Ask a wine enthusiast what grapes are used to make Champagne and they’ll probably rattle off pinot noir and chardonnay right off the bat. What they might end up forgetting, however, is there’s a third, crucial grape needed to make the world’s most famous and romantic bubbly, and it’s called pinot meunier (pronounced PEE-no moon-YAY).
Call it the Cooper Manning to brothers Eli and Peyton, or call it the “unacknowledged grape,” as the New York Times did in a December feature. No matter what you call it, pinot meunier has long been considered simply a workhorse grape — one that can contribute nicely to a blend but can never stand on its own.
Over the past few years, however, a group of wine producers in the Champagne appellation in France have been producing some pinot meunier that doesn’t just stand alone, but actually stands above. Combined with its popularity in blends, pinot meunier actually makes up about 40 percent of the overall vineyards in the entire Champagne appellation.
It’s thought pinot meunier might have first gotten its bad rap in the early 19th century, when Claude Mo’t of the influential and well-known Mo’t & Chandon said he didn’t want any pinot meunier among his vines. For the record, Mo’t & Chandon has not kept this stance against pinot meunier, and in fact produced an experimental Champagne from a single-vineyard plot of pinot meunier more than 10 years ago (although, it should be noted that they haven’t done anything with the varietal since.)
As you might guess, pinot meunier is one of the many mutations of the pinot noir grape, and the name itself actually comes from the appearance of its leaf undersides and shoots, which look as though they’ve been dusted with flour (meunier is French for “miller”).
So if I’ve persuaded you to give it a try, or if you have a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner on your calendar, look for a bottle of Chandon’s 2010 or 2011 pinot meunier from Carneros, which is fairly widely available for about $35 at some select wine retailers. At the time of this writing Spec’s did not carry this wine or any pinot meunier. This is a good wine, however, and can be ordered online. If you can find a bottle or decide to order online, you’ll first notice the ruby to magenta color, and an unexpected level of translucence. It’s this same light color that keeps you from ever seeing it when blended into Champagne.
You’ll find bouquets of cranberry and cherry, but you should also notice a particular scent pinot meunier is known for — smoke. The grapes themselves have a natural smokiness that comes straight through to the wine.
Take a sip and the fruity flavors will dominate. You’ll likely pick up notes of strawberries and raspberries. Pinot meunier has relatively high acid levels, so you’ll find that they are brighter and crisper than most reds, and you’ll sometimes pick up a tart cherry flavor.
Because pinot meunier is a mutation of pinot noir, you’ll find that it pairs very similarly with food. Try it out with pork ribs, duck confit, rabbit, hazelnuts or heavier shellfish. My particular favorite is a glass of pinot meunier with a nice plate of charcuterie. Or just try a glass on its own so you can give this forgotten wine some of the acknowledgement it deserves.
Owner, Zin Valle Vineyards