WHEN IT COMES to choosing Champagne, what do wine drinkers care about most? Is it the label, the style or the price? What about the grapes that make up the blend? There may be a few drinkers who focus on whether or not their Champagne is produced with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, but probably very few who focus on Pinot Meunier, the far less famous Champagne grape. And yet Pinot Meunier Champagnes are distinct and delicious—and in the Champagne region itself, even a bit of a trend.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have long been the marquee blending grapes of Champagne, while Pinot Meunier has been something of an also-ran. A casual search revealed that writers tend to rely on words such as “workhorse” and “filler” to describe this grape.
The latter term is certainly far from praise, but the former accurately captures the character of the grape, a genetic mutant of Pinot Noir and a native of France whose name means “miller“—a nod to the dusty white stuff found on its leaves that someone apparently thought looked like flour. Prolific if not well-respected, Pinot Meunier accounts for nearly a third of the plantings in the Champagne region. (It’s popular in other countries, too, especially Germany and Australia where it’s used to make a red wine without bubbles.)
The positive attributes of Pinot Meunier are numerous. It’s hardier than its fickle relation, Pinot Noir, and it grows more reliably too. According to
of Liébart-Regnier Champagnes, whose family specializes in Pinot Meunier Champagnes, the grape is “more tolerant of the spring frosts that are common in the Marne Valley.” It also helps that it buds later in the year. Ms. Liébart further praised Pinot Meunier for its “fruity character” and “generous flavor.” The Liébart family holdings are particularly Pinot Meunier-focused with more than three times the amount of Pinot Meunier in their vineyards than there are Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
The Marne Valley, or Vallée de la Marne, is the key Champagne sub-region for Pinot Meunier. Around 70% of its vineyards are planted to the grape; some top Pinot Meunier sites as well as several premier-cru-rated Pinot Meunier villages are located there. (In Champagne, villages, not vineyards, are rated.)
Top Champagne house Krug sources some Pinot Meunier for its flagship Brut Grande Cuvée from the Marne, and the grape may account for almost one-third of the blend. Krug winemaker
is a fan of the grape; he calls it “wrongly underrated” and values its “beautiful character and complexity.” But the Marne isn’t the only place in Champagne where Pinot Meunier is planted: It’s also found in the Côte des Bar region in the south and in the Montagne de Reims region in the north, where
of La Closerie makes sought-after old-vine Pinot Meuniers and
of Egly-Ouriet produces his Les Vignes de Vrigny Premier Cru Brut Pinot Meunier Champagne.
Mr. Egly discounted the notion that Pinot Meunier is undervalued in Champagne; he prefers the term “lesser known.” But he conceded that the grape was not easy to vinify and one must employ “great delicacy in pressing” to avoid accentuating the variety’s herbaceous notes and often pronounced acidity.
Mr. Egly’s Champagne was one of 10 Pinot Meunier Champagnes I purchased to taste with a group of friends, most of whom were passionate if casual Champagne consumers.
managing partner of Tribeca Wine Merchants in New York, might have been describing this group when he characterized most Champagne buyers as the sort “who may have a house style they like but probably couldn’t tell you much about it, outside the fact that it’s a blend.”
Some of my crew of tasters were accustomed to drinking only big-brand Champagnes, and a few liked Champagnes from smaller growers, but only one friend had ever heard of Pinot Meunier. Sadly, his impression of the grape perpetuated the stereotype. “Isn’t that grape really cheap?” he asked. (I pictured Mr. Egly clutching his head.)
OENOFILE // 5 Festive Pinot-Meunier-Dominant Champagnes
- 1. 2012 Laherte Frères Les Vignes d’Autrefois Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Meunier, $63 Produced with very-old-vine Pinot Meunier from a seven-generation, grape-growing family, this earthy and textured Champagne is a great pleasure to drink.
- 2. Christophe Mignon Pur Meunier Brut Nature Champagne, $50 This very dry (zero dosage) Champagne from rising star Christophe Mignon is a wonderfully racy, taut expression of the Pinot Meunier grape. A terrific aperitif and very well priced.
- 3. Liébart-Régnier Brut Rosé, $45 A juicy, lush, thoroughly enjoyable if not particularly complex example of Pinot Meunier (with some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), this compulsively drinkable rosé Champagne comes from longtime growers in the Marne.
- 4. Taillet Bansionensi Meunier Extra Brut, $52 Founder of the Meunier Institut, a growers’ consortium, Eric Taillet is a champion of Pinot Meunier. This ultradry Champagne with notes of earth and green apple is a testament to his belief in expressiveness of the grape.
- 5. Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Premier Cru Brut, $75 While Pinot Meunier can be lush and immediately pleasurable, it can also be rich and profound, as in this old-vine Champagne sourced from premier vineyards and deftly crafted by Francis Egly.
I’d purchased the Egly Champagne from Tribeca Wine Merchants, along with the Christophe Mignon Pur Meunier Brut Nature Champagne ($50), which Mr. Aneff praised as one of his favorites. Christophe Mignon is an acknowledged star of the Marne whose wines have won critical praise—and yet, Mr. Aneff noted, there are so many competing Champagnes, it remains a tough sell. Other retailers told me they only sold one or two Pinot Meunier Champagnes. In other words, I had to spend some time shopping around.
My friends, however, expressed nearly universal enthusiasm for the Pinot Meunier Champagnes we tasted, even if some of the wines had flavor profiles they found surprising or even, initially, bewildering. The grape presented earthy flavors and notes of green apple and pear, as well as a pronounced acidity. “I’ve never had a Champagne that tastes like this,” said my friend Alan about the Christophe Mignon Pur Meunier Brut Nature. “It’s delicious but odd.” Alan also thought the acidity was a bit aggressive—but he enjoyed it all the same. My friends Burt and Julie found the wine refreshing and fruity and easy to drink. (I sided with them.)
One of the favorites was a Champagne from
a young producer in the Marne committed to elevating the reputation of Pinot Meunier. Mr. Dehu comes from a long line of Champagne vignerons and even worked for a time at Bollinger Champagne house. The wine we tasted was a tiny-production, single-vineyard Pinot Meunier under his own label, the Benoit Dehu Cuvée La Rue des Noyers ($84). It was powerful and layered, a barrel-fermented, barrel-aged wine that was, in some ways, more like a white Burgundy than Champagne.
‘The grape presented earthy flavors and notes of green apple and pear, as well as a pronounced acidity.’
Three other Pinot Meuniers impressed with depth and richness: the 2012 Laherte Frères Les Vignes d’Autrefois Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Meunier Extra Brut ($63); the Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny Premier Cru Brut ($75); and the ripe-pear-inflected, ultradry Taillet Bansionensi Meunier Extra Brut ($52), from a Marne Valley producer so passionate about Pinot Meunier that he founded the Meunier Institut to further the reputation of the grape.
The last two Champagnes weren’t entirely produced from Pinot Meunier, but it was the dominant grape (with a bit of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blended in). The Liébart-Régnier Brut Rosé ($45), a Pinot Meunier-based rosé, made a vivid showcase for the grape’s soft, fruity side. The Aubry Brut Premier Cru Champagne ($45), meanwhile, was an earthy but sprightly Pinot Meunier-dominant wine with a mineral note. “This is very easy to drink,” said my friend Ruth, and held out her glass for more.
These wines certainly helped clear Pinot Meunier’s name. They were delicious, distinctive and decidedly different—all the qualities required of a great New Year’s Champagne.
Email Lettie at firstname.lastname@example.org.