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Permitted Champagne grapes – Ask Decanter

What are some of the lesser known grapes permitted in Champagne production...?

Stephen Forster, Enniskillen, asks: I recently tasted an excellent crémant made with Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes.

I believe that Gamay was permitted in Champagne up until the early 1960s. Why was this discontinued? I also note that apart from the three major Champagne grape varieties, four others are still allowed: Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Are there any notable producers using these varieties and what characteristics would they impart to the final production?

Peter Liem, DWWA Regional Chair for Champagne, replies: Officially, the appellation law in Champagne permits three grape varieties: Arbane, Petit Meslier and ‘Pinot’ (a family that includes Noir, Meunier, Blanc, Gris and Chardonnay).

Gamay was prohibited for qualitative reasons, but existing plantings were grandfathered in until the 1950s.

While Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay account for 99.7% of Champagne’s plantings today, the contemporary interest in heirloom varieties was spearheaded in the 1980s by L Aubry Fils, who continues to make excellent wines from them. Other growers to seek out include Tarlant, Laherte Frères, René Geoffroy, Drappier and Agrapart.

Arbane is marked by piercing acidity and a herbal, pine-like flavour, while Petit Meslier veers more towards tropical notes. Pinot Blanc makes juicy, fruity wines, and has historically been more widely planted in the Aube’s Côte des Bar due to its resistance to frost: Roses de Jeanne and Pierre Gerbais make superb examples, as do Charles Dufour, Fleury and Vouette & Sorbée.

This question first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Decanter magazine.

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