What is Pinot Meunier and what does it add to Champagne?
I got my first job as a wine director completely by accident. I had been working as a line cook in NYC and, while talented in some ways, at the end I just wasn’t cut out for it. So, I moved home and decided to go back to the front of house where I was much more comfortable. I took a job at, arguably, one of the best restaurants in town as a hostess. I was grossly over qualified, even at that point in my career but was glad to have some time to step back and do something easy for a change.
The plan was to stay below the radar, work my way up to server and just make some cash until I figured out my next move. That plan lasted about 3 months. There was a shift in management, someone ‘retired,’ and suddenly there was no one left to handle the fairly high profile wine list. Maybe it was because I had spent time in NYC or that I had a background in wine retail and had been in restaurants most of my life, some wonderful moron decided that I should be the person to take on that role.
Sure, I had years of experience selling wine and I still knew a fair amount even if that part of my brain was a touch rusty, but I had never been the one buying it before. What if I let my personal tastes dictate it too much? What if my taste was seen as tacky? What if no one wanted anything I put on the list? I was convinced that I was going to be publicly ridiculed, drug out into the street and taunted, tarred, and feathered…. I may have been a touch overly dramatic. But I jumped in, I held my breath, and prayed that I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself. I was given one rule: make it fun again. This of course wasn’t without some finer rules implied; hit the classics, throw in some new fun things, and keep it approachable.
How I met Pinot Meunier
After a month of holding my breath, afraid to do anything other than use the old inventory to fill in obvious holes I finally bought my first bottle for the list, a single varietal Pinot Meunier [pi.no mø.nje], out of California. It fit perfectly into the parameters I had been given. It was both classic and new, weird but approachable, and boy was it fun!
I will never forget that bottle. The 2015 Fable Pinot Meunier. It was so pretty! I cannot mean that enough. It was like that nice brunette girl you know who’s nice to all the outcasts at school and quite conservative in her appearance but smokes cigarettes behind the school when no one is looking. It was full of cranberry sauce, raspberry jam and just a little tickle of chocolate and baking spice. I was instantly in love.
What is Pinot Meunier like and how is it used?
You may be wondering, why would I think Pinot Meunier is a classic?
First of all, what is Pinot Meunier ? If you think back to your Champagne basics, Pinot Meunier is one of the two red grape varietals allowed in Champagne and contributes supple fruit and aromatics to the wine. It accounts for more than 30% of the vine plantings in Champagne (more than Chardonnay!) and is especially prevalent in the Marne. Vallée de la Marne is one of Champagne producing districts, there are 5 of them in total).
It breaks bud earlier than it’s friends Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which makes is significantly less likely to see damage from frost. In recent years winemakers in Champagne have started experimenting with giving Pinot Meunier more of a starring role.
Pinot Meunier outside of France
It’s fairly prevalent in Germany where it’s known as Schwarzriesling, Müllerrebe, or Müller-Traube. As mentioned before it buds early making it ideal for the cooler climates found here. While it’s most commonly used for still roses that are meant to be consumed young some producers are beginning to throw in a red from time to time.
Darting, in the Pfalz (also Germany), does a Pinot Meunier that is just glorious. I dare you not to love it. It’s supple, silky, full of macerated red berries, dried flowers, and just a touch of burnt Earth and potting soil. Wonder how to pair it with foods? Use Wine Picker, a wine app for Android and iOS that will help you to find the right food match for Pinot Meunier.
It’s still a bit of a rare bird outside of Champagne for sure, but I can’t say enough how worth the hunt it is. The Fable that I put on my wine list back in 2016 sold like hot cakes! Chances are, you’ll have to ask for it but, most shops these days are more than happy to special order a few bottles (and if they’re smart, for themselves as well). Happy hunting!