White gold: Chardonnay in Champagne

While the grape is a relative latecomer to the area, Champagnes made entirely from Chardonnay are becoming increasingly popular. Lucy Shaw discovers why, and whether a possible shortage will hinder the growth of the expressions.

Praised for their delicacy, elegance and ageing potential, a number of the most revered wines in Champagne are solo acts made from Chardonnay. From Krug’s eye-wateringly expensive Clos du Mesnil, crafted from Chardonnay hailing from a walled 1.85-hectare vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and the jewel in Taittinger’s crown – Comtes de Champagne – made from Chardonnay grown in five Grand Cru vineyards on the Côtes de Blancs, to the über-rare Salon les Mesnil, of which just 37 vintages have been made in the last century, Chardonnay has proved its mettle in Champagne, demonstrating that when sourced from the right sites, it can shine as brightly if not more brilliantly on its own than when accompanied by Pinot Noir and Meunier.

A relative latecomer to the region, Chardonnay was first planted in Champagne in the second half of the 19th century, predominantly in the chalk-rich soils of the Côtes de Blancs. Over the years it has gained popularity with winemakers because it is higher yielding, easier to grow and less prone to oxidation than the two Pinots, while the second pressings can be more easily used than those of Pinot Noir and Meunier. Thanks to its relatively neutral character, the chameleon-like grape is both a transmitter of terroir and a blank canvas for the chefs de caves.

Hervé-Deschamps of Perrier-Jouët

“In terms of aromas, Chardonnay offers a wide palate of floral and fruity notes, from white flowers and stone fruit to citrus fruit and sometimes spicy notes of ginger and anise.

“When it comes to older wines, it displays notes of ripe white and yellow fruit, such as pear and yellow plum, apricot, hazelnuts and brioche,” says Thibault Le Mailloux, director of the Comité Champagne.

Despite being the least-planted grape in Champagne, with just 10,384 hectares under vine compared with Pinot Noir’s 13,141ha, Chardonnay has become the most highly sought-after and difficult-to-source grape in the region, favoured for its freshness and reliability, as the world wakes up to the delicate charms of blanc de blancs.

The expression not only works wonderfully as an apéritif but as a pairing for everything from sushi to lobster, and aged hard cheeses when the wines have a decent number of years behind them.

On the subject of food, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, of Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild, recently revealed to db that he chose to make Chardonnay his focus at his Champagne Barons de Rothschild project because he believes the grape is the “white truffle” of the region.

“It’s the best, and we wanted to do the best. To put the Rothschild name on it, it had to be the best. Also, there are only a couple of Chardonnay specialists in Champagne, like Salon and Delamotte, which gives us a chance to stand out,” he said. Going against advice “When we came to Champagne everyone was advising us to make wine with Pinot Noir and Meunier because the majority of vineyards in the region are planted with those grapes, so naturally we decided to do a Chardonnay.”

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