Staff Tasting—“Little Sister/Little Brother” Champagne Varietals

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Other than customer tastings, one of my favorite projects here at K&L is conducting themed staff tastings. It can be a challenge to come up with a theme that is interesting and informative and...fun—the last tasting I held was based around one of our small estate producers, Launois, that was inspired solely by the questions posed to me by a newer employee who had not tasted any of their Champagnes. So, actually, credit belongs to Andrew Tobin for giving me the idea. 

Now I've had to come up with another theme and as we were receiving new Champagnes composed of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, I decided to have a tasting of our Champagnes that are made from these two varietals, as well as the other “forgotten” varietals of Arbanne and Petit Meslier. Finally, I also included Pinot Meunier, as it is generally regarded as the “third” varietal and is often overshadowed by “big brother” Pinot Noir and “big sister” Chardonnay. Interestingly, there are currently more hectares planted to Pinot Meunier than to Chardonnay (though this is likely to change with updated laws and a worldwide increased demand for Blanc de Blancs). 

The main focus of this tasting, however, was to look at the “lesser” varietals. At one point, about 300 years ago, Pinot Gris was dominant in Champagne, with 50% of all acreage planted to the grape. Along with Pinot Blanc, these varietals, mutations of Pinot Noir, came to France (Burgundy) via Switzerland in the 12th century. The reason why Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc fell out of favor was due to poor yields and lower disease resistance, though this was rectified in the 20th century with new (and better) cloned varieties of these grapes, especially Pinot Gris. 

Arbanne was planted mostly because it is relatively easy to grow but, like the former two varietals, was also subject to disease. Currently only one hectare is planted to Arbanne in all of Champagne. Records show that plantings of this varietal dated back to the late 14th century (in the town of Ricey, in the Aube). Last but not least, Petit Meslier, part of the Traminer family, came to France from the Tyrol region via Germany and Austria. It started its journey around the year 1000 and was widely used until the 16th century. 

So, if you’re still awake after all of this, unlike the mixed results and favorites of the staff from the Launois tasting (all six selections each had their own admirers), the result was more clear with this one. Everyone seemed to put the Aspasie Cepages d’Antan in first place. This blend of 40% Petit Meslier, 40% Arbanne, and 20% Pinot Blanc has always been my favorite wine from Ariston, so it was a LOT of vindication for me! I always try to sneak some of this out of the tasting during our Champagne Tent Events. 

The two next wines were the delicate and floral Derot-Delugny Cuvée Fondaleteurs Brut, all Pinot Gris and coming back into stock, and the Jean-Jacques Lamoureux Pinot Blanc which reminded everyone of those lacey Parmesan cheese crisps that are so beloved. Then I poured a trio of Gilbert Jacquesson Bruts (NV, 2012 and Eugenie Rose), which are all 100% Pinot Meunier. The staff talked about these a lot because of the great value that they represent for the quality. Alas, the 2012 is no longer in stock at this time, but it had changed from the last time I poured it, earlier this year. The acidity has come back out to play! It had lovely chalky and mineral notes whereas earlier in the year, it was all lush caramel, mushroom and golden apple. Like every other wine, Champagnes do change and grow (and periodically shut down). This exploration of lesser-known Champagne varietals was a fun experience and our staff seemed to enjoy it. 

Now, I have to figure something new out for the next tasting…perhaps a look at dosage or how different soils change the flavors of a particular varietal…I’m leaning toward Pinot Noir.

—Scott Beckerley

On the Trail