An Intro to Chardonnay
Chardonnay makes for one of the most ubiquitously planted grapes in the world; it is, in fact, second only to the variety Airen which is used almost exclusively for the production of grape brandy. This makes Chardonnay top dog in the white wine grape world and that has more to do with than just being climate adaptable, easy to grow and high yielding. This grape is recognized in the world of wine as the winemaker’s blank canvas.
Providing juice with good acidity, structure and concentration, it is readily influenced by methods and techniques employed in the cellar. This versatility of Chardonnay wine explains the magnitude of its styles one can find on the market today. It is capable of being fashioned as a simple, everyday drinker as much as it can represent an elite wine, showcasing great complexity and ageability (re: Burgundy). For this it may come as no surprise that it is principal in the production of premium sparkling wines of the world and one of the three keystone grapes of Champagne.
Where is Chardonnay Grown in Champagne?
Chardonnay represents 30% of the vineyard plantings in Champagne. Though it is represented in all five sub-zones of the region, the greatest quantity of vines is found on the gentle slopes of the Côte des Blancs. The grape does well in chalky soils of this area and is typically planted to a South/Southeast aspect. The maximal sunlight offered by this orientation is important for ripening in the cool climate region (remember, Champagne is situated at the very limits of vitis vinifera growing) and also for providing early-morning sun in the case of below freezing temperatures in late spring. While easy to grow, Chardonnay grapes are early budding making them particularly susceptible to damage from frost during flowering which can curtail typically high yields.
The Côte des Blancs encompasses thirteen villages, all of which once held distinction as Grand or Premier Cru in the now disregarded Echelle des Crus — Champagne’s 20th century classification system. And while the system is considered defunct, many of the villages have retained the use of cru indication on labels as their reputations for excellence persist through superb quality champagne.
Of the seventeen Grand Crus once established, six are located in the Côte des Blancs — planted to 95% Chardonnay — owing to this sub-region’s identity as producing some of the most impressive and authentic expressions of Chardonnay in the Champagne region. The Grand Cru villages are Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil, Oger and Oiry, and their names will often still be expressly indicated on the labels of their blanc de blancs.
As mentioned before, Chardonnay can be found planted all over champagne, but outside of the Côte des Blancs it is typically used with blending partners Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. One exception to this is the lesser discussed region Côte de Sézanne, south of the Côte de Blancs, where 75% of the vineyards are planted to Chardonnay and riper, more tropical toned blanc de blancs are made.
The Meaning of blanc de blancs
Blanc de blancs translates to “white from whites.” Broadly it refers to white wine made from white grapes. More specifically, it is most used in the context of a white sparkling wine made from white grapes, and even more specifically in reference to champagne made in this style. The term is not, however, exclusive to champagne or its appellation.
After considering all of that, blanc de blancs may seem like detail minutia, explanation overkill — “white from white, obviously.” But to fully grasp why this is an important distinction within champagne styles, let’s segue for a moment.
There are three primary grapes grown and used for champagne production: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The latter two are, in fact, red grapes, and used wholly or blended with the others to make white champagne. Special technique is required in the cellar to vinify grapes with red skin without imparting color or phenolics to the wine; it is a process that has been executed in Champagne for a long time and is indicated by the parallel term blanc de noirs.
From the big champagne houses, “house-style” is typically derived from a blend of all three varieties sourced across the regions of Champagne. But unique releases, prestige cuvées and terroir-driven champagnes may shift a wine’s focus towards a single of the three grapes. This is where understanding the meaning of blanc de blancs cannot be undervalued. If the champagne in your hand denotes this specificity on the label, cue attention and know that this is a champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay.
What Does blanc de blancs Champagne Taste Like?
As the base wine for a blanc de blancs, Chardonnay should have high acidity and may display notes of stone and citrus fruits, white flowers and spices such as ginger and anise. Another component that many champagne producers seek from this grape is prominent minerality. This is because minerality often centers itself in a wine, providing a core or backbone that will support and stay consistent through all stages of development.
Another way to view Chardonnay’s contribution to flavor is by understanding its accommodating nature and the technical decisions made by the chef de cave. Chardonnay is a grape often referred to as the winemaker’s blank canvas. This is especially true of Chardonnay in Champagne where it, and any other variety destined as the base wine, must qualify as having enough structure to endure both fermentations (primary for the alcohol, secondary for the bubbles) and extended aging, without contributing overpowering flavor that might otherwise compete with the autolytic character so vital to the identity of champagne. As you get more comfortable with cellar terminology and what it means for flavor, be sure to check out the production and aging data on the bottles you take home. This will help you determine what flavors to expect from the grape, and what qualities the winemaking has contributed.
Blanc de blancs are often stylistically made to be long-lived. There are a few reasons for this. Chardonnay generally develops slowly; it needs time to assimilate to technique and age. It also is less prone to oxidation than other Champagne grapes, making it a variety of choice to age. Over time, blanc de blancs cater to great depths and concentrations of aromatics and flavor. Fruit notes take on dried and marmalade-y character, floral become rich (think honeysuckle) and spice notes exotic and earthy. Many blanc de blancs reflect a sturdy autolytic character which, too, is emboldened and gains complexity with age.
As it goes in the world of terroir, the villages within the Côte de Blancs produce blanc de blancs distinct from one another. Moving from North to South we first meet Chouilly — approachable with ripe fruit character but still with nice tension. Next, Oiry shows bright and brisk with tart fruit notes. Cramant is heralded for its otherworldliness, often described as pure and ethereal with a sense of completeness about it. So, too, Avize is venerated for its mineral-driven and concentrated champagnes, tight and austere in youth, but give them time…. Oger is rich and silky. And then we arrive at Le Mesnil, the crown jewel of négociant-manipulant and récoltant-manipulant alike, firm when young but regal and long-lived with balance and elegance.
Blanc de blancs Champagnes to Check Out
If you’re wondering where to start amongst the selection of blanc de blancs on the market, a good place would be with non-vintage, non-vineyard/area specific bottles. It’s tempting to want to jump right into luxury with prestige cuvées, but your wallet and knowledge-base will thank you for starting small.
Ruinart, Pierre Péters, Delamotte, Pierre Moncuit, Perrier-Jouët and Dhondt-Grellet all make entry level blanc de blancs that range from $30-$100, and a few of these are village specific. Most of these producers also represent higher-end blanc de blancs in their portfolio. Some of the big names to look out for in the realm of vintage champagne and boutique releases include Krug, Salon, Taittinger, Louis Roederer and Jacques Selosse. These producers’ top blanc de blancs are highly prized, cellaring champagnes that will develop and endure for decades.