Pinot Meunier: Champagne’s Afterthought or Secret Weapon?

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 04-04-2012

Workers picking Pinot Meunier at Champagne Michel Loriot – Photo courtesy of Peter Liem

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 Frèrestold 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.

Pairs well with truffle popcorn!

Egly-Ouriet's 100% Meunier Champagne

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.

TASTING NOTE: N.V. Egly-Ouriet Champagne Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” 1er Cru

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!).

Comments (10)

  1. Scott, great article. I never gave much thought to pinot meunier, but I’m inspired to go find some of the Champagnes mentioned. Thanks for all the great info.

  2. Thanks, Isaac! Definitely check out the ones mentioned here and in the links at the very end of the post!

  3. Great piece here Scott, and you definitely a fun topic to discuss. It does seem like Pinot Meunier is sometimes treated like the ugly step child among some Champagne enthusiast. Egly-Ouriet and Krug clearly do some great things with it! I’ve been a long time fan of both producers. In a somewhat similar style, Alfred Gratien produces their cuvees with a heavy dose of PM (full disclosure: I work for the U.S. importer). What all 3 producers have in common is the absence of full-malolactic, along with barrel fermentation, which allows the wines to take on some round, oak influence, while preserving a zippy freshness. A recipe for success, when you combine this with old vines and limited yields, IMHO!

    Cheers and thanks for covering such a cool topic.

  4. Wow! This has been one of the best reads of the year for me. I love the detail, the facts, and the history that this post contains. Really great stuff about the often neglected grape, Pinot Meunier.

    In my experience, Pinot Meunier can indeed be grown in Grand Cru vineyards, but if sold, it cannot achieve the price of Grand Cru or Premier Cru grapes. However, this is just what I have been told when tasting in Champagne, and there is a lot lost in translation!

    One thing that I have experienced with average quality cuvées that are based on the Pinot Meunier grape, is that they don’t age as well AFTER disgorgement. Meaning that they are fresh and beautiful for the first year or two after disgorgement, but then fade a little. But, I love it when I am proved wrong.

    So, thank you for writing this great post on a subject that I love so much.

    Cheers, Bryan

  5. Jon: thanks for the comment! We’ve enjoyed Gratien by the glass at restaurants, but will have to track down a bottle or two for home. I am definitely a fan of barrel fermented Champagnes — Bollinger, of course, but plenty of others like Selosse and Gosset. As you said, it adds a roundness without weighing it down too much.

    Bryan: great to hear from you! I am flattered. Interesting observation about aging on the lees vs. in bottle. I admit I haven’t cellared enough to test that, and I’m not as fortunate as Peter Liem to be tasting 50-year-old PM! Maybe some day. Regarding the price of PM, I think it used to be the case that it was sold for less, but that may have changed more recently. In the Wine News article I linked in the piece, Pommery’s winemaker says, “The rating system for pinot meunier is not so much an issue anymore . . . Ten years ago, through the private purchase contracts, the houses stopped giving more bonuses to chardonnay and pinot noir.”

    It’s a confusing, crazy system, though!

  6. Great post Scott! I have to say, some of my favorite Champagnes (Jose Michel’s 02 Special Club, Laherte, Aubry, etc) are all high in Meunier. I love the character that Meunier gives to the wines.

  7. The Texan here is thrilled to stimulate such a great read. The Fairfax Hotel affair in D.C. was a hoot. For the record, I do know very well that there exist Grand Cru vineyards planted to Pinot “Moon-Yay”. What I did mention was that if I had a Grand Cru vineyard planted to either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, I would never bud it over to Pinot Meunier. Additionally, the lesser regions of Champagne seem to be dominated by “Moon-yay”. In Oregon, we found ‘moon-yay’ planted side by side with Pinot Noir to be of lesser excitement. Then, in 2006 I began blending it with Pinot Noir for my Rose Brut, and the result was like the story of the ugly duck becoming a swan. My Brut Rose is decisively more elegant and delicious due to the use of Pinot Meunier.
    Agree that if viticulture has not changed significantly over time, that vine age can trump grape variety if the vine is still in healthy condition. I would also say that great vineyard locations trump lesser locations that have older vines.
    One of my all time favorite “Moon-yay’s” is that made by Chartogne-Taillet! This grower is one of the most passionate I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
    I hope Scott gets on the ball with a more extensive article about the many areas of Champagne and what is planted to them.

  8. Hi Rollin! Thank you so much for stopping by, and for the clarification on your comments. I have no doubt that the Champenoise would agree with you that it would be a mistake to rip out or bud over Pinot Noir/Chardonnay to Meunier. They have centuries of experience knowing which sites are best suited to which cultivar — a record of success Americans have only inconsistently achieved.

    I have a Chartogne-Taillet “Les Barres” sitting in my fridge, silently mocking me and pleading to be opened!

  9. Great article on a very overlooked grape. Tarlant and Prevost are two others that quickly come to mind as producing very nice Meunier and, of course, Perrier-Jouet (like Krug) uses it very deftly in their Belle Epoque.

    Also, it is important to not only look at the age of a wine, but when it was disgorged. Most Champagne stays pretty fresh when undisgorged and will taste as such when sampled right after a disgorgement. The real key is aging post-disgorgement. I’m not saying Meunier cannot age as it can, but for a Meunier to be 50 years old post-disgorgement it is much more of a challenge then Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Jose Michel is one of the few who has really old Meunier that was actually disgorged a long time ago. To me, he is the exception, and not the rule although in the future, I think a few more producers will show they are exceptions too

    Why is this? Part of it is the grape, but that isn’t the whole story. Meunier is heartier than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – meaning it will grow successfully in lesser soils, can withstand the weather better, and yields more. This has resulted in Pinot Meunier being planted in less than ideal conditions when compared to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is an amazing experience to taste Pinot Meunier grown in chalky soil that is stereotypically suited to Chardonnay – it has plenty of length, zest, and spark. Would Chardonnay have done better in this soil? Maybe, but, to me, the key is to plant Pinot Noir in the right locations. This could be chalky soil or sandy soil (like Les Barres). Quite a bit of the time Pinot Meunier is planted somewhere because nothing else will grow well there. When this is the case, what do you expect?

  10. Pinot Meunier gives fruit and strength to champagne. Egly-Ouriet Vignes de Vrigny is in my personal reserve for pairing with cheese and grilled chicken or mushrooms.