Why are chardonnay and pinot noir great grapes for still and sparkling wines?
Two noble grapes
Pinot noir: ethereal, elegant, mysterious. The heartbreak grape is a key component of champagne and other high quality sparkling wines. Another is chardonnay, the white grape of many faces. Both these ‘noble’ varieties have exceptional qualities that when grown under the right conditions and in the right soil, can produce the exact characteristics needed to create not just world class bubbles, but some of the most sought after still wines in the world. What is it about pinot noir and chardonnay that make them so alluring though and why are they so well suited to sparkling wine?
A mirroir to terroir
Look around and you will find most wine producing countries making chardonnay and pinot noir, each in their own unique style. Both grapes grow in a wide range of conditions and are particularly good and translating the terroir, as well as the climate, into specific nuances that can be detected in the wine. From California to Burgundy, Chile to Austria, pinot noir expresses itself best in cooler climates, so look to coastal or high altitude areas in those countries that are associated with more heat.
Chardonnay on the other hand, is a little more forgiving, bending its style with ease to both warm and cool climates and soaking up the terroir along the way. Like a world class actor, it can play lean, dry and elegant in the cooler climes of Chablis, for example, then turn its hand to flamboyant, full-bodied and fruitier styles in sun-soaked California, responding well to the direction of oak if required or the chalk beneath its feet.
Versatility is a big reason for the popularity of both grapes. While pinot noir is a red grape, its flesh is white and the wine it can make with very little skin contact has been found to suit sparkling wine particularly well. Pinot gives sparkling wine body and texture while chardonnay adds fruit and finesse. The two complement each other beautifully.
As unlikely as it sounds, it has recently been proved that chardonnay and pinot noir are distant cousins. Using DNA testing, researchers at the University of California have found that the chardonnay grape is actually a cross between pinot noir and gouais blanc; a white grape that’s now all but extinct. Perhaps this history is why the two can blend so seamlessly together!