Ten years ago, nobody wanted to talk about meunier, even though over a third of Champagne’s vineyard land was planted with it. If people did talk about it, it was usually either to apologize for it or to bash it for being an inferior variety. Today, meunier is downright hip, especially among the younger generation of growers, and you’re much more likely to hear positive comments about meunier now than ever before.
One producer who was a champion of meunier long before the hipsters is José Michel, in the village of Moussy, just southwest of Epernay. About half of Michel’s vineyards are planted with meunier, and he’s been making champagne from pure meunier for over 50 years (with a bit of an interruption, as I’ll tell you about in a minute). Today he makes a cuvée entirely from pinot meunier, blended from vines both in this area, the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, and the Aisne valley to the west. The current release is composed entirely of 2005, and if you’ve never tasted a pure meunier, this is a fine introduction to the variety. It shows a classic build, with broad, low-pitched flavors of apple, grapefruit pith and wheat bread, backed by hints of a savory, umami-like earthiness. It’s bold in flavor but not heavy in body, and while it’s refreshing enough to drink as an apéritif, it would probably be even better accompanied by food.
My friend Brian and I like to claim credit for this wine (even though that idea is obviously dubious at best). Whenever we visited José Michel, he would always pull out old bottles for us to taste: notable among the older vintages we’ve tasted over the years are 1952 (José’s first vintage), 1973 (the year that both Brian and I were born), 1956 (the birth year of our friend Carl, who fortunately came along on that visit with us) and 1946 (made by José’s father). These vintage wines of the past were pure meunier, and despite the popular belief that meunier should only be drunk young, these wines have aged terrifically well. But Michel’s vintage wines today are always a blend of meunier and chardonnay. We kept asking him, if these old wines are so good, why doesn’t he make a 100-percent meunier champagne now? He’d just smile and mutter some vague reply, and pour us more wine to keep us distracted. So finally, in 2005 I was at VinExpo in Bordeaux, and stopped by José Michel’s booth to say hello and drink some champagne. As soon as José saw me, he laughed and said, “Hey, next time you come I’ll have something for you and that friend of yours that loves meunier so much.” The new cuvée actually wasn’t quite ready yet the next year, but made its first appearance in 2007, much to our delight.
Incidentally, last year I had an all-meunier champagne dinner with a group of friends (I wrote a piece about it in the December ’07 issue of Wine & Spirits), involving some heavy hitters, such as Jérôme Prévost, Michel Loriot’s Vieilles Vignes and even a 1969 by René Collard. The first bottle on the table to be completely emptied? José Michel Pinot Meunier.
José Michel is imported into the United States by Wine Traditions, in Falls Church, VA. The Pinot Meunier retails for about $45.