Champagne’s Pinot Meunier: A fine breed

For years Pinot Meunier was seen as a workhorse grape, its purpose that of supporting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in non-vintage blends. Not any more, writes Michael Edwards.

For many years, Pinot Meunier was projected as the Cinderella of Champagne, its soft, youthful charms acting as a walk-on part supporting the grander stars of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a non-vintage blend.

The reality is more complicated, sometimes contradictory, certainly more interesting. Meunier has always been an integral part of the culture of Champagne, a dominating presence of the landscape as you take the best introduction to the region by riding the train from Paris Gare de l’Est along the picturesque reaches of the Marne.

From Château Thierry to Epernay, the vineyards on all sides are largely planted with Meunier, the white flour-like dustings on its leaves a reminder of its name – Meunier means miller in French. The figures are convincing proof of the economic importance of the cépage: Meunier accounts for 61.29% of all productive vines in the Marne Valley, 33.21% of those on the Montagne de Reims, and nearly a third of total plantings across Champagne Viticole. Some walk-on part!

The many faces of Meunier

Pinot Meunier is said to be a mutation of Pinot Noir. Yet in Champagne some of its best expressions can be surprisingly close to Chardonnay in terms of its optimal taste profile with a surprising fragrance and delicacy in tune with a durable richness and substance.

These complete qualities obviously rely on such factors as favourable site and a good dry vintage; old, low-yielding vines are also a most precious asset. The grape itself is better understood if we continue by calling it Meunier, without the Pinot prefix.

For as Jérôme Dehours, a fine grower at Cerseuil on the left bank of the Marne, explains: “The morphology of Meunier grapes is different from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes are smaller and the pulps more compressed. It is maybe this that makes them more sensitive in a humid climate that encourages botrytis.”

More positively, Dehours stresses that Meunier is an endemic variety in the valley because it’s the result of an adaptation to the harsh climate, notably by a later bud-break that makes it more resistant to spring frost; the white covering of the leaves also forms a protective duvet for the plants.

Dehours’ Left Bank vineyards at Cerseuil yield a certain style of Meunier on cool clay-rich soils. “Here we look for maturity but also, above all, freshness. It’s therefore in some less sunny sites that we naturally find our path.” His wines are a very distinctive take on his precise terroirs.

For the greatest houses in Champagne, their search for the best Meunier works on a broader canvas. They are looking for a variety of styles, choosing some crus that bring a note of soft easy drinking to the blend, while also selecting more solid crus that would be ideal as reserve wines in future blends.

François Domi, the focused chef de caves at Billecart-Salmon, is a great fan of the grape for its finesse that matches his exquisite house style. “The Meunier is the expressive cépage par excellence, above all from the Marne Valley – very aromatic, elegant – and blossoms two or three years after the prise de mousse.”

Yet Domi is acutely conscious of the differences between sites. “Damery, facing due south is more structured, with dominant red fruits, whereas Leuvrigny is south, south-east and more elegant, thanks to its lighter soil.” On a personal note, I can vouch for Damery’s ability to age, having luckily tasted a superb 1985 Meunier at De Telmont last spring with Louisa Hargrave, the Long Island vigneronne and writer.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is the wine supremo of Louis Roederer and the family’s other gems like Château Pichon Lalande (Comtesse) in Pauilllac. He approaches the search for the best Meunier very objectively, for though the house owns 218 hectares of finest mainly grand cru Pinot and Chardonnay in the best sites, it owns no Meunier vines in Champagne.

Lécaillon, in his grape contracts, favours the sunnier Right Bank Meunier west of Damery into its heartlands, around Châtillon-sur-Marne, which are more famous in the region than the outside world for the pure Meuniers of octogenarian grower, the late René Collard, whose barrel-fermented Champagnes still tasted good at 30 years plus; his 1975 in 2007 was a marvel of fresh, honeyed richness. Lécaillon is looking for that flowering fruit which will marry elegantly and flatter his great but sterner crus of the Montagne and the Côte for his flagship Brut Premier.

No Meunier is used in Roederer vintages – basically this seems a decision as much about house style as it is about quality.

A distinguished advocate

The one house that champions Meunier is of course Krug – the most prestigious name of all. Speaking just after the recent harvest, Olivier Krug reports that “2011 has been particularly atypical – a very early flowering, the context of potential dryness, then quite a surprising summer with waves of heat, rains and quite strong storms”.

This scenario has allowed the Krug team to play their strongest card – la culture parcellaire (micro cultivation of individual plots). “We are attached to this approach, and the attention given to pre-harvest samples of the grapes and individual follow-ups assumes greater importance, year on year.”

The Krug family has always loved Meunier for the original aromas – the whiff of the baker’s shop – that its brings to the house style. But as with all Krug wines, the grape makes a perfect alliance with its terroir. “The terroir of Sainte Gemme is a cru that the house likes a lot,” Olivier confesses, “it is not the best known (deep in the Marne Valley), but it is a cornerstone of the house in the sense that it has been with us for dozens of years and finds its way into the majority of our cuvées.”

Facing due south on rich clay, Sainte Gemme is particularly interesting in very warm years, which are a little dry. So much for the latest claim that Champagne is too hot for Meunier! “Its vins clairs (still wines) often spring a surprise,” Olivier explains, “as well as a lot of fruit and beautiful balance, they have real depth.

It is this matière that allows them to be aged as reserve wine. This reserve stock is something that Eric Lebel, our chef de cave, looks for most often. I imagine that it was this sort of wine that my father and previous generations sought in order to bring to certain legendary vintages a part of their exceptional ‘twist’.”

One might add that Krug 1981, one of the greatest Champagnes of the 20th century, had as much as 19% fine Meunier in the blend, and the supremely elegant 1962 almost as much.

And so to a very different terrain, Premier Cru Ludes on the western side of the Grande Montagne de Reims, where the predominant limestone yields an initially more reserved style of Meunier, but one that can age gracefully.

Here François Huré is the winemaker at a medium-sized family domaine. He is fortunate to be able to take a wider world view, having worked with Pinots at de Montille in Pommard and Coldstream Hills in Victoria, Australia. “For most growers, Pinot Meunier gives fruitiness and softness.

But if the vineyard is well managed and the crop not too high, it can be a very complex variety,” says François. “It’s even more so in Ludes, where I have some Meunier from the ‘60s and ’70s (Massal selection). I usually use them in the vintage blend because they have enough body to keep for five to 10 years.

They need time to open up and show some nice flavours. It’s the limestone for sure that gives this type of Meunier. If you compare with Villedommange, where I have some vineyards, too; there there’s more sand which opens the wine and makes it easy to drink. Villedommange usually ripens before Ludes.”

The morale of the tale is that Meunier is much more than a workhorse grape. Made with feeling and care, it is both an essential part of the best non-vintage blends and it can blossom in its own right as a genuinely fine wine. Its very vulnerabilities are a challenge that the most adaptable winemakers relish, even in the topsy turvy conditions of climate change. Fortune favours the brave.

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