The Place of Pinot Noir in Champagne

Just the pop of a Champagne cork brings smiles, laughter and a celebration. De rigueur for winning race car drivers and athletes, weddings, smashed against the side to christen boats and to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

The luxurious bubbly wine you pour into your glass is made up of 38% pinot noir, blended with 30% of Chardonnay and 32% of pinot meunier.

The Champage  houses of France rely heavily on pinot noir grapes because they give the wine a true identity. Extremely sensitive to its environment the grape adds the taste of its climate, soil and geography to the wine. An additional diversity of flavour comes from its ancient-aged grape variety.

Of the three grape varieties, the pinot noir is the most finicky, charismatic and labour intensive. But, when it’s good it’s very good. Pinot noir brings out fruity notes, adds weight, body and strength.

The flavours include strawberry, red and black cherries, raspberries and blueberries. During a warm harvest, it adds the taste and aroma of leather, savoury spices and mushrooms.

Chardonnay adds apple, citrus and floral notes along with the flavours of pear and tropical fruits. It accounts for acidity and backbone.

Pinot meunier has the fruity taste of red berries, blueberries, black cherries, with a bit of smoke and sweet spice. It adds body, richness and structure to the blend of the cuvée.

The Pinot noir grape is planted around the world in major wine-producing regions with many countries blending it with other grapes for sparkling wine. For instance, the Americas, major production zones of Europe, New Zealand and South Africa.

Some of note are Australia’s blend of Pinot noir with Syrah and it’s new in 2022 Thienot x Penfolds Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée 2012.

Then there’s Italy with Franciacorta and its new in 2021 Prosecco Rosé. Germany checks in with Sekt and Argentina weighs in with the elegant Doña Paula’s Blue Edition Velvet Blend.

Just a few examples of sparkling wine include Sancerre Rouge, Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Rosé Champagne and White Pinot noir. And, we don’t want to forget France’s exceptional Chandon Blanc de Pinot Noir.

Sparklers are complex to make because they need to be fermented twice. The first fermentation makes the wine, the second makes the bubbles. The process is known as the Méthode Champenoise (a.k.a. Méthode Traditionnelle) where fermentation takes place in the bottle.

First Fermentation
Grapes are harvested by hand, immediately pressed to avoid the red skins mixing with the white pulp of the grapes, or oxidation. The wines are put into oak barrels to ferment. Some vintners use stainless steel tanks.

Second Fermentation
The wine is bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast that triggers fermentation. Topped off with crown caps the bottles are stored horizontally. The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide as particles begin to settle.

Lees Aging
As the lees (the dead yeast) collects in the neck of the bottles, the wine ferments for fifteen months.

This is the process of turning and slightly shaking each bottle every few days.

The dead yeast cells gathered in the neck get frozen while still in the bottle, then the crown caps are removed and the internal pressure ejects the sediment.

Finally, the expelled yeast is replaced with a mixture of still wine and sugar and the bottle is properly corked and caged. The bottles are stored for weeks or years on their sides just as they are.

Through the detailed ‘vine-to-flute’ process, the CO2 that developed the bubbles made hundreds of millions of bubbles in each bottle.

Now that’s what I call a celebration. 

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