Chardonnay the chameleon grape
Chardonnay was the last of the three Champagne grapes (alongside Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) to be planted in the region. Planting began in the late 19th Century and since then it has become more and more popular with winemakers, not just for the delicate and elegant wines it produces but because it is so adaptable. Anyone that has compared a chardonnay from Australia with a steely Chablis can testify to that point. It can reflect the will of the winemaker as well as the area in which it was grown, something the French refer to with almost religious fervour as terroir. From a commercial point of view Chardonnay also generates higher yields than its black compatriots.
It is still the least-widely planted variety in Champagne, with just 10,384 hectares planted compared to the 13,384 with Pinot Noir. That has not stopped it from being used in some of the most prestigious blends, for example in Krug’s Clos du Mesnil is made from 100% Chardonnay, or ‘blanc de blancs’. This incredibly sought-after and expensive Champagne is made from vines grown in a single walled vineyard of less than two hectares. Along with Clos du Mesnil, another famous blanc de blancs is the almost legendary Salon les Mesnil, which has been made just 37 times in the last 100 years!
Our own partner Champagne house created its first permanent non-vintage blanc de blanc last year. It is an excellent introduction to the frankly awesome Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs. Their Chef de Champagne Hervé Deschamps says of the new blend:
“[It has] a freshness, a vivacity, and a fresh spring floral aroma of acacia or magnolia. You get the feeling of cutting into fresh juicy fruit such as peaches or pears, and some citrus aromas like lemon and grapefruit. It’s got a nice acidity but not too sharp. There’s also a nice aftertaste — not too sweet, great for aperitif or cocktail occasions but also perfect for seafood.”
Perrier-Jouët have always used a high proportion of Chardonnay, it is what gives their wines a light, floral elegance. Belle Époque uses 50% Chardonnay, for example. This lightness is one of the reasons we love to use them in cocktails and why we are so pleased to be able to work with this iconic brand.
The white truffle
Speaking of iconic brands, Château Mouton Rotshchild have recently created two Champagnes for the Ritz in London, a vintage and a non-vintage, both of which use 50% Chardonnay in the blend. This is the first venture in Champagne for the famous Bordeaux first growth. Philippe Sereys de Rothschild says he insisted on using a high proportion of Chardonnay, describing it as the “white truffle” of the region.
So, next time you hear someone roll their eyes disdainfully when offered a glass of Chardonnay, maybe let them in on one of Champagne’s increasingly worst-kept secrets!