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In Praise of Outsiders

There's a romantic notion of winemakers rooted to ancestral terroir. Many of the best aren't

Posted: Aug 20, 2013 12:05pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

A few years ago, early 2010, I interviewed Sacha Lichine for a story about Americans making wine in Bordeaux. Lichine's father Alexis famously ushered in the golden age of Bordeaux-U.S. relations in the 1960s and '70s, building an import business that at one point moved a quarter of all French wine that landed in the United States. With other American investors, the elder Lichine purchased Margaux second-growth Château Lascombes and, as a home ranch, fourth-growth Le Prieuré, which he renamed Prieuré-Lichine. He was the first American vintner to have a significant presence in person in Bordeaux, and early on—before his talents paid their bills—his neighbors made it no secret they saw him as an outsider.

Sacha Lichine built his own export business in time and took over operations at Prieuré-Lichine in 1987. Having secured his family legacy and revenue, Lichine swerved hard, selling Prieuré in 1999 and eventually leaving the region. For Provence. To make rosé. This seemed completely counterintuitive to me at the time, a move from Manhattan to Staten Island for no reason. "A lot of people thought I was crazy to have sold the Prieuré. But my father had taken it to 90 percent of its potential. I don't think that we could do much better with the Prieuré than what we did," he explained via cell phone, driving south to Provence on a cloudless day. "I wanted to create something new of my own." He added, "The other thing is, it rains a lot in Bordeaux—much more than people think."

Fast-forward just three years from our 2010 chat: Provençal rosé grew to 2.5 million liters exported to the U.S. last year—from under 500,000 in 2006, Lichine's first vintage. A fifth of that volume is now pumping out of Lichine's Château d'Esclans, where he spared no expense in technology and talent, employing barrel regimens and bâtonnage as if he were making Meursault. Dry rosé came into its own as a serious category seemingly overnight; the recently released 2011 vintage of Esclans' flagship Garrus bottling scored 93 points, the highest rating Wine Spectator has ever awarded a still rosé. Few would call Lichine crazy now.

In Old World regions especially, we tend to think of estates as regencies to be passed down from generation to generation, the longer the pedigree, the stronger the bind to the terroir. A certain breed of purists sneers at "flying winemakers," spreading their seed in every corner of the wine world and leaving the next morning. What does Bordeaux's Michel Rolland know about Argentina, anyway?

The reality is that many of the most daring, and sometimes the greatest, wines today are made by individuals who come into a region as outsiders, with little incentive other than to innovate and little regard for the supposed limitations of the terroir and culture.

You could argue that at least one country, Argentina, owes its international fine wine scene to this spirit. The past thirty-odd years of winemaking there have been mongrel configurations of Argentinean, French, Italian and American ideas. Flying winemakers like Rolland and Paul Hobbs began exploring and consulting there in the '80s with forward-thinking Argentines like Nicolas Catena before setting up shop themselves (Rolland's Mariflor and Yacochuya; Hobbs' Viña Cobos). Many of Argentina's top producers, like Cobos, were envisioned by or rely on outsiders and their expertise: the French d'Aulan family at Alta Vista, Italians Noemi Cinzano at Bodega Noemia and Roberto Cipressi at Achával-Ferrer with his Argentine compadres.

I think the very best winemakers can become, let's say, restless in their own terroir. Michel Chapoutier has some of the world's finest plots of vine land on Hermitage hill. There's a challenge to maintaining the reputation of these wines, and Chapoutier could have remained a celebrated winemaker without ever leaving Tain, much as Justin Timberlake could have continued a perfectly respectable career with 'N Sync. But the adventure of making something relatively untested helped lead him to the Roussillon (and Portugal and Australia), helped lead German vintner Ernst Loosen to the largely untapped potential of Washington Riesling with Chateau Ste. Michelle and Champagne-born Christophe Baron to see that state's ability to channel the Rhône.

Those three projects—Bila-Haut, Eroica and Cayuse—are now undeniable hits. And that's why we should follow other men and women unsatisfied with their accomplishments, reaching for brass rings in unlikely places. It will be fascinating to watch Rhône vintner Louis Barruol of St.-Cosme aim for Finger Lakes Pinot Noir alongside some locals at Forge Cellars. Frédéric Engerer is bringing his touch (and a suitcase full of cash) from Bordeaux's Château Latour to the venerable but underperforming Château-Grillet Viognier monopole in the Rhône. Jorge Ordóñez has not only a dry white, but now also the first Garnacha, in the sweet wine backwater around Málaga in Spain. And then there's whatever the heck Hobbs, Rolland and similarly globetrotting Italian consultant Alberto Antonini are doing in Armenia.

What unites all these winemakers you might call "pluck." It's the character trait that gave a 19th century Hungarian nobleman/thrillseeker named Agoston Haraszthy the gall to think European varieties might thrive in Sonoma, of all places. So while we pay our respects to the stewards of tradition, let's also toast the pathbreakers of today, wherever they came from, wherever they're going.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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