Thursday, 20 October 2011

Champagne is too hot for Meunier? - a sceptical reply

My good friend Jean-Herve Chiquet of Jacquesson last month caused hearts to flutter at the CIVC, when in an interview on YouTube, he honestly expressed disappointment with the performance of Meunier compared with Pinot Noir in his vineyards in Dizy. His measured words, which were intended to apply strictly to his own locale, were blown up into a news-tease that generally asserted that Champagne is now too hot for Meunier - period. Worse, the cepage was dismissed as 'notorious' for its inability to age. Oh dear, categorical assertions about wine are usually misleading. So, as a antidote, I modestly suggest you read my piece 'A Fine Breed - the potential of Pinot Meunier' - published yesterday in The Drinks Business ( Issue 111) now transcripted in my blog post (October 19).

I don't doubt that Jean-Herve is right that Meunier doesn't work that well for him in Dizy - in such premier cru sites of this village, the best plots are reserved for Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay in the sunlit uplands, whereas Meunier is planted most often at the shady bottom of the slopes, where it acts as an assurance of decent yields because it is more resistant to spring frosts. And no one is denying that Meunier succumbed to terrible rot in the washout that crippled its vineyards in mid-august 2010. In 2011, too, there were problems for the variety, arising from a topsy turvy late summer of alternating heat and humidity, made worse by winds and storms. It is emphatically not just a question of heat.

Meunier actually thrives in hot, dry weather, particularly in the clay-rich soils of the reaches of the Marne Valley westwards from Damery towards Chateau Thierry. In the heatwave harvest of 2003, Meunier was the most successful of the three Champagne grape varieties; and it was highly successful in the super warm conditions of 2009, when there was not a drop of rain during the harvest.

After my piece went to press, I received a great email from Raphael Bereche, an outstanding young grower  and a very assured handler of Meunier. His honest account of the challenges in 2011, bears close reading. " "we have two vineyards of Meunier in very dfferent places. Ormes is in the most northern part of Champagne Here the soils are sandstone and hard limestone. In 2011, the Meunier was terrific, achieving good maturity in excess of 10 degrees. But in Mareuil le Port and Festigny, cool quite heavy soils and considerable humidity combined to make rot a constant danger, so it wasn't possible to achieve more than 9.5 degrees. Meunier needs a long slow maturing cycle - and that wasn't realistic in 2011, one of the earliest harvests on record."

It's all a matter of site and local conditions. I also heard that in the Meunier vineyards closest to Paris around Charly sur Marne, some beautiful wines were made this year in what are some of the least rated vineyards in Champagne. There's life in the old 'workhorse' grape yet !

Raphael Bereche

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