Pinot Meunier

Pinot Meunier is not among the world's so-called 'noble' grape varieties, rarely displayed on a wine's label. Yet it plays a starring role at one of Australia's most historic wineries, Bests of Great Western, in one of their most cherished and iconoclastic wines, the Old Vine Pinot Meunier; while upholding the mantle of the 'cool kids' variety-of-the moment, in Champagne. Unbeknownst to many, Pinot Meunier is the most planted grape in Champagne, covering 10,500 hectares. It is also among France's dozen most planted grape varieties, making it clear that this unsung grape variety is worth further exploration.

Pinot Meunier is one of the umpteenth mutations of the most mutable of varieties, Pinot Noir. It is often referred to as simply Meunier, meaning miller in French. Meunier acquired this name because of the appearance of the underside of its leaves, which look as if they have been dusted with flour.

An early ripener, albeit, late budder, Meunier's sturdy nature mitigates frost risks and ripening issues, such as coulure. It is, therefore, commercially reliable and excels in cooler north-facing sites in Champagne, such as many in the Valée de la Marne. It was once also prevalent throughout the vineyards that existed in northern France. Acid levels are higher than Pinot Noir, although alcohol levels are not necessarily lower. Anthocyanin, or pigment levels, are low.

No longer content to be the diminutive filler in a blend, usurped in importance by the more prestigious Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier is à la mode and increasingly made as a straight varietal expression by the Champenois. Producers including Egly-Ouriet and Jérôme Prévost, produce exceptionally detailed Pinot Meunier from old vines. Krug, too, blends a solid dollop of Pinot Meunier from the less heralded Aube region, into its Grande Cuvée; while Moët et Chandon relied on an unusually high 43%, to craft a successful Grand Vintage 2003.

In the heat of that abnormal vintage, particularly on heavier war-retaining soils such as sections of the Aube, Meunier's proclivity for budding later than the other traditional grape varieties obviated desiccation issues, while imbuing a relative degree of freshness and poise to the resultant blends. For once, Pinot Meunier was the star of the show, auguring well for a more major role in a future of increasing warm and inclement weather.

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