The Cooper Manning of Forgotten Grapes
Okay, there’s going to be a few split dichotomies in this particular post, because we’re going to be talking football (just tangentially, but even so) and we’re also going to be talking about Champagne. And as much as women love Champagne (probably just below diamonds, sales, and jeans that fit properly but above expensive name-brand handbags, high school bad boys with sports cars, and “Grey’s Anatomy”), they HATE talking about football (please, save the hate-mail, ladies who do love football; I know you’re out there but right now I’m all about making broad sweeping generalizations about your gender). So if you’re more of the bubbly type and less of the football type, let your eyes glaze over until you reach the “What It Looks Like...” section below. It and all subsequent sections, I can assure you, are 100% football-free.
For the rest of the you, please read on.
Now imagine for a second you’re the first son of a famed college and pro quarterback. 6-foot-4 and athletically talented, you’re expected to follow in your dad’s footsteps, except you’re so much faster that they put you at wide receiver, where you still make your all-state team. The future looks bright ahead of you: your dad’s alma mater is all set to offer you a scholarship, the NFL seems like a near-certainty, and then one day you wake up with strange numbness in your hands and feet. A trip to the doctor and a battery of tests later, and your dream of playing football any further has been laid to waste by spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of the spinal column. Since one good solid hit could damage your spine and render you paralyzed, no more football for you.
Fortunately, your kid brother – two years younger than you – shows the same physical goods that you had and does follow Dad’s footsteps as a quarterback. As does your baby brother, seven years your junior. So as the good brother, you play with them, help them develop their skills on and off the football field, coach them when you can, and give them your undying support. You sit in the stands rooting them on as they both head off to remarkable college careers on the gridiron (although neither would win either the Heisman trophy or a national championship – although in the irony of ironies, your middle brother’s alma mater would finish the season #1 the year after he graduates) and become #1 overall draft picks in the NFL. And then not one brother but both brothers manage to win Super Bowls in back-to-back years, propelling the family name into the pantheon of all-time great sporting families...
Except nobody ever seems to remember that you’re part of the family.
Kind of sad, isn’t it? Well, this is the story of Cooper Manning, son of college football legend Archie Manning and older brother of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. But at the same time, this story is surprisingly similar to the story of Pinot Meunier, the Forgotten Grape brother when it comes to the production of Champagne.
You see, there are three grapes legally allowed to produce the sparkling wine produced in the region just east of Paris known as Champagne. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, you should already know (and if you don’t, you’ve really stumbled onto the wrong kind of website for you). Those grapes even get their own designation when a Champagne is produced entirely from the particular varietal: Blanc de Blanc for Chardonnay and Blanc de Noir for Pinot Noir. But Pinot Meunier receives no designation, as there is no such thing as a 100% sparkling Pinot Meunier wine. In fact, it was only recently that Champagne producers even acknowledged the grape’s presence in Champagnes, and you will never see its name appear on a French label of bubbly. Instead, Pinot Meunier sits on the sidelines, rooting on its more famous brothers, offering support, body, richness, and brighter fruit flavors while letting the other two bask in the spotlight. Pinot Meunier has higher acid levels than Pinot Noir, which gives brightness and crispness to certain Champagne blends, but at the same time, the lower color and tannin levels of Pinot Meunier shorten the life of those same blends, forcing them to be drunk young rather than being able to age. It’s for these same reasons that you don’t often see Pinot Meunier produced in a red varietal form; if you can find it, it normally is only as a rose or lighter vin gris style of wine.
But a few producers out there – almost exclusively outside of France, in places like Germany, the U.S., and Australia – do produce red 100% varietal Pinot Meunier. Those wines may be tough to find because of their scarcity and the fact that most Pinot Meunier planted in those countries goes into sparkling wines, but they are worth seeking out, as they are usually light, crisp, highly drinkable red wines with a surprising level of complexity to them, wines that with a slight chill on them rival roses as the perfect quaff on a hot summer’s eve.
So once again, it’s time to answer the call. Help us get this Forgotten Grape off of the bench and back onto the playing field where it belongs. While its brothers have gotten their fair share of the fame, it’s time for people to start taking notice of Pinot Meunier and giving it the credit and respect that it so readily deserves. And that starts with you. Give me a M! Give me an E! Give me an U-N-I-E-R! What doesthat spell? Meuiner! Meunier! Meunier! Hooray!
How Do You Pronounce Pinot Meunier?
Pinot Meunier Looks Like:
As we mentioned above, the lack of color and tannin in the skins and seeds of Pinot Meunier affect the Champagne blends in which it is utilized, and it definitely affects the color of the varietal reds made with the grape. The wines will have a ruby to magenta color to them and some level of translucence, not so clear that you can see through them entirely, but definitely a palpable lucidity to them. But the brighter, lucid ruby color will remind some of a Beaujolais Nouveau or younger Beaujolais, or even some Pinot Noirs produced in a lighter style.
Pinot Meunier Smells Like:
Pinot Meuniers tend to have bouquets of cranberry and cherry to them and one other strong particular scent: smoke. This is a natural smoky scent too; although some varietal Pinot Meuniers can be fermented in oak and maybe spend a year or two tops in barrels, the grapes themselves have a natural smokiness that comes through in the wine. Also, because of Pinot Meunier’s genetic connection to Pinot Noir, you might get some similar Pinot Noir aroma notes on a Pinot Meunier (primarily those cherry and smoke scents, but also some meaty or brambly notes as well). Depending on the amount of oak, you might also get a hint of vanilla in the nose of the wine as well.
Pinot Meunier Tastes Like:
Lots of red fruits will dominate the palate of a Pinot Meunier, but depending on where the wine was produced and how long it has been aged, the red fruits might veer into a darker, riper category – still red but with a little more bitterness to them. That being said, in many cases, Pinot Meuniers provide very smooth berry flavors, like strawberries or raspberries in cream. Because of the higher acidity in the wine, Pinot Meuniers will be brighter and crisper red wines, sometimes with very tart cherry flavors. Depending on how much time it spent in barrel, you might also pick up the vanilla and smoke flavors detected on the nose. And finally, in some cases, there might also be a spicy hint of a black pepper-like zip to the wine on the aftertaste. Tannins will be low with these wines, but they generally should be crisp, bright, and full of strong red fruit flavors. In a word, delicious.
● France’s Champagne region
● Northern California, particularly Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma
● Some parts of Oregon
● Limited amounts in Australia
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
Amazing! Yes, you figured it out! That the Pinot in Pinot Meunier means it is actually related to Pinot Noir. Good job! Give yourself a gold star for that. Actually, Pinot Meunier is considered to be a mutation of the Pinot Noir vine that buds later and ripens earlier than Pinot Noir, making it a heartier and easier to cultivate grape. So that’s one half of it. But what about the Meunier? Well, Meunier is French for “miller” and the grapes and vines got that name because the underside of the vine’s leaves are coated in small, white hairs that make the foliage look like it’s been dusted with flour. Since millers are the folks responsible for grinding grain into flour, the vines became known as Meunier in France. They’re also known as Müllerrebe or Müller-Traube in Germany (it’s also called Schwarzrieling there as well), Dusty Miller in England (wasn’t he the catcher for the Cubs in the late 70’s/early 80’s?) , and Miller’s Burgundy in Australia (not to be confused with defunct West Coast western apparel store Miller’s Outpost). Interestingly, in Australia vine plantings of Pinot Meunier actually pre-date Pinot Noir plantings in the country. Meaning Meunier was there first.
Now because Pinot Meunier is a mutation of Pinot Noir, you can pair Meuniers with some of the classic French dishes you’d pair a Pinot Noir with, like duck breast. But for my palate, I think a Pinot Meunier makes an awesome wine to pair with barbecue, especially ribs. Because big meaty pork ribs have such a subtle flavor and so much fat to them, the acid and strong cherry and berry flavors are really going to enhance the ribs, especially if they’re slathered in a good tangy barbecue sauce with a good amount of molasses. The acids are really going to complement the sweet, hot, tangy flavor of the sauce but also nicely cut through the fat of the meat on the bone. Pork or beef, spareribs or baby back, it doesn’t matter. They will all go with this wine.
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