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On Pinot Meunier

I thought I’d write something a bit different for the latest post.

So far on this blog you’ve been mainly regaled with light hearted moaning and weather stats as I muddle my way through the early stages of developing a new vineyard.

And there continue to be things to moan about. My recent order of cattle tags for the row ends got muddled up so I have the wrong varieties on the wrong row numbers. The deer get in every time the electric fence collapses or stops working. The bottom of the field has become an ugly mass of mud, detritus and a green algae-stained caravan (sorry neighbours, it will all look much better in a few months I promise).

But how about I write a bit about grapes and wine for a change?

Just over 2,300 vines, or about 45% of our total plantings, are a grape variety called Pinot Meunier. The other two varieties at Little Bursted are Pinot Noir and Melon de Bourgogne. I don’t plan to write about Pinot Noir any time soon: it’s been written about to death for centuries. But I plan to cover the deliciously misnamed Melon B (it’s got nothing to do with melons and it isn’t planted in Burgundy) in a later post.

Pinot Meunier is one of the three principal champagne varieties. You can’t miss it there, particularly if you drive along the Marne Valley to the West of Epernay. The plants have a fuzzy white coating on them, a result of a mutation in the epidermal layer. Close up the experts will tell you the leaves look like they are covered in floury powder, hence the name Meunier meaning miller. Personally I’ve always thought it looks more like very thin cotton wool of the type you might stretch over your front garden fence on Halloween.

Either way, this gives Meunier vineyards an unmistakeable pale blue hue when seen from a distance. As easy to spot as Chardonnay and Pinot during autumn when their leaves go yellow and red respectively.

(*that's a library picture of the Marne Valley by the way, not Pett Bottom)

Is it “Pinot Meunier” or just “Meunier”? The Champenois seem to have taken to dropping the Pinot recently, for some reason best known to themselves. I’m not sure it matters, in Alsace they were calling Pinot Gris “Tokay” until quite recently. But scientifically the Pinot prefix makes sense: Pinot Meunier is a so-called chimeric clone of Pinot Noir, noir on the inside and meunier on the outside.

What does it taste like? I encourage you to try it for yourself because it’s a difficult one to describe. It’s also hard to find as a single varietal and still rarer as a still wine. A couple of English producers make still Meunier, probably the most easy to find being Simpsons “Derringstone Pinot Meunier” from just around the corner in Barham. Officially white but more gris/light rose to my eyes. There are some well-reviewed still reds, for example from Gusbourne or Hush Heath, which are so expensive I’ve not summoned up the courage to shell out yet. Then there are the sparkling Blanc de Meunier champagnes (and a few English versions) as well as some Meunier-dominant blends including the aristocratic Krug.

I’m not a wine writer so my description will be a little amateurish, but I find the smell and taste really quite bewitching. There’s a sort of family resemblance to Pinot Noir but it’s just much crunchier. They say red fruits – I’ve read pomegranate, strawberry or raspberry – and that’s true. They also say mushroom compost, boskiness, potting soil. There’s certainly something quite “other” in there. A bit like lighter Gamay, say a Macon Rouge? Yes a bit, but not the same. It’s very much its own thing.

Most of the time you’re not just tasting the pure varietal because there will be layers of yeasty autolysis underneath the fruit. The variety is known, I think a little over-simplistically, for ageing quickly and being good young. I think it's fairer to say Meunier-based sparkling wines get that biscuity autolytic quality early on (as to some extent do all blancs de noirs, more so than chardonnay) because there’s something in the base wine that brings out that flavour. What do you get when you combine tangy red fruit and bready lees? Fruit crumble. Yum.

So why did we choose to go big on Meunier in our two little fields? It wasn’t all about the taste.

One of the first reasons was practical: Meunier goes through budburst later than most, and ripens early. That makes it less susceptible to frost than say Chardonnay, and you’ll know from my other posts that frost is no stranger to the Pett Bottom valley. (So why on earth did I plant the early budding, notoriously frost-sensitive Melon B? Why indeed).

It is also supposedly a little less susceptible to powdery and downy mildew than other vinifera varieties. We’ll see about that. It certainly isn’t very drought resistant. The Meunier plants did worst of all my vines in the heat last summer, though that may simply be the 41b rootstocks. Here they are, looking rather feeble and a little hot and bothered last August.

Another reason is geographical and a little romantic. You know, terroir. I love the Marne Valley and I like that bluey shade of the vineyards on the steep slopes, but I also couldn’t help noticing the soils are similar to those in my vineyard: the chalk there is at least a metre down.

On top is a mixture of grey marls, superficial periglacial deposits and clay with flints (“silex”). We don’t have marl in Pett Bottom but we have plenty of the rest. Save the Chardonnay for those thin chalk-strewn alkaline soils above the frost line.

Finally, well I love an underdog. Everyone plants the 3 main varieties and most seem to have the Meunier as a minor player. It’s not uncommon to find it at 5 or 10% in a blend. Time for this more mysterious variety to get its time in the sun.

Search the internet and you’ll get the sense it’s becoming a bit trendy. Certainly many of the small growers in the Marne Valley are confidently pushing Blanc de Meunier. But the professionals tend to do that with underdog varieties or regions. To the wine drinker on the Clapham omnibus it’s still a case of “what?” Less well known than its siblings noir, gris/grigio or even blanc.

But Southern England seems an ideal place for it to thrive. The variety has all those cold climate advantages. It’s flexible and suits both early release and longer ageing. A number of English producers have already shown it can produce very high quality sparkling and still wines here. There is a visible genealogical link to that mysterious Wrotham Pinot plant that almost makes Meunier a Kent native.

And there’s a well-established pattern we could follow, of a new wine zone taking one of the less heralded varieties of a traditional French region and making it their own. Think Malbec in Argentina, Tannat in Uruguay, Chenin Blanc in South Africa or Semillon in Australia. Pinot Meunier could be England’s answer. My 2,300 vines aren’t going to achieve that but I like to think they can be a small part of the story.

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