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 of these ‘noble’ varieties have exceptional qualities, and when grown under the right conditions and in the right soil, they 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. But what is it about pinot noir and chardonnay that make them so alluring, and why are they so well suited to sparkling wine?
A mirror to terroir
Look around and you will find most wine producing countries create chardonnay and pinot noir in their own unique style. Both grapes grow in a wide range of conditions and are particularly good at 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. Be sure to look to coastal or high altitude areas in countries that are associated with more heat.
Chardonnay on the other hand, is a little more forgiving, lending its charms with ease to both warm and cool climates - soaking up the terroir along the way. For example, like a world class actor, it can play lean, dry and elegant in the cooler climes of Chablis. While in sun-soaked California it turns its hand to flamboyant, full-bodied and fruitier styles. Chardonnay also responds well to the direction of oak if required, or the chalk beneath its feet.
Versatility is another big reason for the popularity of both grapes. While pinot noir is a red grape, its flesh is white and the wine it makes 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, research has recently proved that chardonnay and pinot noir are distant cousins. Through 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 practically extinct. Perhaps this history is why the two blend so well together!