Wine Column: New varieties add spice on North Fork

The photo of the little vine planted in a protective grow tube is pinot meunier.

In my last column, I wrote about Champagne vigneron Philippe Brun and his ironic take on being a “pirate” farmer. On a drive around his grand cru vine plots, Brun also instructed me in Champagne’s least-understood grape, pinot meunier.

Pinot meunier, a black grape with green pulp, is one of only three grape varieties (including pinot noir and chardonnay) permitted in Champagne’s wines. “Meunier” means “miller”; Brun described the downy new leaves of the variety as “farine” (wheat) because they appear to be dusted with flour. From that moment on, I could identify the vineyards planted in meunier as we drove past them; they looked distinctly whitish-green.

When I asked Brun what meunier does for champagne, he said, “It’s everything! We all talk about chardonnay and pinot noir because these are also grown in Burgundy [and all over the world]. But pinot meunier is the most characteristic grape of Champagne. In the 1800s, Champagne grew mostly meunier. It’s easy to grow, it gives immediate fruit, it’s round, it can age.”

Another Champagne vintner, Bertrand Lhopital of J. de Telmont, explained the importance of meunier, saying, “It is the garçon difficile [difficult boy] of Champagne, but we find it essential. It does diplomacy between chardonnay and pinot noir [in a blend]. Chardonnay can be shy; pinot noir is full-bodied, powerful, explosive.”

Champagne is at the farthest northern limits of viticulture, and pinot meunier makes up 40 percent of the region’s plantings, especially on the coldest slopes. Meunier bud break comes later (avoiding the risk of frost) than chardonnay or pinot, but it ripens earlier. It can also be found in Germany (usually known as schwarzriesling, müllerrebe and müller-traube). Other parts of the world that make sparkling wines in the Champagne style but don’t have the limiting climate conditions of northern France or Germany seldom bother with meunier, considering pinot noir and chardonnay to be more “noble” grapes.

On Long Island, where several wineries produce sparkling wines in the Champagne method (naturally fermented a second time in bottles), one producer, Pindar Vineyards, has pioneered pinot meunier, followed only this year by Sparkling Pointe’s new plantings. Pindar’s “Cuvée Rare 2009” is made from 100 percent pinot meunier. Any Champenois producer would be proud of this beautifully crafted, elegant and subtle wine. Owner Herodotus “Dan” Damianos made the decision to plant meunier in 1984, on the advice of wine guru Dimitri Tchelistcheff, who also recommended fermenting it in oak and bottling it as a single varietal. Rich Kundee, the California viticultural specialist who grafted the plants for Opus One, supplied the vines. The Damianos family’s second winery, Duck Walk, makes an unusual red wine from this grape, styled more like the German version, as a light, barbecue-friendly red.

It’s risky to plant less familiar (or less noble) grapes like pinot meunier in regions like ours, where agricultural costs are high and marketing is challenging. However, some wine consumers and sommeliers are bored with the ubiquitous chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and sauvignon varietal wines, and the door has been opened to those who dare innovate. Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue is the only Long Island grower of chenin blanc (and almost ripped it out years ago, to plant more merlot), but it has gained a cult following. I’m surprised that others have not planted it here, considering how lusciously fresh and juicy the Paumanok wine is.

At Palmer Vineyard, Spanish-born winemaker Miguel Martin has bet on albariño, the aromatic white grape of northern Spain’s Rias Baixas region, which has a maritime climate like Long Island. His first vintage, from 2010, has zingy minerality, attractive floral aromas and an intriguing point-counterpoint dynamic. Those who find sauvignon blanc too herbaceous, and chardonnay too chicken soupy, will adore this super-refreshing wine.

At Channing Daughters, the team of Larry Perrine and Christopher Tracy has proved to be compellingly innovative, going full tilt with some grape varieties like tocai friulano, muscat ottonel, dornfelder and blaufränkisch, found in no other commercial vineyards on Long Island, but common in northern Italy and Austria.

The Palmer and Channing teams owe their willingness to take extensive risks with unusual varieties to the experimental planting begun in 1993 on Cornell’s Riverhead research farm by grape specialist Alice Wise. Along with other vintners on Wise’s advisory board, Perrine has worked with Wise to choose the varieties most promising for Long Island. With close analysis of productivity, disease resistance and quality in 36 varieties, Wise’s studies have eliminated dolcetto and muscat blanc, while validating Palmer’s and Channing’s latest plantings. New varieties on trial are zweigelt, marquette, gruner veltliner, auxerrois and petit manseng.

Look out, chardonnay!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.