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Pinot Meunier is the forgotten stepchild of the great champagne varieties. Only the trend towards individual vintage and vintner champagnes has sparked new interest. But wine fans have to search long and hard to taste it. Matthias Stelzig met up with two Meunier enthusiasts.

Although Pinot Meunier is the tenth most cultivated variety in France, it is rarely mentioned by Champagne winemakers.

Doris Schneider, Julius Kühn Institute (JKI)

Éric Taillet says nothing at first. The glasses are poured. As soon as the first aromas from the tasting glass appear on the nose, the guests are full of praise. Everyone cheers about the velvety sensation on the tongue, the soft, creamy texture and the full body of the wine. With champagne, however, such reactions are the order of the day. But this time everything is different. Because the "Exclusiv'T" in your glass is a pure Pinot Meunier, produced in Taillet's vineyard in Baslieux-sous-Châtillon, north-west of Épernay. The base wines come from 45-year-old vines, were harvested in 2014 and cuvéed with a portion of reserve wines.

Exotic fruit flavours often dominate in Pinot Meunier, but not here. Mineral tones are clearly noticeable on the mid-palate, along with red berries and plenty of freshness. "That's the acidity," explains the winemaker. Pinot Meunier has plenty of it and also keeps the 2014 surprisingly fresh.

The variety is ancient. It was first mentioned in Champagne as early as 1500. At that time, however, nobody knew that it was a mutation of Pinot Noir. Resistant to winter frosts and many a disease, it sprouts late, ripens early and produces considerable yields. This made it the most widely planted variety in Champagne for a long time. Nevertheless, it has never managed to emerge from the shadow cast by the superstars Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Eric Taillet is one of the few winegrowers who produce champagne purely from Pinot Meunier. His vines are up to 45 years old.

Champagne Eric Taillet

Meunier champagne matures superbly

"I love Pinot Meunier," says Éric Taillet, "because it is a round wine, it has character and body." The varietal flavours of apricot, peach and citrus fruit are only a "superficial perception" for him. This champagne develops in the glass and is also excellent to drink with food," he enthuses. This love for the variety even led him to found the Meunier Institute with his friend Pierre-Yves Bournerias. "When I was studying, I was taught that Pinot Meunier makes simple, short wines with low ageing potential. I was surprised when I tasted Pinot Meuniers from the 1970s, 60s and 50s, which are still full of life."

The oenologist's experience can certainly be generalised. Until recently, when Champagne winemakers were asked what characterises Pinot Meunier in a cuvée, the answer was often simply "fresh fruit, body and richness". Something like that, but nothing more. Wine fans and journalists were unanimous: Pinot Meunier is not much good. Winemaker Taillet reports on the dominance of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the region: the universally praised minerality and brioche flavour of the Chardonnay, the structure and the magical wild berries in the Pinot Noir. This profile was popular for a long time. Sparkling wine producers in California, Australia or South Africa, who wanted to profit from the Champagne hype with their own wines, often left out the Meunier altogether.

Black Riesling = Pinot Meunier

However, when vintage and vintner champagnes became fashionable, individuality became the most important thing. So the red Schwarzriesling was rediscovered. Black Riesling? Many wine lovers who pour the light red from Württemberg are not aware of the synonym, nor that world-famous champagne is produced from the variety known only regionally under the name Pinot Meunier.

Today, although it is the tenth most cultivated variety in France, it almost never appears on the label. Among the big names, Krug is the exception with its Grande Cuvée. "Among the wines of 2006, the Pinot Meuniers particularly stand out," praises their cellar master Julie Cavil, "while the Chardonnays did not show their usual expressiveness." She even praises the "pleasant freshness" of the Grande Cuvée 1998.

"The soils of the Marne Valley are ideal for this variety," explains Éric Taillet. Unlike the Côte des Blancs, the home of Chardonnay, and the Montagne de Reims, which is considered the best terroir for Pinot Noir, the Marne Valley's soils of limestone, flint, marl and clay are covered with a layer of loam. "This is very good for the variety," Taillet discovered a long time ago. Likewise the lime. In addition, Pinot Meunier has little tendency to chlorosis, which often occurs on limestone soils. Many of the northern sites there are damp and so cold that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are not far behind.

The Pinot Meunier from Château de Marzilly grows in the northernmost region of Champagne.

M. Ullens, Château de Marzilly

The king of the harsh Champagne climate

Nevertheless, many winegrowers first had to rediscover the variety, along with its terroir. One of them is Maxime Ullens. In 2012, he began working as an architect to restore the 12th century Château de Marzilly, which had been falling into disrepair for decades. It includes a small vineyard and a grove in which a few ancient vines still clung to the trees. A few years later, Ullens became the owner of the château and graduated from the University of Avize with a degree in oenology.

To say that Maxime Ullens and his wife Anna left no stone unturned is absolutely true. Marzilly in Hermonville is the northernmost tip of Champagne. We stand on a mountain where the wind blows from two sides," explains Ullens, "Before climate change, it was quite rough here. Pinot Meunier was king, but more for red wine."

Winegrower's tale with 205 litre barrels

The Ullens combed through archives, old books, carried out soil analyses - and discovered that Pinot Meunier copes very well with this climate, "and the sandy soils are also right for the variety". They marked out sites, including the historic Clos de Marzilly as an emblematic single vineyard. The rest reads like a winemaker's fairy tale: The first newly founded winery in the region since 2000 does without machine labour. Instead, there is biodynamics and a horse in the Clos. There are also hives of black French bees and a few chickens of the historic Faverolles française breed, "to stimulate soil health," says Ullens.

The wine is matured in traditional 205-litre barrels, which had also almost disappeared because today's wine world has its barriques made in Bourgogne. The winemaker couple, on the other hand, work with a local tonnellerie. It processed the first oaks from their own forest for them.

The grapes are pressed, separated by vineyard, in an ancient basket press that first had to be restored using oak staves from the castle forest. "We don't do bâtonnage, but wait until the yeasts settle," reports Max Ullens. This is followed by long barrel ageing, "which allows the wines to digest the fresh wood", followed by bottle ageing, which is of course shaken by hand. No dosage, no sulphur, no filtering. "Sometimes we have a very fine deposit. We accept that," he says and smiles.

In LPM, the abbreviation for the former name "La petite montagne", there is no trace of the usual exotic fruit in Pinot Meunier. Instead, the light copper-coloured wine exudes a herbaceous spiciness, notes of baked apple and mint. "It's not easy to drink," says Ullens a little proudly. The Meunier acidity gives the wine a lot of tension, white pepper and other hot spices make themselves known. The fine perlage is the result of long ageing, and there is a salinity that is almost unsurprising. All in all, a champagne with considerable finesse and ever new layers of flavours. If only everything were as easy to drink as this LPM, which impressively demonstrates how much Pinot Meunier actually has to offer besides "fresh fruit, body and fullness".

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