Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Height of Geekiness

So if you’re really into champagne, you might have learned that contrary to popular belief, it is not always made out of only three grape varieties. You might even have tasted some champagnes made out of “other” grapes, like Aubry’s La Nombre d’Or or Moutard’s Cuvée des 6 Cépages. If you’re a diehard devotee, willing to brave frigid Champenois Februarys and expend the effort to taste vins clairs at the right addresses, you might even be lucky enough to taste some still wines made from these forgotten varieties.

Yesterday, however, I ventured into a realm that I had never previously before imagined. Out with Benoît Tarlant on a pre-harvest survey of Oeuilly’s vineyards, I had the opportunity to taste actual grapes, not only of pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay (including the ungrafted chardonnay from 50-year old vines used for La Vigne d’Antan), but of petit meslier, arbanne and pinot blanc.

About eight or nine years ago, Tarlant attempted to expand his 0.4-hectare parcel of ungrafted chardonnay in the vineyard of Les Sables in Oeuilly. Unfortunately, the young vines were planted in soil that wasn’t as sandy as the other portion, and as a result they were struck by phylloxera only two years later. Upon pulling up these vines, Benoît decided to replace them with several of the old varieties, “to get revenge,” as he puts it.

Today he has five rows of each of these three grape varieties. Petit meslier hangs in relatively loosely-packed bunches, and takes a long time to ripen. To me, it has the most unique aroma of any variety in Champagne. The grapes yesterday, which are still a few days away from full maturity, tasted like some crazy Japanese melon candy, with plenty of acidity and a fragrant perfume. The arbanne grapes also had very tart acidity, more pronounced than in any of the three common varieties, but the flavors were darker and spicier, almost reminiscent of green peppercorns. Arbanne can be recognized by the jagged edges on its leaves, as seen in the above photograph. Pinot blanc hangs in big, fat bunches that are very compacted together, and the leaves are huge. I found the grapes sort of appley in flavor and more overtly fruity, with more of a pronounced texture.

I don’t know what Benoît is planning to do with these. I don’t think there’s enough quantity to bottle each of them separately. Last year he blended them all together and the vin clair was pretty good, with a spicy, exotic aroma and a waxy richness. I’m looking forward to seeing the 2008 version.

4 comments:

Tobias Ø said...

Thanks for the arban(n)e pic. Have you ever in your time there seen any of the gamay that could in theory still exist?

Ian Black said...

That's interesting! I get the distinct impression that there is a growing interest in these older varieties. I've heard of a couple of other growers planting them recently.

Drappier also do a blanc de blancs called Quattuor (Chardonnay, P. Meslier, Arbanne, Pinot Blanc) - maybe you have come across that one. It struck me as having an interesting, almost balsamic note to it. I wish I'd bought some now!

Chief of Lab Research said...

On this subject, I tried Moutard's Cepage Arbane and it smelled like Comte. Not a little bit. But exactly like the cheese. The bottle was otherwise good, if a little flabby. Would you know if this typical for Arbanne? Or more likely something unwanted that crept in after malo?

And thanks sharing impressions from another unique outing. I read your blog with more envy than any other I know.

cheers,
J David

Peter Liem said...

Tobias:

Actually, gamay is no longer permitted in Champagne: it was once the predominant grape in the Aube, but when the Aube was admitted into the Champagne appellation in 1927, new plantings of gamay were forbidden, and growers were given until 1945 to replant their gamay to the officially accepted varieties. This deadline was later extended to 1952, and then to 1962, but since then gamay has had no right to the appellation.

Ian: I do know the Quattuor. Drappier's wines are getting more and more interesting.

J David: Arbanne is indeed a weird one. I've noticed a cheesiness about Moutard's Arbane as well, maybe not to the extent of your bottle but certainly something a bit unusual. I don't know why that is. That's the only pure arbanne I've ever tasted (I can't even think of another one that exists), so I have no reference point other than tasting a few vins clairs. Clearly more research is in order....