The world of Champagne is changing rapidly. The strongest evidence of this has been the shift in the balance of power between houses and growers over the last two decades, although more direct contact with both trade and end-consumers – thanks to social media and low-cost flights – has further enlarged the conversation. Long a fiefdom of ‘Grandes Marques’, Champagne is slowly but surely learning to communicate that the most interesting stories are often those about what happens in the vineyard. Much of this shift in focus to viticulture has been pioneered by smaller producers. Rather than pitching the consistent quality of houses who guarantee a particular pedigree year after year due to “secret formulas” and reserve wines, a new lens has emerged that has more in common with other celebrated regions like Burgundy or Barolo. A new focus on producers looking after their own land to produce wines from their own grapes is forcing both trade and consumers to reconsider many of the accepted truths about Champagne. One of the results has been a subsequent re-evaluation of Pinot Meunier.
From Pinot to Meunier
Although a few Houses have consistently championed the virtues of Meunier – among them Krug and Charles Heidsieck – Meunier, once the poor cousin of Champagne, is coming into its own as more grower Champagne makers vinify it as a single variety. This reassessment is beginning with its very nomenclature. Until recently, it was assumed that Pinot Meunier had a genetic association with Pinot Noir. But the latest research has challenged this relationship and resulted in a hypothesis that the origins of Pinot Meunier cannot be precisely defined. As a result, institutions such as the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France have stopped referring to the grape as Pinot Meunier, says Thibaut Le Mailloux, communications director of the CIVC: “Pinot Meunier is a misleading designation, which is why we advocate referring to the grape by the name of ‘Meunier’ instead. In addition to being just, it recognises the uniqueness of this particular variety.”
Meunier means “miller” in French, and the grape owes its name to the white patches found on its leaves that resemble particles of flour. In other parts of France, Meunier is cultivated for use as a still wine in Lorraine, Touraine and in the region of Orléans. It is more commonly known in Germany as Müllerrebe or Schwarzriesling, and also produced in Switzerland and Austria.
But Meunier owes both its fame and its infamy to Champagne. While six varieties are authorised in the region, Champagne’s holy trinity has been defined as a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier for some time. Up until recently, Meunier has been given the short end of the stick.
Meunier, known for its easier ripening, high acid levels (required for the wines of Champagne) and late budding, has historically been valued for its resistance to frost and hardy nature, and characterised as more flexible than Chardonnay and less precocious than Pinot Noir. Meunier is described by many as ideally suited to north-facing vineyards and cooler (sometimes rainy) microclimates. It is often considered a workhorse.
For most of the last century, the majority of the houses in Champagne conjured up comparisons to a DNA molecule when describing the region’s famed blending process of its non-vintage cuvées. Pinot Noir was said to give structure while Chardonnay imparted finesse and Meunier gave fruitiness or roundness. It was also said that Meunier lacked an inherent ability to age because it contributed a certain drinkability in its youth, an essential quality in the land of bubbles and freshness.
Pinot Noir and especially Chardonnay have been cultivated as the noble varieties for a number of reasons, mostly because they’re Burgundian, but perhaps also because they’re now planted all over the world so they’re considered understandable and translatable by members of the trade and consumers alike.
The poor cousin
When the Champagne appellation was defined in 1927, not a single Grand Cru village or Premier Cru village was categorised because of Meunier. Even today, Meunier grown in either a Grand Cru or Premier Cru village doesn’t have the right to be labelled as either, even if it is produced in its entirety in one of those prestigious places.
“Meunier used to represent more than a third of Champagne’s surface [38% in 1998], but its proportion has decreased to reach approximately 32% nowadays, a figure that has been stable since 2007,” says Thibaut Le Mailloux. “In 1958, Meunier represented 47% of the grapes planted in Champagne, benefitting at the time from its nature, perfectly adapted to the Champagne terroir, meaning less likely to endure damage from the spring frosts.” After two wars and years of agricultural struggles, a focus on planting for volume was established by the region in 1948 with the idea of increasing production exponentially.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were by definition more rare and as a result, a bonus for the price of “noble varieties” of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was established in 1948 in order to encourage their planting. Until 1990, the price of grapes was fixed by the CIVC. In 1960, the price for a kilo of Champagne grapes on a 100% Grand Cru was 2.60 Francs ($0.45) but a bonus of 0.15 Francs was added if the variety was either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. In 1985, this bonus reached 1.20 Francs per kilo. The scale of Crus was abolished in 1990, and grape prices were determined by private agreements between growers and houses. Theoretically, this made the distinction between Meunier and Chardonnay or Pinot irrelevant, although the damage previously done to the reputation of Meunier was substantial.
Some additional damage was done to the grape thanks to the large producers who traditionally controlled the discourse, says Dawn Davies, head wine & spirits buyer for Selfridges. “People know Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and they feel confident talking about them. They are easy to pronounce and they make some of the world’s best wines,” she says. “At the well-known houses, the focus is always on those two grapes so, in the minds of the consumer, Meunier does not have the stature of the other two. I feel it has been unfairly criticised as it adds a different dimension to certain wines and can simultaneously produce single-variety wines that are absolutely beautiful.” There are indeed a number of producers who are currently cultivating some fantastic expressions of Meunier that can legitimately attribute notions of richness and expressiveness.
Michel Loriot, owner of the eponymous Champagne producer, who makes some of the most acclaimed wines made from Meunier, says: “Meunier has always been denigrated as unfit for ageing. Even today the CIVC produces publications where it is written that Meunier ages faster, a false statement.”
Much of the renewed interest in Meunier has to do with the fact that both the rules and the context have changed. Growers who own their own land are in an enviable position, especially in a region with geographical limits and houses fighting amongst themselves to buy grapes at any price in order to satisfy their need for volume. The houses used to call all the shots, and communicating about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir represented more financial rewards and dividends for shareholders.
How can one describe Meunier in absolute terms? Benoit Tarlant, scion of the Tarlant dynasty in Oeuilly, describes Meunier as being much more delicate than many people give it credit for. “Meunier might be less sensitive to frost but it is more sensitive to sun and humidity. It has thinner skin and is therefore more fragile, even sensitive in the real sense of the term.” Tarlant adds: “Curiosity is greater now than it was 15 years ago. When I released the first bottles of 100% Meunier from my cellars, I can tell you that it was another story. Jérôme Prévost and I were the only ones who dared to transgress the sacrosanct idea that Meunier could only be part of a blend.”
Things have changed dramatically since 2000. Today, wines like Jérôme Prévost’s La Closerie Les Béguines or Alexandre Chartogne’s Chartogne Taillet Les Barres can fetch more than €60.00 ($66.50) per bottle and demand is significantly higher than supply. At influential restaurants like London’s Michelin-starred Texture, wines made from 100% Meunier – such as Egly-Ouriet’s Les Vignes de Vrigny – are promoted by the glass and sit alongside wines from Pol Roger and Krug.
A big part of the focus on individual producers from different areas has been to create more discussion of regional differences. Why should Meunier be expected to taste the same all over Champagne? Champagne is often described as being chalky, but in addition to that famous chalk there’s also plenty of clay, limestone and sand. That breeds diversity.
Some of the best producers of Meunier include:
Jérôme Prévost La Closerie Les Béguines
Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny
Francoise Bedel Comme Autrefois
Chartogne-Taillet Les Barres
Tarlant La Vigne d’Or
Bérêche et Fils Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche
Michel Loriot Monodie en Meunier Majeur
Where are all of these wines with a focus on Meunier being consumed? Clearly in more sophisticated, mature markets were people are looking for something different. Tarlant says the very first market to commercially embrace his single-vineyard expressions of Meunier was Japan. Loriot says that Meunier is interesting sommeliers and consumers alike because: “Neither are allowing themselves to be influenced by false information. The principal character which defines my wines is freshness,” referring to his Monodie en Meunier Majeur, a blend based on a 73-year-old parcel with low yields.
Are any of these wines finding ambassadors in the trade and, ultimately, consumers? Dawn Davies from Selfridges thinks so. “I am a massive fan of Meunier and feel it is too readily overlooked. Fortunately it is now being embraced by sommeliers because we are always on the hunt for something different, something the consumer does not expect. Retailers who embrace small producers are starting to sell more of these wines but unless you have very passionate staff that engage with the consumer about the product, it is a harder sell. Informed consumers are the ones more likely to try out the small houses and the growers as they are more adventurous. Most Champagne consumers are driven by brand and price, and sadly it is less about the actual wine than any other category.”
Perhaps that’s about to change.
Christian Holthausen is Export Sales & International Communications Director for AR Lenoble and has previously worked for Piper-Heidsieck & Charles Heidsieck and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International, Issue 3, 2015. The magazine is available by subscription.