Champagne José Michel – champion of Pinot Meunier

José Michel is a small Champagne producer in Moussy, a village just south of Épernay, which is primarily noted for Pinot Meunier-dominated Champagne. Although around one third of the vineyards of Champagne are planted to Pinot Meunier (roughly the same proportion as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, respectively), these grapes primarily end up in non-vintage ”standard Champagnes”. Some houses use a smaller proportion (say, 10% or so) also in their vintage Champagnes, but few houses use Pinot Meunier for the prestige wines. This has given the grape variety a reputation for being ”simpler” than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, and something of a budget alternative to these mostly used by less exacting producers. That it is used at all, despite this reputation, is said to be because it is easier than Pinot Noir to cultivate in some less favoured locations, and because it provides a ”fruitiness” and makes Champagnes easier to drink when young.

Against this background it’s interesting to note that Krug – with its long-lived and noble Champagnes produced from base wines of a significant age – is actually a house that uses a significant proportion (around 15-25%) of Pinot Meunier. Thus, despite its reputation, there are signs that at least some proportion of correctly handled Pinot Meunier can defend its place in quite serious and high-end Champagne.

José Michel is far from alone in producing Champagnes dominated by Pinot Meunier or varietal Pinot Meunier Champagne, but unlike many others, this producer has them across its range and they enjoy quite a good reputation for their quality.

These tasting notes come from a visit to them in July, when most of their current range was tasted, plus a recent revisit to a single wine. The older notes were scribbled down under certain time pressure and without any other wines as reference.

Notes from July:

José Michel Brut Tradition NV
70% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay, base wine 2007
Powerful and slightly sweetish in the nose, rather good (but not that high) acidity on the palate. 86-87 p.

José Michel Brut Pinot Meunier NV
100% Pinot Meunier from 2005. Technically labelled as non-vintage, but seems always to be produced from a single vintage.
In the nose fruity, aromatic, flowery and perfumed. On the palate sweetish (at least for a Brut), full-bodied, and with moderate acidity. 88-89 p?

José Michel Extra Brut NV
70% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay, base wine from 2003, dosage 2 g/l (?)
In the nose slightly developed, dried fruit, apple. On the palate quite dry, fruity, medium acidity, fresh. 88-89 p? The significant difference from the regular Brut comes from the hot 2003 vintage and additional bottle age rather than from the lower dosage.

José Michel Brut Rosé NV
50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Pinot Noir – actually the only wine of the range with any Pinot Noir.
In the nose wild strawberries, fruity. On the palate again wild strawberries, good acidity, spicy, and with a sweetish impression. 86-87 p?

José Michel Brut Blanc de Blancs 2005
100% Chardonnay
In the nose citrus, discrete flowery notes, some peach and nutty notes. On the palate good acidity, less full-bodied than the Pinot Meunier-based wines, ends with a slight zesty bitterness. 88-89 p. Somewhat young at this stage.

José Michel Brut Blanc de Blancs 2000
100% Chardonnay
In the nose some development, citrus, some buttery notes, hazelnut and toasty notes. On the palate fruity with good acidity, a lot of citrus, medium body, good length. 90-91 p. Much more ready to drink than the 2005.

José Michel Brut Millesime 2002
70% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay – some of the Chardonnay base wine was oaked
In the nose clear herbal aromas, perfume, some oak, definitely elegant. On the palate good acidity, slightly more than medium-bodied. 90-91 p.

José Michel Brut Millesime 1999
70% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay
In the nose some dried fruit, some development, perfume notes. On the palate slightly more than medium-bodied, zest, red apples. Slightly lower acidity than the 2002. 90-91 p.

José Michel Spécial Club 2002
50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Chardonnay (some oak here as well)
Their leaflet specifies that the grapes come from a part of a vineyard of more than 70 years of age, another Internet source claims that it was planted in the year of our Lord 1927.
In the nose some perfume, elegant, citrus. On the palate aromatic and flowery citrus, good mousse, some red fruits, good length, some grapefruit bitterness. Still young. 91-93 p?

All the Pinot Meunier wines shared certain perfume notes with a sweet character to it. The ”fruitiness”, which I’ve seen as the common description of Pinot Meunier’s contribution to Champagne is not really what strikes me first in José Michel’s wines. I don’t really know if this is a universal character of Pinot Meunier-dominated wines, or just something obvious in good Meunier, or a house style of José Michel. However, I find it interesting that Krug’s Champagnes are typically described as perfumed. Could this perhaps be a contribution from their Pinot Meunier rather than something from, say, oaked Chardonnay?

Comparing wines with differing proportion of Pinot Meunier gives the impression that it yields wines that tends to low acidity. Judging from other producers’ Pinot Noir-dominated wines and from José Michel’s rosé, Pinot Meunier seems to be at more risk for low acidity than Pinot Noir.

Tasting note from a revisited wine, August 2010

José Michel Brut Millesime 1999
70% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay
In the nose slightly sweetish and somewhat perfumed, some candied yellow fruit, citrus, some biscuity notes and some herbal/green notes. The overall impression is of a perfumed mixture of very ripe and slightly underripe lemons. On the palate fruity with good body for a Champagne (possibly some barrel notes?), slightly perfumed in the attack, yellow apples, and a lot of lemon (zest and juice) in the aftertaste. 89 p? Less developed than expected, fascinating aromas, but different aromas than the ”classic” ones. Shows enough acidity to give a firm impression, but probably not to everyone’s taste and if it was served blind, not all guesses would end up in Champagne.

Generally speaking, I would recommend José Michel as a reliable producer – none of the wines underachieved at their level – which typically can be expected to be good value at retail prices (in particular vintage and Special Club) and is very good value if bought directly from the producer. However, it’s not a producer to buy ”blind” in great quantity unless you’re familiar with their house style and enjoy the aromas of Pinot Meunier-dominated Champagne.

I’ve also seen another Champagne from José Michel, Cuvée du Père Houdart Brut, a non-vintage Champagne priced above Special Club, but not featured in their price list or on their web site. Apparently, this is a non-vintage special cuvée from base wines from several vintages of significant age. I don’t know if this is a recurring prestige cuvée or the result of a one-off emptying of certain storage tanks. Since José Michel has a reputation for producing long-lived wines, the concept is interesting.

Finally some words about Spécial Club, which is the designation used for José Michel’s top wine. This is a designation shared by 25 small growers which are members of Club Trésors de Champagne, and which share bottle and label design. In principle, this should be the respective producers’ prestige Champagne, but they can differ a lot in style, composition and bottle age when sold. My impression of these producers is that they are all good and reliable, but without reaching the level of ’cult’ or ’prestige’ producers where even small growers can afford to imitate the pricing policy of the big houses. For example, Richard Juhlin rates many of them at three stars out of five in his guide. This means that Special Club Champagne almost always is a good value, and that good vintages bought directly from the producers is a real bargain compared to what the big houses charge. In summary, this is a quality level where it’s really worth to make a visit with the purpose of buying.

The Swedish version of this post can be found here.

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