The Pinot Meunier has always been there, but champagne makers are now giving it that extra little attention and producing styles dedicated to this variety.
Text and Images: Antoine Lewis
Anyone who knows their sparkling wines will immediately associate the name Pinot Meunier with champagne. Along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it forms the holy trinity of grapes that are permitted in the production of the world’s most famous sparkling wine. One of the many mutations of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier gets its name from the appearance of its leaf undersides, which look as though they’ve been dusted with flour (meunier is French for miller). In Germany, it is known as Müllerrebe (miller grape) and also Schwarzriesling.
Creating an identity
However, unlike its two noble companions, Pinot Meunier hasn’t been able to acquire as large an international fan base. It is well-known in some parts of Germany where it is used to make fruity still red wines, dry white wines and recently, by itself, for sekts (German sparkling). A few producers in New World countries like California, Australia and New Zealand include it as a component of sparkling wines.
In Champagne, Pinot Meunier cultivation is concentrated in the Vallée de la Marne, which lies west of Reims and Epernay. The terroir contains 40 cm of chalky top soil, below which lies pure chalk. Terraced, flat slopes that have well-exposed soil with forests at the top of the hills are characteristics of the region. Pinot Meunier accounts for 62% of area under cultivation, Pinot Noir for 22% and Chardonnay for 16%. One of the advantages of Pinot Meunier is that it buds later and ripens earlier than Pinot Noir. It is, therefore, possible to avoid damage from early spring frosts or from coulure (the failure of flowers to develop into berries) and can be more reliably productive than either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. However, there are no grand crus villages for Pinot Meunier.
Also, unlike Chardonnay that has traditionally been cultivated by big families capable of producing grapes for 250,000-300,000 bottles of wines, Pinot Meunier producers tend to be much smaller. “On an average they can produce just 30,000-40,000 bottles a year and usually have small holdings of just 5-7 hectares. The yield for the Pinot Meunier is usually less than Pinot Noir or Chardonnay,” explains Jonathan Saxby, managing director, Champagne Moutardier, one of the producers of Pinot Meunier-dominated champagnes. “This year the Pinot Meunier produced around 11,000-12,000 kg/hectare, which is ideal for the grape.” Each vine produces about 1.4 kg with an average bunch weight of about 80 g and with about 15-20 bunches per vine. These low yields, Jonathan explains, is what gives the richness.
According to winemakers in Champagne, Pinot Meunier’s function is to provide a generosity of aromas and flavours. The analogy offered for the role each grapes plays is: Chardonnay provides the backbone or the structure, Pinot Noir the muscle or the body, and Pinot Meunier provides the perfume that envelopes the body. Its role is most prominent in non-vintage (NV) champagnes that are meant to be consumed when young and fresh, as Pinot Meunier is considered to be at its peak and provides an explosion of flavours and a burst of aromas.
Champagnes with a substantial proportion of Pinot Meunier are not believed to have significant ageing potential, as those composed primarily of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. A notable exception is the Champagne house of Krug, which makes liberal use of Pinot Meunier in its long-lived prestige cuvées.
Producers like Champagne Moutardier strongly disagree with the idea that Meunier is not suitable to ageing. While a young Meunier will exhibit the crispness of fresh green apples as it grows older, the aromas are more evocative of baked apples and cinnamon, which is typical of their Cuvée Millésime 2002. The natural fruit concentration gives Meunier a sweetness, which makes it more appetising when it touches the taste buds. As it ages the bright, fruity acidity is transformed into more cooked up flavours. The wine becomes soft and refined, exhibiting an elegance that is not usually associated with Meunier.
Amongst the other producers based around the Vallée de la Marne who make Meunier-heavy champagnes, are Champagne Claude Baron, Champagne RoberDelph, Champagne A Robert, Champagne Jean Comyn and Champagne Sourdet-Diot. And it’s not just NV’s in which the Meunier dominates, the prestige cuvée released by some of these houses are also based on this grape.
Though Pinot Meunier champagnes are quite uncommon and account for a small percentage of champagnes, it is a style that is gaining popularity in European and American markets where professionals are looking out for new, innovative ideas.
Champagne Moutardier is a small champagne house located in the village of Le Breuil in the Surmelin Valley just 20 kms from Epernay in the Vallée de la Marne. It is amongst the larger growers in the region, owning 18 hectares of vine, six in Le Breuil and 12 in the neighbouring village of Baulne-en-Brie.
It is one of the few producers in the Pinot Meunier region who can produce 50,000-60,000 bottles. Moutardier has an unusual relationship with other winegrowers who press their grapes at the Moutardier winery, which functions as a community press centre. Jonathan Saxby, the managing director, is at the forefront of creating what he calls a “modern meunier” style: a lively exciting wine that reflects the character of the terroir. The younger wines exhibit a persistent crispness characteristic of the fresh acidity of a young meunier as also a distinctive minerality. Unlike other meunier-driven champagnes, the wines undergo malolactic fermentation, but are not aged in oak casks or worked on to be different. Moutardier is also one of the few producers of a zero dosage 100% Pinot Meunier, the Cuvée Pure Meunier Brut Nature.
Published Liquid Jan-Feb 2010