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Mar122013

Peter Liem's latest article on Champagne features Pinot Meunier and Jose Michel

Meunier Specialists

When thinking of historical specialists of meunier, there are two prominent names that come to mind. The first is José Michel, who has been cultivating vines in the village of Moussy since 1952. Michel has been a longtime champion of the meunier grape, and in the past, his vintage wine was always made of pure meunier. In his cellars, I've tasted old examples going back to the 1940s and 1950s, and these can be extraordinarily fresh and lively, defying the notion that meunier champagnes require early drinking.

In the 1970s, Michel began to include some chardonnay in his vintage blends, in an effort to cultivate more overt finesse. This set the precedent for the wines of today: both his Spécial Club and vintage cuvées, for example, are always made from a blend of meunier and chardonnay. He stopped making a 100-percent meunier champagne for a number of years, but in the early 2000s, he created a new, non-vintage meunier cuvée that my friends and I like to think that we're at least partially responsible for.

My friend Brian and I used to visit Michel every year, and we would badger him incessantly about meunier. Brian would always ask, "Why don't you make a 100-percent meunier?" And Michel would just smile and say, "Oh, I used to," and then he'd pull out another old vintage champagne made entirely of meunier that we would invariably go nuts over. Every year it was the same. Finally, in 2005 I was in Bordeaux, and I saw Michel and his wife at VinExpo. He said to me, "Tell your friend I have a new wine for him." The next time we showed up, he presented us with his non-vintage Pinot Meunier, and this wine has since become one of the stars in his portfolio.

Peter Liem's latest article on Pinot Meunier Champagne 


Of Champagne's three major grape varieties, pinot meunier, or simply meunier, as it is commonly called in the region, is clearly the underdog. It accounts for about a third of the region's plantings, yet in terms of perceived nobility, it ranks firmly below chardonnay and pinot noir. It's often planted in marginalized areas, due to its resistance to frost and its ability to produce in vineyards where chardonnay and pinot noir struggle. It is not permitted the designation of grand cru, even if it is grown exclusively in a grand cru village—because of this, in fact, there is very little meunier grown in grand cru vineyards. Many producers avoid using meunier in their vintage wines, due to its supposed inability to age, and in general, it's often viewed as a sort of rustic country cousin to the finer, more sophisticated varieties of chardonnay and pinot noir.

And yet, the last decade has seen an increased interest in meunier, with a growing acceptance of the variety among winemakers. There is no longer a sense of apology among producers when speaking about meunier, and its usefulness in a blend is now much more openly acknowledged. Even more intriguing, for us as consumers, is the marked increase in the number of champagnes made entirely out of meunier, offering us not only a better understanding of the variety, but also a view of how it performs in different terroirs.

A Distinctive Grape
Pinot meunier derives its name from the downy white fuzz found on its leaves: in French,meunier means "miller", and this white down makes the leaves appear as if they were dusted with flour. This is most noticeable in the spring, when the growth is just beginning; later in the season, the leaves can be just as green as those of pinot noir. However, the leaves are usually shaped quite differently, as demonstrated by Benoît Tarlant in the photo below: on the left is pinot noir, with its characteristically round leaf shape, while on the right is a meunier leaf, with deep indentations.


Another method of telling the two apart is by the shape of the grape clusters, although this can be less reliable, depending upon the individual plant. Pinot noir typically has triangular clusters, with square "shoulders", while meunier clusters are smaller and rounder. In the photo below, pinot noir is on the left, and meunier on the right.

Pinot noir and pinot meunier

While meunier can be found across the Champagne region, there are two areas where it has traditionally been prominent. The more famous of these is the Vallée de la Marne west of Epernay, where meunier represents the majority of plantings. Generally speaking, as one travels west from Epernay along the Marne River, the bedrock of chalk gradually sinks deeper below the surface, covered by an increasingly thicker layer of topsoils that can be composed of clays, marls, gravel or sand. Combined with the area's cool, frost-prone microclimates and persistent fog, this can create problems for chardonnay and pinot noir in certain parcels, with the latter in particular struggling to ripen.

Meunier, however, readily copes with these adversities. It thrives in clay soils and, since it buds late, it is better positioned to avoid the early spring frosts. When hit by frost, it is hardier and more resistant than either chardonnay or pinot noir are, and even if its buds are destroyed, meunier can generate a second crop of buds, regaining up to 70 percent of the original yield. This gives it a distinct advantage over other varieties, and despite the decline in plantings over recent years (in favor of pinot noir), it's likely that meunier is still the most suitable grape for many terroirs in the Vallée de la Marne.

The other primary area for meunier in Champagne is in the western portion of the Montagne de Reims, in the so-called Petite Montagne. This is an area that stretches from Gueux in the north to Sermiers in the south, on the western side of the D951, the main road that runs between Epernay and Reims. Some of this area has slowly been converted to pinot noir in recent years, but historically, much of this region was valued for its meunier, particularly the villages north of Écueil such as Sacy, Villedommange, Jouy-lès-Reims, Coulommes-la-Montagne, Vrigny and Gueux.

Here the soils are generally more overtly calcareous than those in the Vallée de la Marne, although they are also mixed with marls and sands, and can contain a high proportion of fossils. This results in different characters in the wines from the two regions: in the Petite Montagne, the meunier tends to be firmer and more structured, while the wines of the Vallée de la Marne are broader and more ample in build. This varies from one wine to another, depending upon individual parcels and producers, but in general, there are recognizable attributes between the two areas that can be discerned and differentiated.

Meunier can offer more forward and ample fruit flavors in its youth than pinot noir or chardonnay do, and for this reason it is most often used in non-vintage blends, to make the young wines more approachable. The specific flavors of the variety can be surprisingly diverse. There are often aromas of bread dough or baked apple, and these can be accompanied by red-fruit notes reminiscent of plums or cherries, while at other times the wines can be notably citrusy, with flavors of orange or grapefruit, sometimes even veering towards notes of tropical fruit in ripe examples.

It is generally accepted in Champagne that meunier matures earlier than the other varieties do, lacking the capacity for long aging, and many houses avoid using it in their vintage champagnes. However, there are notable examples to the contrary—the most frequently cited are undoubtedly the vintage wines of Krug, which possess mythical longevity despite having always included a significant proportion of meunier in their blends. There are even examples of 100-percent meunier champagne that have aged exceptionally well, although these are much more difficult to obtain.

Meunier Specialists
When thinking of historical specialists of meunier, there are two prominent names that come to mind. The first is José Michel, who has been cultivating vines in the village of Moussy since 1952. Michel has been a longtime champion of the meunier grape, and in the past, his vintage wine was always made of pure meunier. In his cellars, I've tasted old examples going back to the 1940s and 1950s, and these can be extraordinarily fresh and lively, defying the notion that meunier champagnes require early drinking.

In the 1970s, Michel began to include some chardonnay in his vintage blends, in an effort to cultivate more overt finesse. This set the precedent for the wines of today: both his Spécial Club and vintage cuvées, for example, are always made from a blend of meunier and chardonnay. He stopped making a 100-percent meunier champagne for a number of years, but in the early 2000s, he created a new, non-vintage meunier cuvée that my friends and I like to think that we're at least partially responsible for.

My friend Brian and I used to visit Michel every year, and we would badger him incessantly about meunier. Brian would always ask, "Why don't you make a 100-percent meunier?" And Michel would just smile and say, "Oh, I used to," and then he'd pull out another old vintage champagne made entirely of meunier that we would invariably go nuts over. Every year it was the same. Finally, in 2005 I was in Bordeaux, and I saw Michel and his wife at VinExpo. He said to me, "Tell your friend I have a new wine for him." The next time we showed up, he presented us with his non-vintage Pinot Meunier, and this wine has since become one of the stars in his portfolio.

Another traditional specialist in meunier was René Collard, across the river in Reuil, on the right bank of the Vallée de la Marne. Collard, who began making wine in 1943, was devoted to organic viticulture long before organic viticulture became fashionable, and his wines, all of which were fermented in barrel without malolactic, were a little controversial: either you loved their rich, chewy depth of flavor or you were put off by their rusticity and their lack of finesse. In his deep underground cellar, he had a tasting room that looked like nothing had been touched for fifty years, and he always had old vintages for sale at very kind prices. Like Michel, he occasionally added chardonnay to his blends, but there were plenty of vintage wines that were 100-percent meunier: the powerful 1990, the chewy 1976 and the burnished, golden 1969, for example, or even the spicy, complex 1985 rosé. Collard retired in 1995, and passed away in 2009. His grandson Olivier continues to produce champagne at his own estate in Villers-sous-Châtillon, Collard-Picard, but to my knowledge, he doesn't make a pure meunier champagne.

While José Michel and René Collard were the most renowned of the meunier specialists, there have certainly been other growers who made 100-percent meunier champagnes in the past, but who were smaller and less well-known. For example, in Festigny, in the Vallée du Flagot on the left bank of the Marne, Michel Loriot is highly regarded for his meunier today, and while he grows other grapes as well, he has two cuvées that are made entirely of meunier: a richly flavored non-vintage brut and a vintage-dated, single-vineyard Pinot Meunier Vieilles Vignes.

Historically, though, the family's estate was planted exclusively with meunier, and all of the wines made by Loriot's father and grandfather were pure meunier, since that's the only grape they had. "In the past," he says, "there was hardly any chardonnay planted here, because people were afraid of frost." Recently, Loriot opened a 1964 vintage champagne for me, made by his grandfather, Germain Loriot. At 49 years of age, it was still fresh and youthful, with a surprisingly pale color and an incredibly vibrant, energetic fragrance. Like Loriot's wines today, it possessed a fine balance between rich depth and subtle finesse, enlivened by a stony, saline minerality.



A Renewed Interest
Even as recently as the late-1990s, meunier remained a publicly marginalized grape. It accounted for over a third of the vineyard plantings in Champagne, yet many producers remained reluctant to talk about it, with some even denying that they used it in their blends. At the same time, there were a few growers who were becoming interested in seeing what meunier could do if it were given the proper attention.

In Oeuilly, on the left bank of the Vallée de la Marne, the Tarlant family has been growing vines since the seventeenth century. Meunier has long been a staple of this region, and in 1999, Benoît Tarlant and his father Jean-Mary selected a special parcel of meunier to bottle separately for the first time, under the label La Vigne d'Or. These are the oldest vines of the estate, planted in the vineyard of Pierre de Bellevue in 1947, and the wine was fermented in barrel and aged under cork rather than capsule.

As inspiration for this champagne, Benoît Tarlant cites the wines of René Collard, of whom he was a friend and great admirer. The Tarlants have continued to bottle this wine in later vintages, and have since released the 2002 and 2003, in addition to the inaugural vintage of 1999. La Vigne d'Or is a generous, amply flavored wine, but it's as expressive of place as it is of fruit, demonstrating the broad build and rich aromas typical of vineyards close to the river while also maintaining a taut, focused structure—this parcel is notably calcareous for the area, and this is reflected in the wine's lively minerality.

In an entirely different terroir, Jérôme Prévost also began to make a meunier champagne around this time, and since then, he has likely done more than anyone else to elevate the stature of this grape. Unlike the Tarlants, who bottled a pure meunier because they could, Prévost bottled meunier because he had to—it's the only variety planted in his two-hectare vineyard of Les Béguines in the village of Gueux.

Prévost had been working his vines since 1987, when he inherited the parcel from his grandmother, but he sold his grapes each year to the négoce. In 1998, his friend Anselme Selosse convinced him to begin bottling his own champagne, and he even offered to let Prévost use his facilities in Avize to do so, since Prévost had no cellars of his own. Prévost began producing small quantities of a single cuvée, vinified in 450- to 600-liter barrels with indigenous yeasts and bottled without fining, filtering or cold-stabilization.

The wine immediately attracted attention among champagne connoisseurs in the know, and soon it seemed that no avant-garde Parisian wine bar was complete without having Prévost on its list. For those who appreciate terroir-expressive, naturally-grown wines, Prévost's Les Béguines was something of a revelation, and together with growers such as David LéclapartBertrand Gautherot and Cédric Bouchard, Prévost represented a modern genre of Champagne producers who were doing something radically different and entirely new.

Les Béguines spends a relatively short amount of time on its lees, and thus does not qualify to be a vintage-dated champagne, although it always comes from a single year. It's a complex, intensely soil-driven wine, and one that demonstrates a great deal of finesse, with a noticeably finer texture than other meunier champagnes. It also needs several years of post-disgorgement age to show its best: at a recent tasting in New York City, the 2007 (disgorged in 2009) was just beginning to open up and reveal a broader range of aromas, and the 2006 (disgorged in 2008) was generous and inviting, still youthful but fully accessible. In contrast, the 2008, 2009 and 2010 were all significantly more closed, promising greatness yet holding much of their depth and complexity in reserve.

In 2007, Prévost made a rosé champagne for the first time, using a section of vines affected bycourt-noué to make red wine, which he blended into the regular version of Les Béguines. Called Fac-simile, this is a pungent, vinous rosé, with concentrated fruit flavors and a taut, rigid structure. Despite being based on the same material, it's a surprisingly different wine than theblanc version is, offering an alternate interpretation of Les Béguines meunier.

Proliferation
Today, there are a number of other growers who have begun bottling 100-percent meunier champagnes, grown in a variety of terroirs. In the Coteaux Sud d'Epernay, close to where José Michel has his vines, Laherte Frères makes a soil-expressive, vintage-dated cuvée called Les Vignes d'Autrefois, from vines in the villages of Chavot and Mancy that were planted between 1947 and 1964. The first release was from 2004, and Laherte has made it in every vintage since: it's a boldly fragrant wine, showing an old-vine depth and complexity, although it also reflects the chalky soils of the area in its racy structure and saline undertones.
Moving farther west along the Marne River, you'll find Christophe Mignon in the little hamlet of La Boulonnerie, just outside of Festigny. Mignon grows vines both in Festigny and in a village farther to the southwest, Le Breuil: he notes that the wines from Le Breuil are leaner, with a more pronounced structure, while the meunier in Festigny is rounder and fruitier. He typically blends wines from the two villages together, and while he grows a small amount of chardonnay and pinot noir, his focus is primarily on meunier, which accounts for 90 percent of his six-hectare estate. His non-vintage brut nature is pure meunier, and it's a vibrant, intensely soil-expressive wine, reflecting Mignon's dedication to quality viticulture. The vintage cuvée is also made entirely of meunier, largely from Le Breuil, and while it's rich and ripe, it demonstrates the same energy and intensity that the non-vintage does, adding more complexity and depth.

It's interesting to compare Mignon's wines with those of Jean Moutardier in Le Breuil, despite the differences in scale and philosophy between the two houses. Moutardier's wines are all grown in the immediate vicinity of Le Breuil, in order to retain a specificity of terroir, and since 2006, the house has been making a 100-percent meunier champagne called, appropriately enough, Pure Meunier. It's released as a brut nature, and it reflects the terroir character of Le Breuil in its sleek, focused shape and stony, earthy minerality.

Close to Festigny, in the direction of the river, Jérôme Dehours farms a 14-hectare estate based in the hamlet of Cerseuil, with vines also located in the neighboring villages of Mareuil-le-Port, Troissy and Oeuilly. Meunier accounts for 60 percent of his plantings, forming the backbone of most of his cuvées, but he also produces several individual bottlings of meunier that are well worth seeking out. From the vineyard of Les Genevraux in Troissy, planted in 1979, Dehours makes small quantities of a vintage-dated, single-vineyard champagne. The deep tuffeau soils here are mixed with sandy clay and plenty of small stones, and the wine that they produce is energetic and tense, with pronounced mineral aromas.

Just 150 meters away from Les Genevraux, Dehours also owns a parcel of 50-year-old meunier vines in the lieux-dit of La Croix Joly, a slightly warmer vineyard that's more exposed to the afternoon sun. It also lies on clay and tuffeau, with very little calcareous matter, and the wines here tend to be more overtly fruity than those of Les Genevraux, with a rounder body and richer depth. Dehours has released one vintage of La Croix Joly, the 2005, which was bottled exclusively in magnum. He has since decided to convert this parcel to the production of red wine, which is potentially even more interesting, and certainly more unusual: the first release of La Croix Joly Coteaux Champenois is the 2008.

In addition to these two single-vineyard wines, Dehours also bottles another champagne called Blanc de Meunier, blended from various parcels of old vines across the estate. The first vintage of this cuvée is the 2007, and like the single-vineyard champagnes, this is vinified entirely in barrel and dosed very low (3 g/l, in this case). It's a less demanding wine than the single-vineyard champagnes are, focusing more on varietal notes of apple, apricot and citrus peel rather than the intense minerality found in the other two.

In this same vicinity, and from similar terroir, the Bérèche family has also begun bottling a single-vineyard champagne from pure meunier, called Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche. The north-facing vineyard of Les Misy lies on calcareous clay soils in Port-à-Binson, near Mareuil-le-Port, and Bérèche's vines here were planted in 1969. The wine is fermented entirely in barrel with indigenous yeasts and without malolactic, and it's aged on cork rather than capsule for the second fermentation. All of this results in a vividly complex and piercingly mineral-expressive champagne, and it's one of the finest examples of meunier in Champagne.



On the other side of the Marne river, Franck Pascal has been steadily gaining a reputation for his wines, most of which are heavily based on meunier. Pascal is a staunch advocate of biodynamic farming, and his vineyards in and around the village of Baslieux-sur-Châtillon have been entirely biodynamic since 2001. He typically blends his meunier with a smaller proportion of chardonnay and pinot noir, but in 2003, he made a pure meunier champagne for the first time, from a single parcel of old vines that resisted the heat of the vintage particularly well. This was called Cuvée Emeric, named for Pascal's youngest son, and 2003 is the only vintage in which it was made. However, Pascal created a new vintage cuvée in 2004 called Harmonie, which he intends to produce as a blanc de noirs: the 2004 was a blend of both pinot noir and meunier, but the 2005 was made entirely of meunier.

In the neighboring village of Cuisles, Cédric Moussé has begun making his Spécial Club champagne exclusively from meunier, the first such example in the history of the Club Trésors de Champagne. The Moussé family has been cultivating vines in the Vallée de la Marne since 1750, and Cédric is the fourth generation of his family to produce estate-bottled champagne. He joined the Club in 2005, and began making Spécial Club in that vintage: it's a wine of pronounced minerality, its stony undertones contrasting the broader and more overtly clay-driven characters of many of the meuniers found on the opposite bank of the river.

Virtually all of the most prominent Vallée de la Marne producers are found in the area between Epernay and Dormans, which is much more heralded for its wines than are the locations farther to the west, in the département of the Aisne. Nevertheless, in Crouttes-sur-Marne, in the far west of the Champagne appellation, Françoise Bedel makes densely-flavored, biodynamically-grown champagnes that have gained a steady following among fans of organic wine. About four-fifths of Bedel's 8.4 hectares of vines are planted with meunier, but like Pascal, she typically blends this with chardonnay and pinot noir. Bedel makes two terroir-specific champagnes: Dis, Vin Secret comes from limestone parcels, while Entre Ciel et Terre is grown on argilo-calcaire. Both wines are always heavily meunier-based, but the 2002 Entre Ciel et Terre was made entirely from meunier, and it was excellent, with a lively depth of flavor and an intensely soil-driven character.

In the Petite Montagne, meunier's other ancestral homeland in Champagne, the variety remains an important part of production, forming the base of blends for growers such as L. Aubry Fils in Jouy-lès-Reims, Roger Coulon in Vrigny, or Emmanuel Brochet in Villers-aux-Noeuds. Yet there have been few 100-percent meunier champagnes made in this area, and none of significance until Jérôme Prévost began making Les Béguines.

In fact, other than Les Béguines, the only widely-known example of pure meunier from the Petite Montagne is Les Vignes de Vrigny, by Egly-Ouriet. In 2000, Francis Egly expanded his estate with the acquisition of vineyards inherited through his wife's family. This included two hectares of 40-year-old meunier vines in Vrigny, and rather than blending this fruit into his existing wines, Egly used them to create a separate cuvée. While Les Vignes de Vrigny is recognizably an Egly wine, it differs significantly in character from his other cuvées, as a result of its varietal makeup and its vinification exclusively in stainless steel tanks. It's a more overtly oxidative wine than Prévost's is, with a broad, spicy fragrance and a savory minerality.

Just to the north of the Petite Montagne, in the Massif de St-Thierry, Alexandre Chartogne ofChartogne-Taillet is gaining a cult following for his new single-vineyard meunier, made from 50-year-old ungrafted vines in the vineyard of Les Barres. Champagnes made from ungrafted vines are rare, since phylloxera thrives in calcareous soils—in Les Barres, however, the topsoils are very sandy, preventing phylloxera from spreading.

Chartogne first bottled Les Barres in 2006, and has continued to make it in each vintage since. As with the meuniers of the Petite Montagne, Les Barres is more overtly chalky and more linear in build than its counterparts in the Vallée de la Marne, reflecting the differences in both soil type and climate between the two areas. It's uncommonly complex as well, not just for meunier, but for any champagne, and its intensity of terroir expression is profound.



Meunier champagnes can be found in other areas of the appellation as well. In Cumières, a village better known for pinot noir, Vincent Laval of Georges Laval had a parcel of very old meunier vines that he replanted at the end of 2006, and from their final harvest, he bottled a rich, vividly expressive champagne called Les Meuniers de la Butte. It's rather difficult to obtain as only 800 bottles were made, but it's well worth a search.

Gilles Dumangin of J. Dumangin Fils recently released a new series of champagnes called the Trio des Ancêtres, and one of these, named for his great-grandfather Achille, is made entirely from meunier. The inaugural vintage was 2000, and it was aged for an unusually long time: one year in barrique and nine years on the lees before disgorgement. In Epernay, Janisson-Baradonhas also recently created a new trio of champagnes, with each being a single-vineyard, single-varietal wine. The meunier comes from an Epernay vineyard called Chemin des Conges, planted in 1964 and 1965, and it's a boldly assertive wine, its aromas of red fruit feeling concentrated and tense.

Even in the Aube, where meunier is not a widely planted grape, at least one example of a pure meunier champagne can be found: in 2009, Dosnon & Lepage bottled one for the first time, made from grapes grown in the sandy soils of Tranne, in the Bar-sur-Aube. The wine hasn't been released for sale yet, but early tastings have shown it to be fragrant and fruity, with the voluptuous depth typical of Aube champagnes.

The wines mentioned above do not by any means constitute a comprehensive list of 100-percent meunier champagnes, and you may encounter examples from producers such as Arlaux, Baron Fuenté, Gérard Loriot or Denis Salomon, among others. Today we're seeing more and more 100-percent meunier cuvées appearing on the market, and of course meunier continues to play an important role in blends across the region. What is significant and exciting is that there is a growing and genuine interest in meunier among champagne producers, with an increasing number of people acknowledging that it can create fine wines if treated with care, and it's likely that we're only beginning to see the potential of this underrated variety.

February 2013

 

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