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The Rarest Gems of Champagne: The Ultimate List of Forgotten Grape Cuvées




Words by Lucy Edwards




When one starts their champagne education, three words are pummeled into our brains: CHARDONNAY, PINOT NOIR, MEUNIER! The three main grape varieties of champagne are iconic, but let's not forget the key word of that sentence: main.



These three varieties represent 99.7% of the Champagne region's plantings. But what about he remaining 0.3%? Nestled within Champagne's viticultural landscape lies a hidden treasure trove comprising just over 100 hectares of lesser-known grape varieties. These so-called "forgotten grapes" - including Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc - constitute a mere 0.3% of the Champagne region. Being mostly "weeded out" between the 1950s and 1980 mostly due to inconsistent yields and susceptibility to rots and diseases. However with temperatures rising, they now hold immense potential and intrigue for winemakers and enthusiasts alike. Some also think that improvements in technology have given us the tools to reveal the full potential in these long abandoned grapes.


So what are these mysterious grapes? And are they making a comeback? And how can you explore what some call the future of champagne through tasting?


 

Arbane: Among these unsung heroes, Arbane stands out for its late ripening and delicate nature. While challenging to cultivate due to its susceptibility to adverse weather conditions and difficulty in pressing, Arbane yields champagnes of exceptional finesse, boasting floral and fruity notes reminiscent of hawthorn blossom, carnation, vine peach, apple, and quince. With a rich history dating back centuries, particularly in the southern champagne region (75% is planted in the Aube), particularly around the commune of Bar-sur-Aube. Ampelographers theorise that the origin of the name Arbane can be traced back to the medieval Latin term "albana," denoting "white grape." This term still serves as a primary name and synonym for various grape varieties in Italy, notably the Albana grape. Mystery remains around the family of this grape to this day, and it is believed to have been planted in Champagne by the romans. Arbane's revival is a testament to the potential of this low yielding species, but also proof of a clearly rising temperature. It is said that there are less than 12 hectares of Arbane in the whole region, which makes it the rarest of the 4 grapes. Alexandre Bonnet grow 0.12ha in La Géande and 0.9ha in Valdeney vineyards, which makes them one of the largest producers of the grape. Take, for example, the Moutard Arbane Vieilles Vignes, a champagne that embodies the essence of Arbane's revival with its ethereal finesse and captivating floral aromas.


Petit Meslier: Another rarity in Champagne, Petit Meslier, with its small clusters and grapes, is the result of a cross between Gouais blanc and Savagnin. While its low yields and susceptibility to disease present challenges, Petit Meslier imparts champagnes with a distinct smoky bouquet and citrusy undertones, adding complexity and depth to the final product. Its acidity can be searing, and is often, overbearing on its own as it will retain acidity even in hot vintages. This makes it a top contender as a grape of the future to counterbalance over-ripeness in extreme vintages. It is believed that there are about 15 hectares planted today. A prime example is found in the Duval-Leroy Petit Meslier, a powerful and expressive single vineyard cuvee. The 2008 vintage is still showing zippy acidity and despite its 12 years on lees already, is still a baby. This grape variety has plenty of ageing potential.



Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc: Close relatives of Pinot Noir, both Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc offer intriguing alternatives in Champagne. Pinot Gris, known for its low acidity and pronounced smoky, nutty notes, enriches blends with its distinctive character, earning the nickname "Enfumé" for its smoke-filled profile. It can add volume, body, and generous complexity to less expressive vintages. Meanwhile, Pinot Blanc, with its punchy, full-bodied nature and faster ripening, presents winemakers with a versatile canvas for crafting expressive wines which are more approachable in their youth. It is the most planted of the four with close to 100ha.


So who is bringing back the ancient indigenous grapes? Winemakers like the Moutard and Drappier families, champions of these forgotten grapes, have embraced their unique qualities. With vineyards boasting rare varieties alongside traditional grapes, they're pioneering a new chapter in Champagne's winemaking legacy. Drappier was the first producer to plant all 7 grapes and have recently planted the experimental Voltis hybrid grape which makes them the only producer with all 8 authorised varieties. Producers like Olivier Horiot and Laherte Frères are also pushing boundaries, experimenting with single-variety champagnes and innovative blends that showcase the diversity and complexity of these overlooked grapes.


As the Champagne region grapples with the challenges of climate change and sustainability, these forgotten grapes offer more variety to the palate of aromas to play with during their assemblage. With their resilience, distinctiveness, and potential for crafting exceptional wines, they may well hold the key to Champagne's future. Who knows when one of the Grande Maisons will release a cuvee with one of these grapes in their blend? Roederer and Bollinger have planted small plots for experimental wines, so it is only a matter of time.


Hélène Beaugrand and her son planting Pinot Blanc in Montgueux in April 2024.

It is worth noting that while the eighth grape variety Voltis was introduced in 2021, no wines have been released to market yet, as vines need a minimum of three years before they can produce grapes for champagne wine, and another 18 months minimum of ageing. They will likely hit the market in 2027/2028. The champenois believe that Voltis will most likely be blended into Chardonnay, Pinot and Meunier wines with a maximum of 5%.


Below is a list of all champagne wines made with these four varieties.


 


Les Monocépages



Derot-Delugny Retour en Avant NV

Planted by the Derot and Delugny families in 1929, this old grape variety has been vinified au goût du jour by Claire and Laurent Dérot. The plot is 0.52 hectares in a mostly South/Southeast facing hill.

Blend: 100% Pinot Gris

Sub-region: Crouttes-sur-Marnes

Dosage: Brut

Time on lees: Not specified

Price: 32



 

Nöel Leblond-Lenoir Perle de Dizet

With over 13 hectares planted around Buxeuil, daughters Elise and Mélaine have a few plots of Pinot Blanc and planted Arbane in 2018. Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc Sub-region: Buxeuil, Côte des Bar Dosage: Brut Time on lees: Not specified Price: 35

 

Champagne Deheurles & Fils Céleste 2018

Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc 2018 (75% ged in stainless steel tanks and 25% aged in demi-muids for 4 months) Sub-region: Celles sur Ource, Côte des Bar Dosage: 10g - Brut Time on lees: 3 years Price: 38


 

Daniel Pétré & Fils Pinot Blanc Sur Mont Coppé Millésime 2019 Single grape from a single plot from a single year. Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc Subregion: Ville sur Arce, Côte des Bar Dosage: Brut Time on lees: Not Specified Price: 40


 

Daniel Pétré & Fils Sur Mont Coppé Millésime 2019 Single grape from a single plot from a single year. Blend: 100% Pinot Gris Subregion: Ville sur Arce, Côte des Bar Dosage: Brut Time on lees: Not Specified Price: 42


 

Chassenay d'Arce Pinot Blanc millésime

This exclusive Pinot Blanc cuvée, from the unique terroir of the Vallée de l’Arce made froma single vintage. Current release is the 2015, presents more generosity than the previous. The wines from the 2015 harvest offer a balance between roundness and freshness, good maturity and an interesting ageing potential.Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc

Sub-region: Vallée de l’Arce, Côte des Bar

Time on lees: 7 years

Dosage: 4g

Price:40


 

Champagne Gruet - Pinot Blanc NV

Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc

Sub-region: Buxeuil, Côte des Bar

Time on lees: Not specified

Dosage: 9g

Price: 45


 

Champagne Marie Demets - Singularité Pinot Blanc NV

3,946 bottles made from their only plot on the Buxeuil finage: «Frion,» 0.3990 ha; planted in 1992, stainless steel fermentation followed by 30 months on lees. Blend: 100% Pinot Blanc

Sub-region: Buxeuil, Côte des Bar

Time on lees: 30 months

Dosage: 1.5g

Price: 45