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Moutard-Diligent Champagne Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes 2004

Moutard-Diligent Champagne Cépage Arbane 2004

The first thing I learnt about Champagne was that it is made using Chardonnay, or maybe Pinot Noir (a discovery that immediately had me, many years ago, scurrying off to find somebody to tell me how on earth you could make sparkling white wine from red-skinned grapes). Quite often they are blended together, and its not unusual to find, especially in the entry-level cuvées, a healthy dollop of a third variety, Pinot Meunier, also included. And that, it seemed, was that. Plantings of these three Champagne grape varieties apparently accounted for 38%, 33% and 28% of the Champagne vineyard respectively. I conveniently overlooked the fact that the three figures only add up to 99%, and moved on to researching the terroir of the Anjou vineyard instead (much more Winedoctor-y, I’m sure you will agree).

Moutard-Diligent Champagne Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes 2004

Complexity in variety is something the Loire does rather well, with its Menu Pineau, Pineau d’Aunis, Romorantin and the like. Happily for Champagne geeks, this region also has its underdog varieties, which goes some way to explaining why the figures above don’t quite add up (although I am not suggesting these secondary varieties account for as much as 1% of the vineyard, far from it). These varieties include Petit Meslier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (sometimes referred to as Fromenteau), all of which can still be found in the region today, although new plantings are forbidden, as well as the long-lost Pinot de juillet and Pinot rosé, both now disappeared from the vineyard. This weekend’s wine is a rare example of one of these vinified independent of other varieties. As the name of the cuvée tells us, the cultivar in question is Arbane.

Arbane is an ancient variety, long cultivated in Champagne, especially in the Aube region, which lies to the south of the best-known vineyards around Reims and Épernay. It also goes by the name of Arbanne, Albane and a handful of other close variants, and the name itself is probably derived from albana, a Medieval Latin word meaning white. The earliest possible reference is to the cultivation of Alban is in Riceys, in 1388, although whether or not this is the same grape we known as Arbane today remains uncertain. What is certain is that today the variety is super-rare, with less than a hectare currently planted in all of France. This is less even than Meslier-Saint-François, the rare Loire variety cultivated and vinified by Lionel Gosseaume that I discovered last year.

Moutard-Diligent Champagne Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes 2004

So what of the wine itself? Well, it is sourced from the Moutard parcel of Arbane which is just 0.1 hectares in size and which was planted in 1952 by Lucien Moutard. The fruit is picked by hand, pressed using pneumatic equipment, vinified in the usual manner in temperature-controlled cuves, with at least two years sur lattes before disgorgement, and it has a dosage of 10 g/l. In the glass the 2004 Moutard-Diligent Cépage Arbane Vieilles Vignes has a fairly pale, straw-tinged hue, with a very fine bead. The aromatics are certainly interesting, showing a little blanched nut, and a little banana too, although the latter is thankfully subtle and doesn’t dominate or spoil the nose. It is a little leafy. There is a lean and lemony start to the palate, with bright acidity, rather tight flavours, then more volume and texture through the middle. It is polished by a little cream, but there is nothing seductive here, the midpalate instead blanketed in peppery, leafy fruit. It has an unusual, full, oiled-fruit finish, with a steely twist to it. This is certainly an interesting cuvée, and a unique tasting experience for sure, and I am delighted that Moutard-Diligent continue on with the cultivation of this variety, and the vinification of this wine. It is, after all, part of the region’s heritage, and that’s important, especially if like me you believe wine is more that just points in a glass. Having said that, there’s certainly no expectation on my part that Arbane will be usurping Chardonnay from its position as Queen of the white Champagne grapes any time soon; its freshness, zip and rather unusual fruit profile would probably work best as part of a blend. 15.5/20 (24/11/14)

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