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The Other Grapes

Recently, I’ve had opportunities to taste two of the other grapes of Champagne made all on their own, Pinot Blanc and Arbanne. Here are my thoughts on them as well as the other two lesser known grapes of Champagne.

Pinot Blanc

Blanc Vrai as its also referred to, is rare in Champagne, but not the rarest of the bunch. That being said, there isn’t much planted, and much of what is usually part of a blend. There are few examples of 100% Pinot Blanc though, Cedric Bouchard’s La Borolée is certainly the most sought after and expensive. Pierre Gerbais is the new comer, but made a cool wine, and François Diligent is making a pretty great example that’s reasonably priced.

Across all three of these wines, I’ve noticed significant fruit tones, including lemons, Meyer lemons, yellow apples, peaches, pineapple, and mango. Essentially, yellow fruits. The specific fruits vary by wine and vintage, but some combination is always present. The grape is also a good vehicle for expressing minerality.  The wines definitely tend have a creamy texture that I attribute more to the grape than the aging, but the aging certainly plays a part. Overall I find Pinot Blancs to be interesting and  they help show a different side of Champagne. However, I rarely want more than a glass at any given time. Certainly worth seeking out, but there’s a reason it’s a lesser grape of Champagne.

Arbanne

Arbanne is a grape that barely exists in Champagne anymore(or anywhere else). I finally got to taste the only 100% Arbanne that I’m aware of yesterday. It was the Moutard Cuvée Arbane VV 2008. Putting aside it’s a unicorn of wine, it was actually delicious, made that’s just a great year, but I was quite impressed with it.

On the nose I found a wide variety of flavors – sandalwood, musty notes, spicy tones, red fruits, and a bit of a green stemmy note. On the palate the spice and sandalwood carried through joined by some minerality, white raspberries and red fruits. I thought the acid was a major component of the wine, but it the best possible sense.

When I’ve talked to the people who use this grape I’ve heard these descriptors as well: exotic, pistachio, spicy, fruity, green, bell pepper, lean. Since there’s so little of it available I’ll have to take everyone’s word for it, but this one example I’ve had was definitely worth seeking out.

Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris

I put these two together because I’ve never tasted a single variety version of either from Champagne. Obviously Pinot Gris is fairly common and can be found made into sparkling versions in Alsace and Oregon. In Champagne its also called Fromenteau. Maybe one day I’ll have one made all on its own, but given my experience with Alsace and Oregon examples, I’m not going to rush out and spend a lot of money to do it.

Petit Meslier is a lean, green monster from my limited experience and everyone I’ve talked to about it. It has huge acidity which is great in hot vintages, but otherwise overwhelming. Flavor wise, the most common descriptor I hear is green bell pepper. When they’re trying to be nice and or sell the wine I hear green apple, citrus, and rhubarb.

When I visited Raphaël Bereche in February 2013, I tasted his blend of Petit Meslier and Arbanne from 2007. He’s not planning to release this commercially, but it was great to taste. It was lively and fresh, packed with minerality with definite green pepper and spicy tones. On the same trip I also tasted Laharte’s Le Clos or Les Sept depending on which label you see. This wine is a blend of all 7 grapes. I had it from barrel, and  it was young and figuring itself out, but the spicy and green pepper tones stood out. Aurelien said these integrate in creating the some of the complexity of this wine, but in its youth these tones standout almost to a fault.

Finally, I also recent drank a bottle of Benoît Lahaye Jardin de la Grosse Pierre, which in addition to having all 7 permitted grapes, it has some others including Gros Plant and some of Teinturier. Benoît’s grandfather planted this single vineyard in the 1920’s as a field blend, so no one knows exactly what’s in there. This wine was fantastically compelling full of complexity, intense flavors, and many spicy notes. I can’t say which grapes were contributing what aromas, but I will say this wine was bad with the oysters and amazing with the roasted lamb.

Overall, I think the other 4 grapes of  Champagne are interesting, but they have been diminished in quantity over the years for good reason. I think going forward we’ll see a small resurgence as the next generation of vignerons decide they want to play with them. That being said, I don’t expect that we’ll ever see any of the grapes raise to prominence in our lives.

Aubry

This was one of the visits that I was least sure about what to expect.  When I told many of the other producers I was coming here, they made a face or told me how grumpy the brothers are.  Interesting, considering they're in to sustainable farming, odd grapes, interesting production methods, and generally pushing the boundaries.  I think it's more a generational thing.  Most of the producers I met with were younger, between 30-45, where as the Aubry twins were older.  Regardless this turned out to be a great visit.  

When I arrived I met Philippe, who was on first appearance a funny little frenchman, he was very proper and helped me with my French.  He spoke almost no English, so another good opportunity to practice.  That being said, I'm really glad this wasn't my first visit,  that would have been rough. We jumped right into the tasting, no tour, no vineyards, which I was okay with.  You can only see so many wineries before your eyes glaze.  He gave me a brief break down of where the grapes come from - Jouy-les-Reims, Villedommagne, Pargny-les-Reims, and Coulommes-la-Montagne, all in the heart of  western part of the Montagne de Reims, also known as the Petite Montagne. The expositions vary between south and west, with soils primarily being chalk and clay.  

Interestingly, the Aubry brothers have all 7 of the grapes of Champagne planted, which is awesome, and even better that I was able to taste these wines with recent experience with the other grapes during other appointments like Bereche and Laherte.   We started with the brut classique which is always an easy and playful wine, followed by the rosė classique. As we tasted, Philippe realized I actually had a pretty good palate, and brought out his book of flavors that I've heard about and for the rest of the tasting we played name that flavor ranging from tangerines, hazelnut cookies, red currants pineapple, tonic, earl grey tea, and lots more fun.  

At some point Philippe's twin brother Pierre came down stairs and kind of grunted a hello before moving along.  Maybe the other winemakers had a point.  Regardless, we tasted through the line, and it was one of the most fun tasting I did during my trip.  Between the complexity of the wines and playing name that flavor I really enjoyed myself.  We moved on the the 2008 of both the Le Nombre d'Or Companie VV and Blanc de Blancs both of which were fascinating and complex.  

We then started moving into some of my favorite wines of the trip:  Ivorie et Ebene 09 which is 70% chard, 25 meunier, and 5 Pinot.  It was loaded with flavor, lots of dark fruits, honeycomb, floral tones, cider notes, overall a delightful wine with lots of complexity but very friendly at the same time.  Sablė Rosė 2008 - without a doubt one of the wines of the trip.  Made with 45% vin tache from pinot and muenier.  Vin tache is the slightly pink juice from the start of the pressing that is usually blended with enough white to remove the color.  The rest of the blend is 15% chard, 20% arbanne, 29% petit meslier, and 5% rouge.  So much complexity here.  Peaches, bark, floral notes, gummy bears, loads of depth, complexity, great acid, and only fermented to 4 bars of pressure instead of the regular 6.   We finished on the Aubry de Humbert, named after the first stone placed in the cathedral of Reims. 1/3 each of the three main grapes with long aging.  This wine was fascinating with lots of aged and oxidative notes - coffee, bark, chocolate, hazelnut, honey, orange, mature wine that was delicious with a long finish and pleasant acidity. 

It would have been great to do a vin clair tasting here, just experience these components on their own.  It would also have been great to have better glassware.  The stems were the awful little flutes that don't do anything good for the wine.  Can't wait to revisit these wines are home with good glasses!