Stealthy Pinot Meunier
Did Pinot Meunier enter the witness protection program? While most famous for a major role in Champagne blending along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, when was the last time you drank a bottle of still red wine produced from Pinot Meunier after substantial skin contact? The variety has successfully avoided headlines while holding honors as the”most widely planted grape” in Champagne for a couple hundred years. Where is all the Pinot Meunier?
The Germans make a little bit of Schwarzriesling (Black Riesling?) from the grape, and some light styled rosés are produced in Austria, Loire Valley and Germany using Pinot Meunier. Duck Walk Vineyards in Long Island makes an unblended Pinot Meunier, River Road Winery makes one in the Russian River, Graziano makes another in California, and Vineland Estates produces it in Niagara, Canada. Most famously, California sparkling wine producer Domaine Chandon has been bottling it unblended since 1989. You would be hard pressed to find others.
Meunier translates to “Miller” in english, getting its name from the white-hued Dusty Miller plant because of the kindred white-down-fuzz on the backside of Meunier leaves. The variety offers farming advantages since its delayed budding sidesteps most chances for retarded development, or coloure. It also ripens quickly for early harvesting under more favorable weather conditions. Champagne makers look to Meunier for body enhancement or plushness. The wine is high in acid and light in color. Considering today’s consumer trend for drinking wines that lean into their acid profiles, why isn’t more Pinot Meunier bottled unblended as serious red wine?
The folks at Domaine Chandon, who grow it and bottle it blended and unblended in the cooler Carneros region of Napa, suggest it is a project only for the most adventurous winemakers. I’m not sure why. Nevertheless, I have had the chance to taste the $30 unblended Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier on release in many vintages. From my early days visiting Napa and stopping into Domaine Chandon for the most luxurious lunches, I have always been taken by the wine and felt it was a steal for the price.
Earlier this month at Troquet, we drank a bottle of Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier with 18 years of age to it. The 1995 version proved that while the grape is mostly turned into light rosés or blended into early drinking Champagnes, that it can age famously on its own. Actually, of the dozen old French and California wines we tasted from many venerable producers that evening, this wine turned my head more than any of the others for its grace, balance, liveliness and intriguing bouquet after long years in the bottle. The fruit flavors were a sweet kiss, the mouthfeel silky and round, its acidity vibrant. Most compelling, though, it smelled like great stinky Burgundy. Leather and smoke and great earthiness were dominant on the nose. I never wanted the bottle to end…that’s how good it was.
The wine sells for around $30 at Domaine Chandon. It appears to me now that I have missed out on a surprising opportunity to lay down a wonderful red wine that will improve immensely through bottle age. Who would have known considering the lack of global emphasis placed on making unblended Pinot Meunier? If you lay some bottles down now like I will, you just might also feel like you punctured the protective outer layers of a witness protection program ten years hence.