then the cuvée has been a blend of vintages using magnums of reserve wine. The current bottling includes wines from the 2014 harvest all the way back to 2008. Les Houtrants cuvée touches the essence of this micro trend, existing as a curious throwback to Champagne’s historical times of co-planting and storing reserve wines in bottles.