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The Rise of Still Varietal Meunier

The Rise of Still Varietal Meunier

Why some producers are showcasing this Champagne blending grape’s potential as a standalone variety.

Photo Credit: Vivino

When William Allen, co-owner and winemaker at Two Shepherds Wine in Windsor, California, drinks Champagne, he’s looking past the Chardonnay- and Pinot Noir-dominated blends. “If I’m buying Champagne, I’m looking for, ideally, 100% Meunier.” And he’s not alone. Long considered a less-important blending grape in Champagne, Meunier-based bubbly is now getting its moment in the limelight. “Everybody I talk to in wine geek circles… Meunier is always the thing [people want]. I think that trend is definitely continuing,” says Allen.

But it would be wrong to assume that Meunier only has a place in the world of sparkling wine. Some producers are now turning to Meunier not for inclusion in their traditional method bubbly but instead as a grape that shines on its own as a still varietal wine. David Hulley, director of customer experience at Vineland Estates Winery, located in Niagara, says the winery began working with Meunier for its sparkling wines. “The grape did so well on our Bo•Teek Vineyard that we ‘experimented’ with a rosé and then a red version,” he says. “Both were very popular and very well received.”

Hulley says that Meunier isn’t more popular on a wide scale because “its ‘brother,’ Pinot Noir, draws in all the limelight.” Vineland Estates tried to work with Pinot Noir years ago, but they weren’t happy with the results. Instead, they turned to Meunier, which, he says, is similar to Pinot Noir albeit with a more “rustic” flavor. Meunier is more frost-resistant than the delicate Pinot Noir and performs well in Niagara’s cold climate, making it a more viable option for Vineland Estates than the grape’s more popular brother.

Bouchaine Vineyards, located in Carneros, is also growing Meunier in its cooler vineyards and bottling it as a still varietal wine. “Our Pinot Meunier was planted in a low part of the vineyard in 2003, as it’s an incredibly frost-tolerant variety,” says Chris Kajani, president and winemaker at Bouchaine. “Frost settles in low spots and would kill new shoots or buds of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. But Pinot Meunier rides through frost so much better, and we felt it was the perfect variety to plant in the swale.”

At a time when weather patterns are becoming less predictable, grape varieties that are better suited to extreme temperatures could provide some insurance for growers who want to ensure successful harvests even in less-than-ideal years. “It’s great to know that we have one variety that can handle a frost event with no issues,” says Kajani.

But Meunier is gaining relevance for reasons that stretch beyond practicality. For Allen and his co-owner and wife, Karen Daenen, whose customers are primarily millennials, novel grape varieties have an appeal specifically because they’re novel. Their customers, he says, “get a hell of a lot more jazzed about Pinot Meunier than Pinot Noir, especially if it’s done well.” At Bouchaine, Kajani enjoys introducing drinkers to a grape they may have never tasted outside of Champagne blends. “It’s rare to find bottlings of the variety these days, which makes it fun to share with guests who aren’t familiar with its distinctive bright yet savory flavors,” she says.

Like Pinot Noir, still varietal Meunier has incredible range depending where it’s grown, when it’s picked, and how it’s vinified. Kajani says Meunier and Pinot Noir share some characteristics, but the former often features more savory notes. “It has a similar body, acid, and tannin structure, but with a greater expression of spice, savory herbs, and intriguing mushroom and fresh tobacco notes,” she says.

At Two Shepherds, Allen and Daenen mainly focus on lighter styles of wine, opting for neutral barrels and minimal intervention.Their Meunier is no exception. “I found a lot of Pinot Noir producers were making the bigger style… [and] treating Pinot Meunier the same way, and I think it’s a variety that is more delicate and expressive and shows better with a lighter hand, so it’s perfectly suited for what we do.”

So, why aren’t you more likely to find bottles of still varietal Meunier at your neighborhood wine shop? Many producers say there’s just not enough of it to go around yet. “I think it has the potential if enough other people… can find Meunier,” says Allen. “That’s the chicken and the egg… If the younger millennial and Gen Z [audience] continues the path of liking lighter-style wines and unusual varieties, I think Meunier will eventually get its day in court. It’s just going to be a long, slow path because there’s not much Meunier out there.”

The wine world can be slow to change and hesitant to experiment with unconventional varieties. But as the climate becomes even more unpredictable—and younger drinkers continue to drive demand for more obscure selections—Meunier may have a chance to emerge as a more meaningful grape for still wine production. Until then, getting the chance to try a still varietal Meunier still feels like a treat for anyone curious about how the future may taste.