Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Debate a Bubble - Pinot Meunier - What Is It And Why Use It?

Debate a Bubble - Pinot Meunier - What Is It And Why Use It?

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

Pinot Meunier - What Is It And Why Use It?

Posted: 22 Jun 2010 02:35 AM PDT

Tasting at Henriet-Bazin If you're already an enthusiastic champagne drinker then you'll probably know that only three grape varieties are allowed in champagne.

Well, if you want to be absolutely precise there are more, but the others are hardly ever used.

The three most common varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir – both of which you may have heard of already – and a third called Pinot Meunier which is another matter entirely.

So what is Pinot Meunier and why is it used in the Champagne region?

The word Meunier comes from the old French word for miller (as in flour miller) and the name was given to the grape variety because of the white down on the leaves that makes them look as though they've been coated with flour – it's stretching the imagination, I agree, but that's where the name comes from anyway.

Whilst Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are considered to be noble ' grape varieties, Pinot Meunier is considered, by some, to be something of a poor relative.

To illustrate this point there's not a single village in Champagne that has been given either Grand Cru or Premier Cru rating for the quality of their Pinot Meunier grapes – only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can claim this distinction

That means that a champagne that contains even a small amount of Pinot Meunier is not allowed to use either Grand Cru or Premier Cru on the label. Now you can understand why you'll search in vain for these words on the label of any of the well known brands – they've almost all got some Pinot Meunier in them.

If you ever get to try a still wine made from Pinot Meunier or a champagne made entirely with Pinot Meunier, you'll immediately notice it's main characteristic – it has very little length in the mouth. You take a mouthful and one moment you taste the fresh fruity flavour and all of a sudden it's gone

This is a generalisation, of course, and there are some champagne makers who rate Pinot Meunier very highly and produce marvellous results with it, - Krug use it a lot, Moutardier is committed to Pinot Gate at Krug 19th Feb 2010 Meunier as are many others down the Marne Valley, such as Christian Briard for example - but the statement broadly holds true.

So why use it at all?

Well, in fact Pinot Meunier has a lot of positives for a champagne maker:

A ) Pinot Meunier buds slightly later than the other two varieties so it is less prone to damage by late Spring frost than the other two grapes. This is a really important consideration in Champagne where frost in early or late April can wipe out the crop. In 2003 the Chardonnay vineyards (this is the grape that buds first) were extremely badly affected by frost with up to 85 % of the vines ruined in some areas

B) Pinot Meunier needs only two years ageing, or thereabouts, to develop whilst the other two varieties need a lot longer to reach their full potential – that's why most older, vintage, champagnes have little, or no, Pinot Meunier in the blend – it's not necessary because the Pinot Meunier would be past its best before the other two grapes were ready to drink.

C ) Most champagne makers would tell you that Pinot Meunier is a vital element in blending because what it does is bring together the other two varieties.

It brings freshness and fruitiness and makes a champagne pleasant and easy to drink. Some people find it helpful to think of a ladder with the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir being the two uprights whilst the Pinot Meunier provides the rungs and of course the uprights can't stand without the rungs .

There are a couple of other reasons to use Pinot Meunier which are both business related.

D ) In total Pinot Meunier accounts for well over a third of the vines planted in Champagne. Most Pinot Meunier vineyards are found in the Vallée de la Marne where the heavier soil and the higher risk of frost do not suit the other two grape varieties. So, when you're making tens of millions of bottles every year like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and other big names it's simply not possible to do without Pinot Meunier. There aren't enough Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes out there.

Brut Impérial 

E) Using all three varieties produces what some houses call a more 'complete ' champagne. This is certainly the philosophy at Moët & Chandon where the objective is to produce a champagne that reflects the diversity of the Champagne region and also appeals to a wide range of consumers


F) There's a cost advantage in  using Pinot Meunier: it generally costs less per kilo to buy Pinot Meunier and it needs less ageing. Looked at on a cost per bottle basis or even on a cost per kilo of grapes basis, Pinot Meunier is not much cheaper, but if you accumulate the saving over the entire production then these factors really can reduce costs and / or push up profits according to which way you look at it.

All this goes to show what I'm always going on about when you're buying champagne: you really need to know what blend of grapes has been used.

If there's a high proportion of Pinot Meunier – I reckon that anything over 25% is high – then it's likely that the champagne has been aged for a relatively short time and may not have much of a finish. Mind you it will probably be deliciously fruity. It all depends what you like

Pricewise you shouldn't expect to pay top dollar for a champagne of this style.

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