This article is about Champagne grapes. Meaning the grapes that are used to make Champagne. There is also a grape, not used for wine at all, the Black Corinth or Vitis Vinifera, sometimes sold as “Champagne grapes” in the US, but we won’t be talking about that. Instead we’ll discuss the main three grapes used in Champagne and a little on the rarely used but other allowed varieties.
The big three, which account for more than 99.9% of grapes used, are Chardonnay, a white grape, and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, dark skinned grapes. The reason why most Champagne is white (except for Rose Champagne) is that the grapes are pressed gently and there is no contact with the skins during fermentation.
Chardonnay gives Champagne its acidity, freshness, elegance and grace. As it ages, it adds toastiness and creaminess. Blanc de blanc Champagnes are made entirely of Chardonnay. Don’t expect them to have any similarities to California or other Chardonnay of course; the terroir, the climate and soil, are entirely different. Most Chardonnay is grown in the Côte des Blanc, south of Epernay, and includes the villages of Avize, Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger and Oger. This is a north to south strip of east facing vineyards.
Pinor Noir gives biscuity, bready, and toastiness as well as adding body and structure. Pinor Noir is primarily grown in Montagne de Reims which is to the south of Reims and Valée de la Marne, which is south of Montagne de Reims. Valée de la Marne has south facing chalky slopes while Montage de Reims has north facing chalky slopes (warmed by winds rising from the valleys below).
Pinor Meunier is grown in the same areas as Pinot Noir and is a easy grape to grow. It buds later in the Spring, so it’s less susceptible to frost damage, and ripens earlier. It is fruity and floral. Many Vintage Champagnes do not use any Pinot Meunier at all.
Comprising maybe .02% of all Champagne grapes, and used by very very few producers, are Arbanne, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris (also known as Fromenteau), and Petit Mesilier. One producer who uses these varieties is Aubry Champagne. These grapes are no longer planted but the complex Champagne regulations allow some previously planted vines to be used. Also historically allowed were Pinot de Juillet and Pinot Rosé, but they are primarily historical footnotes which were disallowed in 2010 (although it appears that none existed).