My WSET tasting looks at styles of Champagne

Earlier this week I ran a Champagne masterclass tasting at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and promised the participants, many of them WSET diploma students, to publish some of the detailed information about the wines, plus up-to-date statistics on the grape varieties planted in different areas of the appellation.

The idea of the tasting was to explore some of the varied styles of non-vintage champagne, taking wines from eight different sources, a mix of large houses, co-operatives and small-scale artisan producers, spread across the appellation.

The first pair of wines were from two of the large négociants who dominate the Champagne business, Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial & Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut. Picked partly as while they are both three-way varietal blends, they represent opposite ends of the non-vintage spectrum in terms of flavour profile. The Moët is more than two thirds black fruit (Meunier and Pinot Noir), while the relaunched Laurent-Perrier Brut named La Cuvée is a blend that’s even more Chardonnay dominant than its predecessor (for more details about Laurent-Perrier’s changes to its Brut NV see this link: http://wp.me/p4t654-1D1 ).

The Moët is also a great introduction to Champagne in that, as head winemaker Benoît Gouez emphasises at his tastings, it’s a blend that closely resembles the proportion of the three main grape varieties actually planted across the appellation.

The total area of vineyard planted in Champagne — these are 2016 figures — is 34,328 hectares and out of this, 33,805 hectares are in active production. The largest proportion is planted with Pinot Noir (13,142ha out of 34,328 or 38.3% of the vineyard surface), Meunier comes next with 10,689 hectares (31.1%) and Chardonnay third with 10,385ha (30.3%). Other varieties like Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc or Blanc Vrai as it sometimes called and Pinot Gris (often known as Fromenteau in

The eight champagnes

Champagne) make up the remaining 112 hectares or just 0.33% of the planted vineyard.

The second pair of wines in the tasting were both Blanc de Noirs styles, one from a small family business based in the Côte des Bars region, the second made by one of Champagne’s top co-operatives, which draws most of its fruit from its 200 grower members based in the Montagne de Reims region.

It’s a myth that most of the Pinot Noir produced in Champagne is grown in vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, more than double the number of hectares of this variety is to be found in Champagne’s most southerly region, the Côte des Bars. Here there are 6,692ha of Pinot Noir and it accounts for 82.48% of all plantings, whereas there are only 3,227ha of Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims which is 38.2% of that area (the rest is pretty evenly split between Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier).

The first of these two wines is pure Pinot Noir – Blanc de Noirs can be made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Meunier or 100% of either variety — and comes from the small family business of Gremillet which is based in the village of Balnot-sur-Laignes that’s very close to Les Riceys, famous for its Pinot. Les Riceys’ other two claims to fame are that it is the single largest cru in the entire Champagne appellation with 842 hectares under vine in 2016 (Vertus is the next largest with 543 hectares) and it is the only town in France where three different AOC wines can be produced; Champagne, Rosé des Riceys and Côteaux Champenois (white or red).

Les Riceys is located towards the very south-west corner of Champagne, which is physically closer to Chablis than to Reims or Epernay — it’s under 60kms from Les Riceys almost directly west to the town of Chablis itself and from Les Riceys north to Epernay is over 160kms. The Kimmeridgian clay soils found here have more in common with Chablis too than with the chalky soils of vineyards immediately north and south of Epernay.

In contrast Palmer’s Blanc de Noirs is a 50/50 Noir/Meunier blend with longer lees ageing of around four years – it’s based on the 2011 harvest – and is drawn from Palmer’s historical terroirs including the grand crus of Mailly and Verzenay for Pinot Noir with Meunier from vineyards like Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes, but also Les Riceys and some villages of the Vallée de la Marne.
Details of the other four wines in the tasting will follow shortly. In the meantime here is a list of the eight wines and stockists.

Retail stockists:
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial: widely available, £35 a bottle or buy three save 25% at Waitrose until 13 June.
Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée Brut NV: £41.99 a bottle, £27.99 Mix Six price Majestic
Gremillet Blanc de Noirs Brut NV: £32.88 a bottle www.christopherpiperwines.co.uk
Palmer Blanc de Noirs Brut NV:  £237.75 per six bottle case (6 x 75cl, equiv to £39.63 a bottle), www.thefinewinecompany.co.uk Ruinart Blancs de Blancs Brut NV: widely available, www.bbr.com £57 a bottle
Berry Bros. & Rudd Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru by Le Mesnil: www.bbr.com £33.99 a bottle,
Philipponnat Royal Réserve Rosée Brut NV, £44.99 down to £39.99 www.simplywinesdirect.uk ; half bottles £29.99 Selfridges.
Drappier Brut Rosé de Saignée NV: https://www.winedirect.co.uk/champagne-drappier-rose-brut-nv £37.95 a bottle.