Arbane (also spelled Arbanne) is a grape variety which is quite rare today. It is one of several grape varieties that were once common in the Champagne region, but of which only a few hectares remain today. Petit Meslier is another member of this category, and just like Arbane it is a white variety (“blanc”). In the Champagne region it is also possible to find some Pinot Blanc (sometimes under the name Blanc Vrai), although that’s of course not really a rare variety if we lift our gaze to other regions. Possibly, the list of “rare” Champagne grape varieties in actual cultivation ends there. Pinot Gris is in principle allowed, and possibly Gamay if any grower has managed to get an individual exception from the rules all since 1952 (it is after all France we’re talking about), but does anyone actually have them today? These varieties are still allowed to be used in Champagne, but I don’t know if it is actually allowed to replant them, and I’ve gotten the impression that the odd ones are mostly (or perhaps exclusively) found in Aube – the southernmost of the subregions of Champagne. So when wine books claim that there are three grape varieties in Champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier och Pinot Noir – they are actually not that far off the mark, since these are responsible for more than 99,9% of the vineyard surface.
A few producers make Champagne consisting entirely or primarily of these odd grapes, and I believe this to be a rather recent phenomenon. Probably, this an effect of the “ABC movement” (“Anything but Chardonnay”) that surfaced as a reaction to the expansion of a small number of “international grape varieties” over a large part of the world.
The only varietal Arbane Champagne I know of is produced by Moutard-Diligent, is named Cépage Arbane Vielles Vignes and is a vintage Champagne. When I found it in Salvatori’s store in Épernay this summer I didn’t hesitate long to buy a bottle, I believe it costed somewhere around 40 euro. It was a 2004, and the Moutard-Diligent website now lists 2005 as the current vintage. Well, since I had the great Champagne enthusiast P.B. over for dinner, I thought it was time to uncork it and serve it blind, to see where the guesses would land.
My own impression was as follows:
Light yellow colour. Sweetish, flowery nose with notes of citrus and vanilla. On the palate full-bodied and “foody”, definitely dry, but with a certain impression of sweet fruit, slight buttery notes, again flowers and citrus, medium acidity. 86-87 p. Rather foody profile and a good sparkling wine without any faults whatsoever, but I can’t really find any typical Champagne aromas (such as biscuit, minerality), and the slightly low acidity in comparison to a “normal” Champagne means that it doesn’t quite taste as fresh and crisp as I prefer.
The present Champagne enthusiast first guessed that it was a New World bubbly, and when I said “France” he still didn’t want to pinpoint it to Champagne. As you can see from my own notes, I’m not really surprised, because obvious Champagne clues were actually missing in the glass. Everyone present including me thought we could feel oak notes in the wine, but I can’t find any information about vinification on the producer’s website. If The Wine Advocate is to be trusted, it is a steel tank wine, sourced from 55-year old vines.
The back label says that it has a “goût inimitable” (inimitable taste) and a “goût rappelant la châtaigne et la banane” (taste similar to chestnuts and banana). OK, the sweetness with vanilla notes I could possibly associate to banana, but I definitely didn’t find any chestnuts. I wonder if the aromas vary a lot between years, because the 2005 has a different description at the website: in French “Le nez tout en finesse et le goût charnu” and in English “A really fine nose and ropy taste”. Ropy? As in taste of ropes??? Charnu rather seems to mean “meaty” – which sounds a little less chewy, and a bit more positive. Banana one vintage and meat the next sounds weird, unless it refers more to “full-bodied” or something similar, which the 2004 also was.
Parker’s representative Antonio Galloni gave the wine 92 points in December 2008 and recommends drinking it 2008-2012. The 2005 also got 92 p (Dec 2009), with a 2009-2013 drinking widnow. Galloni’s description is somewhat reminiscient of what my nose told me, with floral notes, but he describes them as intense and even finds that they are similar to Gewürztraminer. This is much more exaggerated than what I found (and typical Gewürztraminer has some very specific aromas that were absent in this case). Could it perhaps be that he had more primary fruit in his glass two years ago, and that his now diminished without anything else coming in its place? In any case, I couldn’t really agree that the wine was impressive enough to rate in on par with really good vintage Champagne or OK prestige Champagne from an average year.
In summary an interesting wine well worth a try, but judging from this bottle, the variety doesn’t perform that well on its own, if you look for the classical elegance that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can provide. A thought I had is that Arbane, which obviously has flowery and sweet aromas, could possibly be interesting as a minor blending component (20-25%?) for other Champagne. Perhaps in a Chardonnay-dominated blend, to make the acidity sufficiently high? I believe such a mixture would also be able to take some oak.
By the way, Moutard-Diligent also produces another vintage Champagne where Arbane is part of the blend – Cuvée 6 cépages, consisting of the three usual varities + the three odd ones (Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc). Drappier also produces a non-vintage Champagne called “Quattuor” where Arbane is blended with Chardonnay, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc, i.e., it is a Blanc de Blancs produced from four varieties. I’ve tried Quattuor a couple of times, and a bottle opened earlier this year after a year or so of extra cellaring, received quite good reviews from those who tried it. I haven’t heard about any other varietal Arbane than the one tried here, and to be frank I’m not entirely convinced that the Champagne world really would need any additional ones. Duval-Leroy produces a varietal Petit Meslier, that I so far haven’t tried, but I’m not aware of any varietal Pinot Blanc Champagne existing.
The Swedish version of this post can be found here.