meunier: the unsung champagne grape
Champagne has had many grape varieties planted in the region over its long history. Although obscure, some of them are still authorised: check out Aubry's Premier Cru which includes Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Fromonteau (Pinot Gris) in the blend. But after phylloxera and the First World War, plantings in Champagne were consolidated to focus on three varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier.
Even so, a lot has changed since the 1920s. Chardonnay has been far more widely planted since the 60s, especially as the Blanc de Blancs style has become more popular. Champagne is generally much drier, with the Extra Brut and non-dosage styles very common.
And the name of Meunier has changed, as it was until very recently known as Pinot Meunier. That name change came about to give the grape variety more of an identity and to change its perception as an inferior version of Pinot Noir. The name comes from the white hairs that grow on the grapes which look like flour: meunier means miller in French. Its association with Pinot Noir is because it's a mutation of the more famous variety, but Meunier is now very much its own thing and was first mentioned in 1690. In fact, it's the tenth most planted black grape variety in France.
But it's a variety that rarely gets talked about; instead, in Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay get all the attention. There are several reasons for this. Those two varieties are among the most famous globally, Chardonnay providing an elegant, acidic structure perfect for champagne and Pinot Noir adding subtle weight and power. Meunier, in contrast, is seen as obvious and fruity—a useful but unsophisticated addition to a youthful non-vintage blend.
But Meunier is widely planted in Champagne for good reasons. First of all, it's late budding and early ripening, which is ideal for the cool Champagne region where spring frosts and bad weather at harvest are an issue. Secondly, its fruity, fresh style makes it important in youthful, non-vintage wines. But this makes it seem that Meunier is just planted for practical reasons rather than for quality.
For lesser producers, that may be the case. But producers who focus on Meunier make exceptional wines that demonstrate that there's more to the variety than being a blending grape.
Moussé Fils have been growing grapes since the 1880s, and making wine since 1923. 85% of their plantings are of Meunier which is the base of most of their wines. There's a fruity richness to the wines which comes from Meunier and makes them a little more powerful than other champagne; but there's still a finesse and elegance to them. blackpoolmatt's wine club has just got in "L'or d'Eugène," an immediate, irresistible, fruity Meunier based blend. Its character comes from the "perpetual reserve," which is similar to a solera system in that barrels are topped with new wine each year to maintain consistency of style.
And then there's Lelarge-Pugeot, a biodynamic producer who also focuses on Meunier and also makes still red wine. Again, there’s a sophisticated power to the wines, with a lean, mature elegance. “Tradition” is a superb introduction to the producer’s style, while “Nature et non dosé” is a completely dry wine which showcases the complexity which Meunier is capable of.
Champagne is a region rooted in tradition, but its reputation and quality come from always moving with the times. By embracing Meunier, producers in Champagne are adding yet another style and level of complexity to the region’s wines.
to learn more about Meunier, listen to my interview with Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot