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The Other Pinot That Sparkles
An ode to Champagne made from pinot meunier.
Today, I’m excited to publish an excerpt from Christopher Ruhland’s book, Press for Champagne on the obscure delights of pinot meunier. Ruhland holds the WSET Diploma and lives in Austin, Texas (where he drinks a lot of Champagne).
By Christopher S. Ruhland
I’ve wondered at times what it must be like to have an extraordinarily famous, successful older sibling. What if your big brother ends up being the President of the United States, or the best quarterback in the NFL and headed for the Hall of Fame, or the founder and CEO of the world’s largest company and a generous philanthropist? Whatever success you may have, however virtuous a person you may be, one thing everyone will know for sure about you is that you are not the other guy. That’s what it’s like to be pinot meunier.
The relationship between pinot noir and pinot meunier is quite close. In fact, although it’s common to speak of pinot noir and pinot meunier as different varieties, they are merely different mutations of a single variety. Pinot noir is the oldest-known and most famous pinot mutation, is world famous, and is considered one of the greatest wine grapes on the planet. Elite Burgundy producers can ferment pinot noir into wines that retail for over $10,000 a bottle.
Meanwhile, pinot meunier is rarely grown outside Champagne. There, pinot meunier has been treated like the class clown who, though fun and exciting in small doses, is thought to be a lightweight otherwise. The smart, sophisticated kids are either too snobbish to hang out with him or too embarrassed to admit that they do. While it’s easy to find people in Champagne who will wax ecstatically about the grandness of chardonnay and pinot noir, pinot meunier—if discussed at all—most commonly is described as merely bringing “fruitiness” or perhaps “softness” to the blend, while it also is derided for supposedly not being ageworthy.
Why, then, is pinot meunier the second-most grown grape in Champagne, ahead of chardonnay? One answer you might hear is, essentially, that pinot meunier assists in the production of easy-drinking, chug-it-right-away Champagnes that appeal to the majority of consumers who have no intention of holding on to their wines for very long (which is good, because if they did, the pinot meunier supposedly would fall apart and ruin the wine). It’s an interesting theory that permits a role for pinot meunier while also justifying being snobbish about it. But I don’t think this narrative accurately captures what is going on.
Pinot meunier brings an elevated level of bright, fresh fruit, and floral notes to some blends. It also can deliver interesting dried-fruit and savory aromas. Pinot meunier has high acidity, which is critical in Champagne. Pinot meunier is actually fairly similar to pinot noir. Not the same, but similar. If you drink a good glass of still pinot meunier from the Champagne region, you will notice that it smells and tastes much more like pinot noir than any other black grape variety. Thus, a producer who blends pinot meunier into a Champagne produces a sparkling wine that a drinker will easily recognize as Champagne, not some other sparkling wine from another wine region. This is beneficial for Champagne producers for at least two reasons.
First, inexpensive Champagne is in high demand in some European markets. Pinot meunier is, on average, less expensive for producers to acquire than chardonnay or pinot noir, and it makes more economic sense to use a higher proportion of pinot meunier in these wines. Second, because pinot meunier develops buds on its vines later than pinot noir but ripens earlier, it is more likely to survive through harvest in years when weather and disease pressures, such as spring frosts and late-season rain, are particularly challenging. Put simply, pinot meunier is hardier and more reliable than pinot noir (and chardonnay, for that matter), and producers may need significant quantities of it in any particular year to make enough wine.
None of this suggests that pinot meunier is a markedly inferior grape, that it cannot produce complex wines, or that it does not age well. And there really is no convincing evidence for these judgments. To the contrary, today a number of skilled growers are demonstrating that Champagnes made entirely from pinot meunier can be outstanding; some of these wines have achieved cult status and high price-points.
Among the large houses, Krug makes liberal use of pinot meunier in its highly rated and age-worthy wines. To take one example, Krug’s 2002 vintage Champagne, which currently retails at around $400 to $500 a bottle, contains 21 percent pinot meunier. I’ll let you guess whether all of that pinot meunier has killed the wine’s vibe after twenty years.
No, it will never be pinot noir. But who cares, really? To be consumed solely with the question of what in Champagne is best or better, or with reputations and history, is to leave a ton of joy on the table. In Champagne, pinot meunier is different, interesting, and, in some cases, fascinating and delicious. That should be well enough to justify the exploration.
A Trio of Pinot Meunier to Try
Blanc de noirs made from pinot meunier represent a tiny slice of total Champagne production. Fortunately, within that slice are a growing number of remarkable wines made by some of the best growers and smaller producers in Champagne. Each of the following three wines is a testament to the grape’s potential.
Moussé Fils is a small house in a small village dominated by pinot meunier, and the Moussé family bottles several wines that consist mostly of the grape. Their 100 percent pinot meunier Special Club shows that this grape variety can easily stand on its own as a distinctive Champagne, structured by acidity and soft bubbles. In the 2014 bottling, it’s fruity, for sure, but the fruit profile is complex (cherries, oranges, apricots, and even tropical fruit) with secondary nutty and spicy notes. Texturally, this wine is rich, opulent, and full-bodied, without being overbearing or heavy. And it’s long. This is a hedonic wine, a wine that cannot be described as simple.
Like Moussé ‘Special Club,’ Bérêche et Fils Rive Gauche is produced from vines planted in the Vallée de la Marne, though a few miles to the south on the left bank (“Rive Gauche” means “left bank”). But while Moussé’s wine is fermented in stainless steel and undergoes malolactic conversion, Rive Gauche is vinified in barrel, and malolactic conversion is blocked. Texturally, Rive Gauche is much fresher, with higher acidity and greater liveliness. Pinot meunier in this Champagne shows its slimmer side, a side that leans less on overt ripeness in fruit and more on purity. The fruit is toned down, but it comes across as crisper, more defined. The herbal, smoky, savory sides of pinot meunier arrive in whispers, in harmony with the fruit.
Les Barres is, on the one hand, the full pinot meunier blanc de noirs fireworks show: fruity, floral, round and full-bodied, herbal, smoky, and toasty. The overall profile is harmonious, so that you really can’t say that it tilts toward or away from fruitiness or any other description. It’s something in between the first two wines. But there also is an underlying sense of salinity to it, an element that gives the Champagne an unexpected twist of complexity, texture, and flavor. That’s what is so wonderful about this Champagne; it has everything you find in the best of pinot meunier, and instead of going left or right, it digs down deeper to deliver an experience of pinot meunier that is both familiar and unfamiliar.