As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, a visit to taste at M. Chapoutier requires most of a day, as covering two vintages of Chapoutier's enormous portfolio of wines, in this case 2009 and 2008, requires it. For background on the winemaking and house style for Chapoutier, reference my cellar notes from visits in January 2005, November 2007, July 2008 and March 2009. For an overall view of these vintages' characteristics, as well as links to my recent coverage of the region, check out Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines.
During a break for lunch after tasting the Ferraton Père & Fils wines, Michel Chapoutier and I discussed the approach of the modern day négociant. In the past, négociant simply meant someone who went around buying grapes or juice from various growers and relabeling it for sale under their own label. There were good négociants and bad ones of course, but the term eventually gained a connotation of indiscriminate blending and average quality control. It's a reputation that Chapoutier has long fought against as he has shifted the way the modern négociant does business.
"The key is to be a négoce that stands behind the growers you deal with," said Chapoutier. "You have to pay a higher price, but you control the quality. It would be easier to just buy via a broker. But who are the growers giving their wine to a broker to sell in the first place? They are the growers that don't want to hear about their wine anymore once it leaves their cellar. But by teaching, training and working with our growers in the vineyards and cellar, we can control the quality. Our only risk then is that they decide they can do it alone, and they leave. But I'd rather have that problem than bad quality."
I then toured the new winery facility with Pierre-Henri Morel, director at M. Chapoutier. I've seen a lot of wineries, and there's often little difference among them—tanks and barrels all tend to look the same. But the modern winery has become a model in efficiency and operations. Chapoutier has managed to institute impressive quality controls for their large-scaled bottlings while maintaining the precision needed to manage numerous small-production lots—it's both a large and small winery at the same time.
All production, from a few hundred cases of single-vineyard Hermitage to several million bottles of Côtes du Rhône, are now handled in the same facility. You can find 100,000-liter tanks and just a few steps away someone is hand dipping wax seals and wrapping the bottles in tissue paper. And Chapoutier has not spared any artistic sense either. The roof of the building is both aligned with and mimics the topography of the hill of Hermitage, just in the distance. As you pass by on the autoroute at night, it's an impressive looking facility. As with the new facilities at E. Guigal and Vidal-Fleury, these are marvels of modern winemaking that ultimately provide consumers with remarkable consistency and value at low and mid-price point wines, without sacrificing the artisanal efforts needed for limited-production wines. It's easy to say bigger is bad in the wine business, but that's simply not the case.
The afternoon tasting session consisted of the M. Chapoutier wines, always a large portfolio. This time, however, I focused solely on the Northern Rhône bottlings. Chapoutier does make numerous wines from the Southern Rhône, and Morel also has a new estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I'll focus on the Southern Rhône in my next visit to the region.
As at Ferraton, all Crozes-Hermitage whites here are 100 percent Marsanne. The stainless steel fermented and aged 2008 Crozes-Hermitage White Petite Ruche is bright and tangy, with lime, green apple and fig notes that stay bright through the finish. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White Petite Ruche keeps the same profile, but offers better integration and a longer, citrus peel-filled finish. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Meysonniers is sourced from just a 1.5-hectare parcel now producing only about 500 cases annually, so it is as hard to find as some of the white Hermitage bottlings from Chapoutier. It's ripe and defined, with apple peel, pear and fig notes and a long, very stony finish that's easily outstanding.
One of the best values here is the 2008 St.-Péray Les Tanneurs, a wine that has yet to catch on in the U.S. market. But if you like Rhône whites, or need a good introduction, this wine's peach, melon and almond profile with fresh, almost bracing minerality is a perfect way to go. The 2009 St.-Péray Les Tanneurs is a touch reduced, with a celery hint peeking in on the apple and citrus notes, but the texture is creamy and the length long, so élevage (the period between fermentation and bottling) should sort it out.
There are two dynamite values here that headscratchingly are not imported to the U.S. market. The 2009 Vin de Pays de la Drome Les Vignes de Pilate is a new addition, and will probably retail in the $15 range. The Viognier is sourced from alluvial soils, as opposed to the schist of Chapoutier's delicious Ardeche Viognier. Consequently, the Pilate is a more accessible, rounded, fruit-driven style with lots of plump melon, butter and dried pineapple notes. It's a great contrast to 2009 Viognier Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche Domaine des Granges de Mirabel, which shows more chalk, stone and apple peel notes along with almond and melon, proving that terroir isn't the exclusive domaine of small parcels in famous viticultural areas. Someone needs to go get these wines and bring them in to the U.S. market.
The 2008 Condrieu Invitare is deliciously plump, with anise, braised fennel, white beet and melon flavors that glide through the rich yet racy finish and is another outstanding example of how the difficult vintage favored the white wines. The 2009 Condrieu Invitare shows the lusher profile of 2009, with sweetened butter and creamed peach notes on a rounded frame, backed by hints of butter, almond and lots of quince and plantain notes.
The 2008 Hermitage White Chante-Alouette is a real rapier right now, with excellent cut thanks to blanched almond and peach pit notes that herald the ripe green and orange melon favors. The salted butter finish is a bit tight still but should open nicely in the short-term. It has excellent precision and length and is easily outstanding. In the rush for the single-vineyard bottlings, this wine is often overlooked, but it's a consistently superb wine. Similar in profile but with a step up in depth and length is the 2009 Hermitage White Chante-Alouette, which is still tight, but shows the layers of creamed peach, anise, yellow and green apple and fig that should blossom during its élevage. It should rival the 94-point '05 in terms of quality.
The 2009 St.-Joseph White Dechants shows a yeasty hint as it's still evolving, along with melon, anise and fennel notes. The 2008 St.-Joseph White Les Granits continues to act like a mini-Hermitage, thanks to its similar granite soils located across the river from the hill of Hermitage itself. It's rich and succulent with great drive and loads of Jonagold apple, Cavaillon melon, persimmon and fresh salted butter notes that extend through the superlong finish. It also has impressive weight for the vintage as well and could flirt with classic quality. The 2009 St.-Joseph White Les Granits shows hints of fresh yeast and jasmine along with tropical fruits and lots of stony undertow. It's youthfully raw, as most of the top '09 whites here are right now, a function of the cold winter, but it's got impressive weight and length and should develop into a potential classic.
"We're not concerned," said winemaker Gregory Viennois of the slow evolution of the '09 whites. "When the spring comes and things warm up a little, the wines will really fill out."
From the great hill, the white cuvées start with the meaty, mouthfilling, succulent 2008 Ermitage White de l'Orée, which has impressive muscle for the vintage and loads of apple, quince and melon flavors, liberally laced with paraffin and heather honey notes. A representative sample taking half from demi-muid (a 600-liter barrrel) and half from tank for the 2009 Ermitage White de l'Orée is superlong, though a yeasty edge lingers for now, with the pure yellow apple, quince and honeysuckle notes in reserve.
The 2008 Ermitage White Le Méal shows better mouthfeel right now—it's more supple and rounded than the de l'Orée—with lusher mango, dried pineapple and chamomile notes and ample weight. The 2009 Ermitage White Le Méal offers the most youthfully raw expression of all the '09s here, with rising dough, warm brioche, salted butter and green apple notes that are all vying for the upper hand right now.
The 2008 Ermitage White L'Ermite offers a stunning sense of purity and balance, with great cut and lush, racy chamomile, Clementine, green fig, pear peel and Jonagold apple notes that are seamless and nearly endless. It's clearly classic in quality. The 2009 Ermitage White L'Ermite has yet to finish its malo and has a touch of residual sugar still to digest. Nonetheless it's really flattering and pure already, with quince paste, chamomile, heather honey and dried papaya notes that glide through an almost endless finish, which should ultimately meld into one of the top white wines of the vintage.
"Since 2007, we're harvesting in tries (a sorting process involving multiple passes through the vineyard) for the single-vineyard selections to get not only the best, but most consistent maturity as well," said Viennois. "If you harvest a whole parcel at once, you get some grapes that are underripe and some that are overripe, and we're trying to avoid that. We might even be picking bunches from the same vine at different times."
Chapoutier is among the handful of vignerons who have helped to resurrect the vines around the town of Vienne. Since 2004 he has bottled his Syrah production from there. Aged all in oak (15 percent new), the 2008 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Lucidus shows gorgeous violet and lilac notes, with white pepper and high-toned plum flavors that glide over light, fine-grained tannins. There are 6,000 bottles of the 2009 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Lucidus which shows darker plum fruit but keeps the profile of violets, white pepper and high-toned aromatics. It's ripe, but piercing and aimed squarely at lovers of minerally Syrah.
The 2008 St.-Joseph Deschants is tightly wound, with a nice core of Damson plum laced with white pepper and violet notes. The finish is briary but not heavy at all. The 2009 St.-Joseph Deschants is very juicy, with lots of forward plum, fig and blackberry fruit that stays elegant on the briar-tinged finish.
The 2008 St.-Joseph Les Granits has admirable ripeness for the vintage, with crushed plum and macerated currant fruit and an almost velvety edge on the finish, no small feat in this year. The 2009 St.-Joseph Les Granits is very young, with primal raspberry and currant confiture notes that race along, while gorgeous anise and graphite notes lurk underneath. It's a stunner in the making that could top the '03/'05 combo which are the best vintages to date for this wine.
The 2008 Cornas Les Arènes is a rock-solid offering with tangy Damson plum, briar and olive notes laced with modest toast and grilled herb notes. The 2009 Cornas Les Arènes is really sappy and strong, with crushed fig and macerated currant notes layered with sweet tapenade and a great buried chalky spine. The Cornas bottlings at both Chapoutier and Ferraton are greatly improved in the past few vintages.
The 2008 Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses combines Côte Brune and Côte Blonde fruit, but contains no Viognier. It still manages to offer a nicely rounded feel in '08, with solid plum, black currant and truffle notes and a lightly firm finish. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses is a major step up though, with saturated plum sauce and melted licorice notes that extend through a focused, velvety finish; it's clearly outstanding. The 2008 Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée is very juicy, with a solid core of raspberry, blackberry and cherry notes laced with cherry pit, fruitcake and anise. It's not as dense as in top vintages, but is long and balanced without any hard edges. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée shows young, unevolved notes of warm bread dough, crème de cassis and roasted vanilla, along with a peachy note as well. It will need time to develop its dark, more iron- and olive-driven personality and should easily equal the '05/'06 duo when it does.
The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche is one of the winery's workhorse cuvées, with 30,000-plus cases made and sourced from purchased grapes (the vineyards are under long-term contract). The '09 shows a step up from recent vintages, with darker plum and anise fruit flavors and richer, velvety texture. The 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers pulls from 25 hectares of vines (unlike the minuscule white). It offers plump, friendly plum and raspberry notes backed by a lightly dusty, minerally finish, and it's much easier for consumers to find than the white. It's a more elegant expression of Crozes. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers shows great mouthfeel, with velvety but focused dark plum and black cherry fruit and a lingering licorice snap note.
The 2008 Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers is stylish for the vintage, with alluring black tea, incense and plum notes woven nicely, backed by a lightly dusty edge on the finish. The 2009 Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers had six weeks of maceration and then took one month to ferment, as the natural yeast build-up in the new winery was minimal and the wines moved along slowly (there is no commercial yeast used at chez Chapoutier). That longer, slower fermentation may have helped as it shows intense blackberry and boysenberry fruit, but well-harnessed by cocoa powder and dark coffee notes. It's very impressive.
The 2008 Hermitage Monier de la Sizerrane shows open, fresh mixed red and dark berry fruit, with briar, olive and Maduro tobacco notes that are well-knit, backed by a slightly chalky edge on the finish.
"Hermitage was colder through the season than Côte-Rôtie in 2008, but we didn't get all the rain they had throughout the year. Instead, we got ours right at the start of September. And it was a lot," said Viennois.
The 2009 Hermitage Monier de la Sizerrane is longer, richer and more powerful, with gorgeous velvety feel and alluring crushed plum, blackberry, graphite and tar notes that glide along supple tannins. It's as concentrated as the '05, but more elegant in structure and style.
The single-vineyard selections start with the 2008 Ermitage Les Greffieux, which shows its typical dark plum and currant profile, with broader cocoa powder-tinged tannins on the finish. The 2008 Ermitage Le Méal is inviting, with Damson plum, crushed currant and pomegranate aromas and flavors backed by nicely integrated grip. It's slightly dustier than usual on the finish, but has excellent length. The 2008 Ermitage Le Pavillon is its usually zesty self, though not as vivacious as top vintages, with its anise, boysenberry and briary profile muted just a touch by the dusty edge on the finish. Topping the group is the 2008 Ermitage L'Ermite, which shows brighter, more vivid loganberry, plum and pastis notes and a nice pepper- and violet-filled finish. It's delivering more aromatically than on the palate now, but it's still young and should develop nicely over a decade. Though the 2008s don't have quite the cut and vivacity of top years, they are all excellent efforts for the vintage and will probably land in the mid-outstanding range when finally released. At M. Chapoutier, there was never any thought as to declassifying the wines into a single cuvée.
"The single vineyards are not a marketing idea, but a picture of terroir. They are made in every year, no matter what Mother Nature gives us," said Morel.
The 2009 group is very, very impressive and in the early going looks to easily rival if not top the '05s here.
Starting again with the 2009 Ermitage Les Greffieux, the wine is already a laser of focus, with mouthwatering acidity carrying the dark currant, fig and boysenberry notes. The finish is loaded with gravelly grip, while a tarry edge lurks in reserve as well. It looks to be the best bottling yet of this wine, which debuted in 2001. The 2009 Ermitage Le Méal is loaded with wild loganberry, Linzer, black tea, spice cake and incense notes, backed by a great tarry undertow. It's ripe but zesty, with a mouthwatering edge as well and is clearly classic in quality. Even zestier though is the 2009 Ermitage Le Pavillon, which offers up a stunning range of red, black and blue fruits, along with anise-infused violet, plum sauce and fruitcake notes, all held in check by massive grip. It's early, but the 2009 Ermitage L'Ermite is flirting with a certain very lofty number that I've yet to ever give a wine. It's incredibly fresh at first sip, with bright acidity and floral notes, but that seems like almost a bluff, because there is so much concentration here, with layers of fig paste, plum sauce and dark Valrhona chocolate that soon take on a massive feel midpalate. Then the minerality kicks in—all graphite and super-fine-grained—it blazes through the finish, even at this young stage. It's as concentrated as the '03/'05 duo, though this time the structure is remarkably integrated already, so the question is, will it develop sooner, or is it so balanced, it will last even longer? It's too early in the élevage to make that call, but it's clearly an awesome wine in the making.
It's always a long day at M. Chapoutier. The tasting ends and it's nearly time for dinner. I'll stop in at Le Mangevins as usual—I have my eye on the lamb and roasted mushrooms—to recharge for another late night of writing. Tomorrow, stops at the Cave de Tain, as well as the two newest Jaboulets in town …
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Michael Kwok — Vancouver, BC — March 29, 2010 5:53pm ET
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