The principal grapes grown in the region include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Pinot Noir is the most widely planted grape in the Aube region and grows very well in Montagne de Reims. Pinot Meunier is the dominant grape in the Vallee de la Marne region. The Cote des Blancs is dedicated almost exclusively to Chardonnay. Sparkling wine, especially Champagne, is typically produced using one or a combination of three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Pinot Meunier. Although only sparkling wine produced with grapes grown in France’s Champagne region can be labeled Champagne, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are harvested all over the world.
Chardonnay is the world’s most popular and well-known grape variety. Unlike the purplish Pinot Noir, Chardonnay grapes have a green, almost golden appearance and produce white wine.
Chardonnay grapes are often confused with those of Pinot Blanc, since both varieties have similar looking leaves, grape vines and cluster shapes.
Chardonnay holds particular importance for the French region of Burgundy, since it was in this region (along with the Chablis region) where its sparkling wine rose to fame. In fact, it is the only grape used for white Vin de Bourgogne. Burgundy has the highest number of appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOCs) or designations that certify its grapes based on their area of origin.
Today, like other Champagne grape varieties, Chardonnay grapes are grown throughout the world. Because the Chardonnay grape is often the variety growers use to enter the international wine market, it remains one of the world’s most widely-planted varieties. Its appeal and dominance in the both the sparkling and still wine industry has often given it the nickname, “the noble Chardonnay”.
Some of the most common types of Champagne that use Chardonnay are blanc de blanc, or white wine produced solely from Chardonnay grapes, and brut Champagne. Brut Champagne (pronounced “broot”) uses a combination of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties. The result is a Champagne ranging from creamy to crisp with a dry finish.
Pinot Noir is one such grape, distinctive for its dark purple and pine cone-shaped clusters. In fact, the words “pinot” and “noir”, which mean “pine” and “black” in French, refer to the grape’s tightly clustered bunches.
Pinot Noir is also very sensitive to different production methods, which makes the grape variety highly reflective of its terroir. The result is a sparkling wine that reflects the harvesting techniques, climate and geography of the region where the grape is grown. Despite being grown in countries varying from Slovakia to Argentina, Pinot Noir is most often associated with France’s vineyards in the Burgundy region. However, Pinot Noir has grown significantly in places like Oregon and British Columbia, and produced impressive wines with unique flavors and aromas.
In Champagne production, the Pinot Noir grape variety is often combined with Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay to create sparkling wines such as Moët & Chandon’s flagship Dom Pérignon.
It is often said that while pinot noir and chardonnay grapes varieties are highly regarded in the Champagne world as noble grapes, pinot meunier grapes are viewed as the “lowly cousin” of the three.
Leading Champagne houses typically rely heavily on pinot noir and chardonnay to produce their sparkling wine, but may only use pinot meunier as a stretching agent in entry-level Champagnes.
Despite being overlooked by many of the grand crus of Champagne, meunier is used by some major Champagne houses. One is Krug, which uses meunier in its signature Grande Cuvée. Pinot meunier grapes are similar in color to pinot noir, with bluish-black skins and tight clusters. Its shoots often have a powdery white appearance due to the white hairs that grow along its surface. Unlike pinot noir, meunier is less susceptible to mildew. It is also far more resistant to grape diseases, most notably Eutypa dieback, than chardonnay.
Though pinot meunier is the least popular of the three primary grape varieties used in sparkling wine, smaller producers such as La Closerie and Laherte Frères produce 100 percent Meunier Champagnes. This is a deviation from tradition, since chardonnay and pinot noir were the two grape varieties used exclusively to produce Champagnes boasting varietal purity. However, wide availability of meunier and low demand for the grape variety have prompted smaller vineyards to experiment and produce single vineyard, single-vintage and single varietal meunier Champagnes.