Identifying varieties in sparkling wines

Identifying grape varieties in bottle fermented sparkling wines is one of the most difficult things to do in blind tasting.  Here are a few guidelines I think about.

CHARDONNAY


In a way, Chardonnay should be the easiest of the three major champagne varieties to recognize.  Yes, a lot of people talk about the finesse of Blanc de Blancs wines and the high quality texture, but for me - as ever - it’s about structure.

Chardonnay is the white equivalent of Cabernet Sauvignon in that it’s a wine with a very strong sense of direction.  It’s really linear and is really going somewhere.  And in sparkling wines you see this so clearly.  There’s a really thrusting acidity which courses along in the mouth - it’s quite a ride.  Anytime it is this pronounced you should consider whether it’s largely or entirely a Chardonnay wine.

PINOT NOIR

Pinot has a more concentrated, dense mid palate sensation than Chardonnay does.  It’s more compact and felt on the mid palate, and lacks the drive of Chardonnay.  And of course, look out for red fruit notes, or - what I have been finding quite useful recently - hints of a mature, mulchy, red Burgundy, aromatically, or, an intense and complex spiciness (especially from the Aube).

MEUNIER

No longer called Pinot Meunier in Champagne!  In (increasingly common) 100% versions from the Vallée de la Marne, can be very broad, ripe and fruity on the mid palate.  Obviously would be confused with Pinot rather than Chardonnay, but ultimately lacks the finesse and subtlety of Pinot Noir, and can be a bit of a fruit bomb.  But when made in a dry style, quite a big, imposing, structured wine - nothing insubstantial or forgettable about it.

BLENDS

Most sparkling wine remains blended however, and as with any blended wines, the above-discussed attributes will be rounded out or blunted just a little.  Single variety wines tend to be more pronounced - but importantly, not necessarily more complete!