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Sparkling black grape

Climate change plays a large part in defining a vintage, and when growing the delicate Pinot Noir in Champagne, quality rather than quantity might be the future. By Michael Edwards

The origin of Pinot Noir is ancient. We know for sure that as early as the 1st century AD, in De Re Rustica, the great Roman agricultural scholar Columella describes a grape variety found in Burgundy, which is very similar to the black Pinot. He also intimates that precursors of the same grape may have grown wild farther north in Belgian Gaul, an important outpost of Imperial Rome that today encompasses the French province of Champagne-Ardennes. Certainly, Pinot Noir has been a mainstay of wine production in the Aube region of southern Champagne since the Cistercians created their fledgling vineyards at the Abbey of Clairvaux a thousand years ago.

By the late 17th century, when the still wines of Champagne began to sparkle, the real thing was being made entirely from Pinot Noir. Chardonnay had to wait until the 1800s to be first planted by landed families in the pure chalk of the Côte des Blancs.

Although Pinot’s natural home is Burgundy, where the variety reaches its finest expression, more of it is grown in Champagne than in any other region of France: the 13,124 hectares in current production across the Marne and Aube cover a greater surface area of Pinot Noir than for the whole of the Côte d’Or, Chalonnais, Mâconnais and Sancerrois. In Champagne, it is of course classically blended with Chardonnay, particularly in the top vintage and prestige cuvées of the great houses. While Pinot shows its presence and character less hurriedly than the great white grape, with age it often shows far more complexity and flowing nuances of flavours. Pinot Noir can also express a profundity and depth in its pure unblended form as a blanc de noirs, or as a single varietal rosé from a privileged site. Quite why this sort of heightened experience is fairly rare is best explained through a dispassionate appraisal of Pinot’s strengths and vulnerabilities in the great agro-industry that is contemporary Champagne.


Pinot Noir, as a variety prone to early bud break, is ideally planted in Champagne on limestone/chalky soils, with some strengthening elements of clay. It flourishes when the winter has been cold enough to keep the vine dormant in the perilous period of early spring, when frost is a constant danger. Pinot also needs a temperate growing season from April through September. This has led some mainly Anglophone writers to go a step too far in insisting that vigorous acidity is vital for Champagne, providing that “tension” essential to fine sparkling wine. Although harbouring a germ of truth, this argument is frankly overstated. For in truth, most great Pinot-led Champagne vintages over the last half century and more have been in clement years shaped by moderate rather than high acidity. The key point is that compensating fresh, mineral flavours are usually safeguarded in the classic heartland of the Marne because of its geographic position on the 49th Parallel North. Close to the marginal limit for fine winemaking, the average annual temperature is still 50°F. Climate change has come, but it has been marked by veering extremes of weather – not just high temperatures.

Optimal ripeness in the grapes is the real goal. Chardonnay, a hardy and generous performer, and easy to make, actually can deliver good wine come sunshine or storm, as in difficult harvests like 2007 and 2010. But Pinot Noir – delicate, thin-skinned, from reasonable yields – needs calm, steady, warm weather to unlock that scent box of succulent red fruits and spices, interleaved with an ethereal vinosity that makes it potentially the most exciting material for great wine in the world. That it sometimes disappoints in Champagne is the flipside of a viticulture still often wedded to volume production. And it’s sometimes forgotten that hot/cold weather patterns have always been cyclical in Champagne. The glorious sun-blessed Champagnes of 1947, 1952, 1959, 1962 and 1971 were marvels of Pinot-driven richness. Theywere followed by generally cold, poor summers later in the 1970s. This was a time when clonal selections, not all of them successful, took hold, yielding large quantities of squeaky clean but clinical wines that lacked magic and excitement.

Now, in the 21st century, there are some encouraging signs of renewed quality, especially in Pinot Noir, which may recapture some of the magnificence of those post-war vintages. Already we have the wonderful 2002s to savour now – and the equally exceptional 2008s to anticipate.

Looking to the medium-term future, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, vice-president of Louis Roederer, who meticulously manages the house’s magnificent 230- hectare estate, as well as the perfectionist winemaking, has a positive story to tell. Lécaillon is an imaginative visionary ready to talk openly on the way forward in the vineyards of Champagne, probably because he is pre-eminently the leader doing radical, original research. One gets the impression that for him Pinot Noir remains an Achilles’ heel that needs remedial convalescence.

Lécaillon reports that most Champenois tend to use the 41B rootstock, and clones of it, because it’s easy to grow and gives a good crop. At Roederer, though, for the last six or seven years, his team has conducted trials of the more qualitative and less productive 3309, especially in their trellised vineyards in Verzy. François Huré, a small producer in Ludes, is also using 3309, reflecting his studies at the Dijon Oeno faculty and a stint with de Montille in Volnay and Coldstream Hills in Australia. Lécaillon, who has complete belief in the complexities that blending can bring, says, “I’m always looking for diversity, which is the core strength of a good cuvée. And work on diversity of course begins in the vineyard. We are now looking at different clones, eventually hoping to arrive at three final selections, one vigorous, the other two less productive but giving more concentrated juice.”

All these initiatives have been lodged with and approved by France AgriMer, the government body for vineyards and wines. It will of course take time, with the first results likely to be out within five to 10 years. Meantime, Roederer is guarding its classic traditional style, which sometimes means casting a sceptical eye at the clone scientists’ urge to eliminate all viruses from their creations in the nursery. “A vine can have a certain virus and still produce wine of real character,” says Lécaillon. Like most talented winemakers he approaches his work with “feeling” as well as analysis.


The recent 2011 vintage in Champagne will probably be remembered as one of the most bizarre of recent harvests. Unseasonably hot weather from April through June, followed by a cold, damp July and a topsy-turvy August with alternating bouts of heat, rain and finally a washout on the 26th made growers very nervous. When fine weather returned the following week until 9 September, most people predicted that it would be Chardonnay which would cope best. But nine months on, it appears to be the carefully selected Pinot Noir in grand cru sites that has worked out best, the acidity being fairly low for grapes that nonetheless had the seeds of greatness sown by the lovely spring and early summer weather.

Cyril Brun, responsible for red winemaking at Veuve Clicquot, ruefully says, “We are now certainly impacted by the planet’s change in the climate. The real problem is the chaotic distribution of rainfall, more serious than in the past, which results in unpredictable growth. We are now using the Burgundian clone 779 of Pinot Noir; the skins are thicker and the wines have good colour. Better material for changed conditions.”

Veuve Clicquot is, of course, well known for its fine, vinous rosé, sourced from its top vineyards in Bouzy and Ambonnay. Brun says, “We are looking for the bestquality red wine, which will marry with fine Champagne. For another component in another product, we use lower yields for this Pinot – about 55 hectolitres per hectare – but the last thing we want is some over-extracted ‘garage’ wine!”

One hundred miles south, close to the border with the Côte d’Or département, the Aube vineyards of Pinot Noir deliver some of the most succulent black-grapedominant Champagnes, thanks to more Continental summers and soils that are like northern Burgundy’s. Champagne Drappier president Michel Drappier, who has an immaculate domaine of 41ha on the slopes of Urville and Bergères, puts the final seal on the magic of the great black grape: “Our Jurassic Kimmeridgian limestone is the perfect soil for Pinot Noir when you want body and minerality. My grandfather was a fan of Pinot Noir, and he practised sélection Massale all his life.”

Massal selection is the traditional technique of maintaining the health and character of a vineyard, by selecting cuttings for propagation from the most desirable older vines in the vineyard, rather than using specific clonal material from a nursery.

Drappier continues, “Having used very improving clones in the 1970s, we would rather like to go back to Massal again to get closer to the Drappier style. Pinot is fine but capricious, that’s the beauty of it; gorgeous or disappointing depending on the conditions. Pinot gives life and vibrancy… not easy to capture, but on song it gives the subtlest cuvées.”

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