Posted by Wine Education | Posted on 04-04-2012| Posted in
A few weeks ago, at a winemaker dinner as part of the Capital Wine Festival, Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles was discussing his delightful Brut Rosé from Oregon with a small group of wine lovers including my wife and me.
As the mustachioed Soles explained in his native Texas drawl, he was never quite pleased with his Rosé – that is, until his assistants convinced him that something was missing. The secret weapon, it turns out, was Pinot Meunier (“moon-yay,” as Soles charmingly pronounces it), added to the blend beginning with Argyle’s 2006 vintage.
As we continued to discuss Pinot Meunier, the black-skinned grape believed to be just an ancient genetic mutation away from Pinot Noir, Soles revealed that he appreciated the brightness Meunier added to his Rosé, while he simultaneously diminished the grape overall. “In Champagne, they don’t even grow Meunier in grand cru vineyards,” he scoffed.***
Soles was mistaken, as we’ll see below, but he can’t be faulted for his belief, as it has been the dominant narrative in Champagne and beyond for a very long time. But things are changing quickly.
As Peter Liem, the noted Champagne-based wine writer and critic, wrote almost four years ago, “[M]eunier is downright hip, especially among the younger generation of growers, and you’re much more likely to hear positive comments about meunier now than ever before.” Importer Terry Theise, who knows a thing or two about Champagne, seems to agree. As he told me last year, “A lot of producers, especially but not exclusively young producers, have discovered the potential of old-vines Meunier. The variety will give delightful results if it’s planted in a decent spot and given its share of respect.”
The disagreement over the relative worth of meunier is just one of the many divides between old and young, and large and small, producers in Champagne. Why, though, do les grandes marques harbor such prejudice – “rustic, obvious and . . . incapable of aging” – toward the grape that composes over one-third of the region’s plantings? And, more importantly, who is right?
The key, I think, is in something Theise mentioned: old vines. Aurélien Laherte, of Grower Champagne house Laherte Frères, told the New York Times, “old vines . . . give the most concentrated, complex and refined flavors.” The best Pinot Meunier Champagnes on the market are made from old vines. For example, some of the vines that give birth to Michel Loriot’s Pinot Meunier Vieilles Vignes Brut Champagne turn 70 years old this year. In the village of Merfy, Champagne Chartogne Taillet owns “Les Barres,” which Champagne Warrior Brad Baker calls “the best pure Pinot Meunier site in Champagne and one of the truly elite vineyards in Champagne.” The vines of “Les Barres,” ungrafted and untouched by phylloxera, are approaching 60 years old. The Egly-Ouriet I review below? 40-plus years old.
Old vines are important because of the nature of the Pinot Meunier grape. Meunier’s workaday reputation is based on the cultivar’s reliability and the ease in which it grows. Compared to Pinot Noir, for example, Meunier buds and ripens more consistently, is more resistant to frost and cold climates, and is higher in yield. These are great characteristics in the mind of a large Champagne house that buys the bulk of its grapes for blending in large volumes, but not necessarily for those seeking density of flavors and aromas in a low production wine. Old vines change the dynamic. As vines age, yields go down, the impact of which can be found on the midpalate, with more intensity of fruit. The complexity of a wine made by old vines is even more apparent as the wine matures.
Which brings us to the other knock on Meunier: that it is not age worthy. This appears to be a myth. As just one example, Liem has tasted older vintages of José Michel’s pure Meunier Champagnes, including 1946, 1952 and 1956, and concluded that the “wines have aged terrifically well.” (He also takes credit, with tongue-in-cheek, for the reintroduction of a 100% meunier to the Michel line.) And no one would doubt the age-ability of Krug, a Champagne that contains an unusually large (for a big house) percentage of Meunier, rumored to be as much as 15-20%, although the blends are not typically revealed. Indeed, the so-called greatest vintage of Krug – and the most expensive – contained 29% meunier, and was still going strong as recently as a decade ago.
But let’s get back to Rollin Soles’ claim about the lack of grand cru Meunier. Well, that appears to be a myth, too. While there isn’t a lot, as of a decade ago there were around 125 acres of grand cru sites planted with pinot meunier. In fact, Moët & Chandon released a 100% meunier from the grand cru village of Sillery, which is rated a perfect 100 under the complicated classification system in Champagne that determines the prices merchants pay growers for grapes (vineyards rated 100 receive the maximum price; vineyards rated 95 receive 95% of the maximum, and so on – more on that in a future column).
While Liem claims that Meunier is almost never planted in grand cru villages because the status cannot be claimed on a label, that does not appear to be the case. He does, however, point out another reason: the most common system used in training meunier vines is prohibited in grand cru and premier cru vineyards. Nonetheless, there are plenty of premier cru villages with plantings of Pinot Meunier trained using other methods, including the commune of Pierry, on the outskirts of Épernay, known for excellent Meunier. And of course there’s Merfy, the site of the aforementioned “Les Barres.”
Pinot Meunier may never get the respect of its more famous siblings in Champagne. But in the hands of eager, open-minded growers with access to old vines in special sites, it is capable of producing some of the most stunning examples of Champagne available, with beautiful aromatics, bright fruit flavors, moderate acid and a true sense of place – something any aspiring Terroirist should seek out.
Golden color, fine bubbles, but not super vigorous. Fresh, floral nose of honeysuckle, a touch of Asian pear, and a leesy, toasty note. On the palate, a turn towards apple, but covered in caramel and nuts, and a hint of something slightly tangy, like the white part of a strawberry top. Elegant and medium bodied, with a long mineral finish. This Champagne is rich and complex, but with a surprising freshness. Like a punk kid from an aristocratic family. (September ’07 disgorgement) About $60.
For more recommendations of Pinot Meunier-based Champagnes, check out the Times and this thread on Wine Berserkers. For something completely different, try a still red wine made from Meunier, like the René Geoffroy Coteaux Champenois Cumières Rouge, enjoyed by Neil the “BrooklynGuy.”
***Update (04/06/12): Please see the comments, below, for a clarification of this quote from Rollin Soles (and more great insight regarding Pinot Meunier!).