The Champagne Underdog Fighting for a Name for Itself
Introductions to the grape Pinot Meunier typically feature a slough of benign accolades and somewhat pitiable traits: reliable workhorse, unsung, under-appreciated, filler, blending partner, unimpressive, basic… and the list goes on to be sure. Together these assumptions about the grape do represent the identity of it that has been peddled in the Champagne region since the 19th century. These notions, however, may have precluded any attempts to subjugate these views. Fortunately, there’s a movement casting new light on this grape, drawing it out of supporting role status and closer to the protagonist recognition it deserves.
An introduction to Pinot Meunier
Pinot Meunier makes part of the triumvirate that is champagne grape nobility. In collaboration with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 99.7% of the plantings in Champagne are represented — each pulling just about an equal third. Pinot Meunier is most often experienced as a sparkling wine, but it may also be found in Germany, Australia, California and Oregon where it could be used for the production of still reds that are light bodied, easy-to-drink, fruity wines.
Long been thought to be a mutation of Pinot Noir (part of the family of pinot derivatives that include Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc), there is recent genetic research that makes arguments otherwise. As such, the grape is being ushered into more autonomous recognition in Champagne by being called just Meunier. The word meunier in French means miller, alluding to the floury, dusty looking underside of the vine’s leaves.
Meunier is a black-skinned grape of high acidity and low tannin. It proves itself well and hardy in the coolest climate zones of champagne where the other grape varieties struggle to ripen. Meunier’s growth can be slowed or halted entirely by extreme heat, but overall this early ripening grape variety is easy to grow and demonstrates strong yields.
Where is Pinot Meunier grown in the Champagne region?
Meunier may be found in small part all over Champagne, more so in the Aube, but it is almost exclusively planted in the low lying plains of the Vallée du Marne. This sub-region harbors particularly challenging growing environments that feature low temperatures, damp air, north facing vineyards and soils with a higher clay content than elsewhere in the region. Where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir would struggle in these locations, Menuier proliferates.
As much of Meunier’s involvement in Champagne can be attributed to blends, and as many of the producers and houses (negociant manipulants) making use of it are located in other sub-regions, it comes as no surprise that the grape has established its own sort-of fringe economy relying on high yields of outsourced growing, low cost and transportation.
But part of Meunier’s renaissance is tied to the grower champagne movement – countercultural to high production houses – and with it comes a focus on singular sites, high quality/low quantity output of its monovarietal champagne. The tide is turning for Meunier in Champagne, and there certainly will be an uptick of growers in Vallée du Marne who turn their attention to careful cultivation of this grape in order to challenge the notion that it is lesser-than.
What does champagne made from Pinot Meunier taste like?
The defining characteristic of Meunier is its ripe and supple fruit character. It can range from bright fruit notes – similar to those of Pinot Noir – like raspberry and red cherry, to more exotic and tropical expressions. To a champagne blend it brings soft texture and roundness. Flying solo (remember it’s a red grape of Champagne so it, too, might be labeled blanc de noirs), it can display spice character and sometimes very earthy undertones such as mushroom, potting soil and mulch. From particular sites it may also show a distinct smokey quality.
Meunier has long been produced almost exclusively as part of blended champagnes in which it provides what both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lack in lush fruit character and approachability when young. To that effect, Meunier, even in a cuvée of its own making, is typically styled to be an early drinker. And not that it’s not great to have a Champagne grape in the mix that is capable of producing wines ready-to-drink out the gate, but it deserves more than to be relegated to this single style. While Meunier will not securely age to the degree that Pinot Noir or Chardonnay may (and this has fundamentally to do with its chemical composition), there are examples of it that prove it has much greater staying power and potential for complexity than give credit for.
Meunier Champagnes To Try
Against the grain, there are exemplary bottles of 100% Meunier that fetch prices rivaling prestigious blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs (of Pinot Noir). But those aren’t, perhaps, the best options for getting your feet wet with Meunier champagne. Finding entry level options is possible, but because this grape is a rarity in single-variety champagnes, you really have to be on the lookout, or have a trusted retailer be your eyes. Two well-known cuvees to try are Jerome Prevost’s “La Closerie Les Beguines,” and Egly-Ouriet’s “Les Vignes de Vrigny.”
Aim, also, to seek out blends made principally from Meunier. Good options can be found from small champagne producers in the Vallée du Marne. Start by checking out the portfolios of these growers: Moussé Fils, Tarlant, Geoffroy, Dehours & Fils, Laherte Frères, Christophe Mignon and Chartogne-Taillet.