Champagne's Crazy Uncle

Last week’s Champagne tasting in Hollywood was smack full of delicious wines, but two bottles in particular got my wine-geek wheels turning--because they were good, but also because they were downright interesting: NV Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” and NV Trudon “Monochrome,” both single-varietal Pinot Meunier bottlings. In fact, I realized I’d never given the grape much thought. It’s been a supporting player to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Champagne triad for centuries (Jancis Robinson notes that it was first mentioned in 1690), but it’s quite rare to see it as a single-varietal Champagne. And two in one tasting? Well, it was enough to get me intrigued. Are we in the midst of a Pinot Meunier revolution? Or was our lineup a fluke?

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The Meunier Institut of the Marne Valley would certainly say it’s the former. Founded in 2015 by Eric Taillet of Eric Taillet Champagne, this collective of nine member wineries is all about the Meunier (even distancing themselves from the Pinot in the moniker), advocating for it to get the respect they say it deserves--in blends but also as a stand-alone wine. And, increasingly, it is. It’s been championed for a long time by the likes of Krug, who uses a large percentage in its tête de cuvée bottlings. But, according to wine writer Peter Liem, the last decade has seen a surge in Pinot Meunier pride, with more and more winemakers claiming it on their labels and making single-varietal wines. Among the grape’s supporters are Champagne Heucq Père et Fils, Egly-Ouriet, Jérôme Prévost, and Bérêche & Fils.

Accounting for more than a third of the plantings in Champagne (slightly more than Chardonnay), it’s been relied upon to add a youthful fruitiness to blends, as well as body and richness. A mutation of Pinot Noir, Meunier carries its own distinctive flavors and properties--fruity notes can range from red raspberries to blueberries, baked apples, or citrus, often alongside a smoky, earthy rusticity and high acidity. Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards has called it the crazy uncle of the Pinot family--he says it’s the grape that tells the off-color jokes to the kids at Thanksgiving. There’s a touch of a wild streak to it, which makes it pair up beautifully with mushrooms.

  Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

Pinot Noir on the left and Pinot Meunier on the right. Meunier's clusters are a bit more oblong than Pinot Noir's and its leaves are more indented; Pinot Noir is known for triangular bunches and round leaves.

But it has also built a reputation as something of a workhorse, as it is a much more dependable ripener than its Noir counterpart--it buds later and ripens earlier, so it is less prone to winter frosts and coulure. For this reason, it thrives in the cold Marne Valley, which also has a deeper layer of clay above its chalk bedrock, and this suits Meunier just fine.

There’s no doubt that this grape can make delicious, even distinctive wines. But can the wines age? That’s the question at the heart of the matter. Krug’s Brut Grande Cuvée definitely can, and Meunier makes up the majority of this wine each year. As for for other bottlings, signs point to yes, but the best way to be sure is taste, taste, taste. Nice work if you can find it. Might I suggest you start with these?

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Maxime Toubart “Pur Meunier” Brut Champagne $39.99
From the village of Le Breuil, with all vines facing south toward the Surmerlin River, which flows into the Marne. It’s a toasty golden color in the glass with notes of currant scone and rosemary biscuits on the nose. It’s broad and sumptuous on the palate. Not quiet or linear, this is a wine that likes to tell ambling stories. And they might be off-color.

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Trudon “Monochrome” Brut Champagne $39.99
From a grower-producer in Festigny, farther south in the Marne Valley. Trudon truly respects this varietal, calling it the king grape of the house. It spends three years on its lees. It’s expressive with a sunny, bright disposition, showing ripe red berry fruit and lively acidity.

 

NB: Meunier has a life of its own outside the confines of Champagne where perhaps only the enlightened few appreciate it. It can be found growing in England, Loire Valley, Germany, Sonoma, Oregon, Canada, Australia, and South Africa--it’s all over the map, climate-wise! It also moonlights as a still red, notably in Germany where it goes by Schwarzriesling, but also in the U.S. Teutonic in the Willamette Valley makes one from Borgo Pass Vineyard ($26.99). The winery notes: “The 2016 vintage is lively and bright with lots of berry fruit on the nose. It's a great sipping wine and can be paired nicely with chicken, turkey and salmon." Poe’s 2016 Meunier from “Van der Kamp Vineyard” lies at 1400 feet at the top of Sonoma Mountain ($34.99). Notes from the winery: “We find our red Pinot Meunier to be very floral with aromas of white and black peppercorn. On the palate, there is bright red fruit and loads of savory characteristics reminiscent of my favorite rustic, earthy Burgundies, with forest floor and mushroom components. The wine greatly benefits from air, and always tastes best after a few days of being open.”

 

Kate Soto