I had the great pleasure of working harvest in Champagne in 2010 with Aurelien Laherte from Laherte Freres in Chavot, just outside of Epernay in the Vallee de La Marne. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned from him. One of the many intriguing lessons I learned was the difference between the seven Champagne grapes and what each grape varietal can add to a blend. Les Clos, the single vineyard plot behind the house, is home to all 7 of these grapes, and was perfect for exploring.
For those of you that aren't familiar the 4 additional grapes are Fromenteau, Pinot Blanc, Petite Meslier and Petite Arbanne and all are permitted to be planted in Champagne. There is a mis-conception that these grapes aren't allowed to be replanted because some people believe these grapes are more susceptible to frost, mildew, botrytis and lower yields and don't believe it is worth the risk so they don't recommend them to be replanted.
300 years ago, 50% of the vineyards in Champagne were planted to Pinot Gris aka Fromenteau. When growers started to see the quality of wine from their southern neighbors in Burgundy, they replaced the Pinot Gris with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I would imagine that it must have been easier to sell a wine made with these noble grapes than a wine made from grapes no-one had heard much about. I care about them since they are a big part of the history of champagne and asked Aurelien to describe the differences. As he says, "All of the grapes give a bit of spice and complexity and are unique in their own way."
Most people are familiar with what Chardonnay adds to the blend, acidity and structure. Champagne made entirely from Chardonnay will be lighter and more racy. The clusters are tight and are not as susceptible to botrytis. It is because of this, that 2010 will be better for the Cotes de Blancs than the more northerly vineyards. In fact, we saw very little rot in the Chardonnay grapes we picked.
We also know that Pinot Noir add elegance, perfume and body to the blend.
Pinot Meunier adds richness and fruit to the blend. It is a late ripening grape and does extremely well in the Valle de La Marne because it isn't as prone to frost. There are many great examples of 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne on the market, one of my favorites is Laherte Freres Les Baudieres Saignee Rosé. When you close your eyes, you would swear you were drinking a red wine. It has wild berries and a pronounced nose of charcuterie and the palate is rustic and has a distinct texture.
Pinot Blanc is originally from Alsace and has to be cared for gently. More pruning is needed as It has big grapes and is susceptible to botrytis. It's leaves are big and light green. It has a marked floral and honey aroma and produces wines that are full and rich. If you want to try 100% Pinot Blanc, I highly recommend Cedric Bouchard's, La Boloree, made from 60 year old vines.
Petite Meslier is a favorite of Aurelien. He loves the Meslier that comes from the Vallee de la Marne and plans to put some into his Brut Tradition when he replants more of it. It grows very slow and has small leaves and small, compact berries. It has a certain greenness that some people think is similar to Sauvignon Blanc. In fact Didier Dageneau planted some in his vineyards even though it isn't authorized in Pouilly Fume. Because of its high acidity, he was hopeful that it could help balance some of the ripeness in hot years like 2003 and 2006. Duval Leroy made a 100% Petite Meslier wine in 1998 if you can get your hands on any.
Arbanne is one of the strangest of all the forgotten grapes and is the lowest yielding, with about 15 ha/hl on average. It comes from the Aube valley and grows very fast and has a high canopy. The leaves grow in spirals and produces very little grapes. It adds rusticity to the blend but sometimes can have a metallic finish.
Last but not least, Fromenteau a brother of Pinot Gris or Pinot Beurot adds fruitiness to the blend in the same way as Pinot Meunier. It has a lot of body, richness and maturity. It ripens very early and is rose in color when mature. The leaves are similar to Pinot Noir. I loved picking these grapes as they tasted so good. One for me, one for the bucket.