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.