Champagne's Workhorse Grape Steps into the Spotlight | Wine Enthusiast
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Champagne’s Workhorse Grape Steps into the Spotlight

Long the quietest member of the Champagne blend, Pinot Meunier is charming, character-filled and finally coming into its own.

It’s the historically disregarded third grape of a Champagne blend, obscured by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the variety Grandes Marques producers only reluctantly admit to using.

But now, along the length of the Marne Valley, from Épernay west toward Château-Thierry, Pinot Meunier (or just Meunier, as producers call it) makes remarkable Champagnes with a character and quality all its own. It’s the Cinderella grape that’s beginning to reveal itself in all its beauty.

“Meunier can give wines that are so fresh, with a winning combination of fruit and minerality,” says Fanny Heucq, joint manager with her father, André, of Champagne André Heucq in Cuisles. “At its best, it can produce Champagnes that have fruity complexity, peaches, green apples along with this tension.”

With more of these quality Meunier-driven bottlings coming from growers, they want the world to know. Read on to learn more about how this oft-overlooked grape made its way to the spotlight.

The Horse-Drawn Problem

In the past, when horses pulled the wagons carrying grapes, one problem for big producers in Épernay and Reims was the distance from Meunier vineyards.

“It was too far to avoid problems with grape damage,” says Eric Taillet of Champagne Eric Taillet in Baslieux-sous-Châtillon and founder of the Meunier Institut. “People in the grand cellars thought little of the Meunier, even though they had to use it to make up quantity in the blend.”

Now, perhaps due to climate change, Meunier’s virtues overcome prejudice. This is largely thanks to the emergence of its Marne Valley growers. Historically, they sold their fruit to the Champagne houses, but now they’ve found the confidence to make their own Champagnes, which show Meunier’s true colors.

It’s finally possible to put Meunier-only or Meunier-dominant Champagnes in your glass. And they’re worth the effort to seek out.

“People in the grand cellars thought little of the Meunier, even though they had to use it to make up quantity in the blend.” –Eric Taillet, founder, Meunier Institut and Champagne Eric Taillet

Gosset is an unlikely source, a house that specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. However, in 2007, as its cellarmaster, Odilon de Varine, tasted the new wines, he found a batch of Meunier from vineyards around Épernay that, “had impressive elegance and finesse,” he says. “I decided it would be interesting to turn this batch into a 100% Meunier wine.”

And so, Gosset produced 5,000 bottles of 2007 Grand Blanc de Meunier; the vintage was released in 2018.

The wine broke many Meunier myths. After 12 years, it was still fresh and aromatic, just touched with honey, dispelling common wisdom that Meunier cannot age.

It also had a complex, dense texture that started with fruit and ended with minerality. Another legend gone: that Meunier only makes simple Champagnes.

Gosset Meunier was a one-off, but it’s an inspiration for great lovers of Champagne.

L to R: Bérêche & Fils NV Rive Gauche, H. Blin NV Rosé de Saignée Edition Limitée Extra-Brut and Baron-Fuenté NV Grand Réserve Brut/Photo by Sarah Anne Ward

In Search of the Marne’s Meunier

Épernay, the self-proclaimed capital of Champagne, is at the focal point of the three traditional Champagne vineyards. To the southeast, the chalk slopes of the Côte des Blancs are home to great Chardonnays. To the north, the bulk of the Montagne de Reims, which has forest on the summit and vineyards on its slopes, produces great Pinot Noir.

The Marne Valley stretches to the west of Épernay. Its vineyards follow the Marne river from the city, beyond Château-Thierry, 30 miles away. Only 60 miles away sits Central Paris.

This is Meunier’s natural home, where the grape shows its true colors. It likes the mix of clay and chalk slopes along the Marne as it winds lazily toward its confluence with the Seine on the edge of Paris. Side valleys, the Belval and the Flagot, add to the array of exposures and slopes that inspire the vineyards.

The region is cooler than the Côte des Blancs and the Montagne de Reims, with a disposition for damaging spring frosts. Meunier, which starts its spring cycle late, is less likely to be affected.

There’s dynamism in these vineyards and the string of villages that lie along the valleys. Just as growers elsewhere in Champagne have made their own mark with family brands, so have those based here.

In Cerseuil, Jérôme Dehours, of Champagne Dehours et Fils, is one of them. A man of many words, he’s passionate about Meunier and has 40 tiny parcels clustered around his cellar.

He talks about the need to handle Meunier carefully. “Meunier is the most difficult grape in Champagne to work, but when it is treated correctly, it can give beautiful Champagnes,” he says.

His Terre de Meunier, a nonvintage from several of his parcels, is an explosion of floral aromas and white fruits, along with a finely balanced, taught texture. Like many Meunier Champagnes, the fruit is there at the start, while the minerality comes in subtly at the end.

L to R: Lelarge-Pugeot NV Les Meuniers de Clémence, Laherte Freres NV Rosé de Meunier Extra Brut and Dehours et Fils NV Grand Réserve Brut/Photo by Sarah Anne Ward

Drilling Down into Meunier Land

Dehours has started to produce single-parcel wines in small quantities, like his Genevraux and La Croix Joly. This is the next logical step in the celebration of Meunier: to bring the grape and the terroir together in one bottle.

Heucq, in her series of parcel wines, Hommage Parcellaire, is another example. The grapes are grown biodynamically, which gives intensity and concentration that reinforces her conviction that Meunier can “make a great wine.”

Meuniers to Try

These grower Champagnes can be hard to come by stateside, so keep an eye out for these bottles.

Baron-Fuenté NV Grand Réserve Brut
Bérêche & Fils NV Rive Gauche
Dehours et Fils NV Grand Réserve Brut
H. Blin NV Rosé de Saignée Edition Limitée Extra-Brut
Laherte Freres NV Rosé de Meunier Extra Brut
Lelarge-Pugeot NV Les Meuniers de Clémence

Daniel Falala, director of the H. Blin cooperative in Vincelles, follows that conviction, but with a twist. He talks more about villages and crus, rather than parcels, to emphasize the quality of certain places over others. He believes Vincelles, with its semicircular slope of vineyards, makes great Meunier Champagnes.

“All our grapes come from a radius of three miles,” he says. “That gives our Champagnes a distinctive taste and consistency.”

The idea of distinct villages in the Marne Valley is new, he believes.

“Before it was just the Marne Valley, without any differentiation,” says Falala. “Now we can identify individual villages characters. Vincelles is on the north bank of the Marne with its floral, fruity wines that have great freshness. Jérôme Dehours’s village of Cerseuil, on the cooler south bank, produces wines that have greater finesse and lightness.”

Villages and individual parcels are two ways to tell the world that Meunier is as much a grape of terroir as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. You can find variations in fruitiness, texture and tension depending on where the grape is planted, its exposure and how high up the slope the vines are planted.

If you tell a Meunier grower that this is all very Burgundian, he or she will thank you. Then they will walk to two tanks and point out that these two very different wines came from parcels that sit just a short distance apart.

That’s exactly what happened with Alexandre Salmon, at Champagne Salmon in Chaumuzy, just out of the Marne Valley proper. As he tastes vins clairs, or young wines, that just finished their first fermentation and weren’t yet bottled, he points to the vineyards.

“One is just behind the house, the other is over there behind those trees,” he says.

The differences were obvious. One was full and round in character, the other floral and crisp, the distance between the vines only a matter of yards.

The epoch of Meunier as just the third workhorse grape in Champagne is over. Now is the time to search out wines from these producers and many others and give the variety its rightful, equal and distinctive place in the firmament of Champagne.