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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Many Fingers, Many Pies

Michel Chapoutier's many projects offer a full day's worth of wines to taste, from Pierre-Henri Morel to Ferraton and beyond
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 18, 2013 4:20pm ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

Michel Chapoutier is as dynamic a vintner as there is today in the world of wine. In addition to his own M. Chapoutier winery in Hermitage, he's helped back other projects and started numerous joint ventures. I tasted through the full lineup of all Chapoutier's 2012 Rhônes, starting first with the wines from his director, Pierre-Henri Morel, his joint ventures and Ferraton, a winery he owns but allows to operate independently. My notes on the full lineup of M. Chapoutier wines will follow in my next blog.

Pierre-Henri Morel

This is the lineup from M. Chapoutier's general director. Quality has steadily improved since the debut 2008 vintage and the portfolio has grown as well. These wines are all Grenache-based bottlings, destemmed, and vinified and aged in cement vats. They're made from purchased fruit under long-term contract to ensure stability with the sourcing.

The 2012 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Signargues shows lovely raspberry confiture with hints of fruitcake and licorice followed by light charcoal hints on the finish. The 2012 Gigondas has a nice, lightly briary feel, with raspberry and blackberry fruit backed by a black tea note that wafts nicely through the finish. The 2012 Vacqueyras is a debut to the portfolio, made from an 80/20 Grenache and Mourvèdre blend. It's got solid flesh, with cherry and plum paste flavors backed by nice sinewy texture on the finish, where a buried sanguine note emerges slowly to leave a mouthwatering echo.

"I've been looking for a good Vacqueyras source since I started the project but it took a while. It's a single supplier, organically grown. Because the wine is a little big, we did put a portion in barrel unlike with the other wines which are always in cement," said Morel.

The 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is sourced from the Palastor, Bois du Dauphin and Cabrières lieux-dits, thus combining limestone and clay parcels. The result is a rich, densely fruited wine with layers of fig and blackberry backed nicely by a graphite edge and a long, lingering anise note. There's legit structure here too for cellaring. It's sibling is the 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Lieu-Dit Pignan, a single-parcel selection from sandy soils, which gives a different profile. It's very silky, with enticing raspberry fruit that glides along beautifully. Hints of anise and shiso leaf fill out the finish, which expands steadily with air. It's graceful but not short on depth at all and seems even bigger than the classic bottling.

***

The M. Chapoutier project in Seyssuel continues to improve steadily. The wines are not regularly in the U.S. market. If an importer is smart enough to grab them, they would retail in the $25 to $30 range, making them very attractive buys. They are distinctive, as the best wines from Seyssuel are.

The 2012 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes White Lucidus is all Viognier sourced from about 2 acres on schist, planted in 2007. It's very plump, with star fruit, pineapple and yellow apple fruit lined with hints of chamomile and butter almond for balance. The 2012 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Lucidus is all Syrah, from a 5-acre parcel planted in 2002. It's ripe in style, but stays racy overall, with a graphite underpinning to the delicious boysenberry and blackberry pâté de fruit flavors. The finish echoes with anise. Both wines are delicious, with a level of complexity above their projected price point.

***

Chapoutier continues his joint venture with Ann-Sophie Pic of the famed 3-star Michelin restaurant in Valence. The duo focused on St.-Péray exclusively until adding a Cornas this year. These are available in the U.S., but not nationally.

The 2012 St.-Péray is a deliciously pure, stony version with grapefruit zest, talc, melon rind and blanched almond notes backed by a star fruit note on the finish. The 2012 St.-Péray Lieu-Dit Payrolles is a single-parcel selection with 10-year-old vines planted on granite at 1,300 feet of elevation. It's plumper at the core, with lemon curd and pineapple notes before giving way to heather, lemon zest and honeysuckle. It's got lovely energy and length. The 2012 Cornas is sourced from organically grown grapes purchased from a prominent grower in the appellation. It's very vivid, with a distinct pastis edge, lively damson plum fruit and a brisk, very pure, iron-framed finish.

***

Another side project of Chapoutier's is a joint venture started in 2009 with  Yannick Alléno, a 2-star Michelin chef. The venture purchased two parcels, one each in St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. The project debuted with the 2011 vintage and production now stands at about 2,000 cases annually across the range. These wines are available in the U.S.

The 2012 St.-Joseph White Croix de Chabot is a Marsanne bottling that features a very stony frame, with grapefruit pulp, star fruit and heather flavors that pump nicely through the lively finish. The 2012 St.-Joseph White Couronne de Chabot is quite lush and plump, with pineapple, lemon chiffon and shortbread notes and a hint of toasted hazelnut on the finish. Nonetheless it stays lively, with a nice buried minerality that keeps it honest. The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage White Guer-Van is very fresh, with a floral frame and bright star fruit, yellow apple and melon flavors that play out nicely on the finish.

The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Guer-Van is a pure bitter cherry- and raspberry-filled wine, with a light floral frame and gentle hint of incense weaving through the finish. It's a much more elegant expression of Crozes which often relies more on up-front black fruit and licorice notes, not surprising as it's a granite soil-based parcel, atypical in Crozes. The 2012 St.-Joseph Croix de Chabot is a plump, black fruit-filled version, with plum and blackberry coulis flavors and a nicely polished, lightly toasted finish. The 2012 St.-Joseph Couronne de Chabot is sourced from a north-facing parcel above St.-Jean-de-Muzols, which results in a tight, leaner style, with racy chalk and graphite notes holding the core of plum, bitter cherry and plum fruit together, while letting a distinct sanguine note pierce the finish.

Ferraton Père & Fils

The M. Chapoutier-owned Ferraton winery continues to operate independently, but the improvement over the past half-dozen vintages here is very impressive. Damien Brisset has been in charge of vinifying the wines here since 2005.

"2012 was relatively cool to start, and then it was warm later at harvest, so the acidity is very nice. The whites have good freshness and acidity. The finishes are very persistent. For the reds the yields are a little lower, the tannins a little more severe, but there is good ripeness. In style, 2012 is like a little 2010, while 2011 is like a little 2009—in style," said Brisset. 

The 2012 Côtes du Rhône White Samorëns is a plump, friendly wine with lightly toasted hazelnut, pineapple and star fruit flavors. The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage White La Matinière is fresh and open, with apple, melon and green almond notes and a lightly toasted edge. The 2012 St.-Péray Le Mialan is ripe but pure with lemon pulp offsetting Cavaillon melon and heather notes. The finish is stony and delightful. The 2012 St.-Joseph White La Source is a bouncy, very fresh version, with honeysuckle, melon rind and star fruit flavors that bounce through the engaging finish. The 2012 Hermitage White Les Miaux has weight, but is very pure, with a hint of talc giving way to green almond, white peach and stone notes that rippple through a nicely unadorned finish. The 2012 Condrieu Les Mandouls has a bright, floral note out front, along with fennel, apricot and nectarine notes. The nectarine edge holds sway on the finish, keeping a nice sense of tension.

The white single-parcel selection lineup starts with the 2012 St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers. This Marsanne is lush, with green plum, salted butter, brioche and orange blossom notes all woven together and carrying through a long, creamy finish. The 2012 Ermitage White Le Reverdy is youthfully tight today, with intense salted butter and singed brioche notes holding sway, while the core of chamomile, Cavaillon melon, white peach and heather honey waits in reserve. There's nice power here and this should open nicely with mid-term cellaring of three to five years.

There are a few Southern Rhône reds in the portfolio here, starting with the 2012 Côtes du Rhône Samorëns. It offers a nice bolt of cherry pie with a hint of singed sandalwood on the finish. The 2012 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu adds extra dark cherry and plum notes with a hint of briar as well, lending it a more concentrated feel. The 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Parvis delivers a pure streak of raspberry and boysenberry fruit, staying nicely restrained in style, with hints of licorice root and pastis filling out the finish. There's nice grip too and it should cellar well for a few years before stretching out fully.

Back to the north, the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière shows a nice sandalwood and sanguine frame, which melds nicely with bitter cherry and damson plum notes. The finish has a lightly stony edge. The 2012 St.-Joseph La Source is light-bodied but very fresh and pure, with pretty violet, damson plum and anise notes. The finish has a hint of graphite for tension but it does seem a little shy on stuffing today.

Among the most improved wines here in recent vintages is the 2012 Côte-Rôtie L'Eglantine which  in this current vintage has nice range, showing bay, lavender and bitter cherry notes backed by a bright iron spine. It's a little lighter in body in 2012 than in previous vintages, but sill has precision and persistence. The 2012 Cornas Les Grands Mûriers is also a markedly improved wine in recent vintages. The latest version has nice energy, with briar and pastis notes working together well, along with bright blackberry and black currant fruit. There's a nice chalky spine buried on the finish, which still has some unwinding to do.

"Cornas is an appellation I know better and better each year," said Brisset. "We now pick parcels sometimes three weeks apart when in the past it was common to pick everything together. We've taken the Hermitage approach now in Cornas, because of the altitude difference affecting ripening from the bottom of the slope to the top."

The 2012 Hermitage Les Miaux has admirable depth, with a nice loamy edge running right from the start and well-embedded charcoal and cocoa powder notes stretching along with the dark currant and crushed plum fruit. There's serious grip and the wine is still very tight, but the stuffing is there and this could easily be as good as the '06 and '05 versions of this wine.

For the single-parcel red selections, the lineup starts with the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Lieu-Dit Les Pichères. Again it takes a more elegant approach, with a bright bitter cherry and violet start followed by racy iron, red currant and sanguine notes that really stretch out nicely through the finish. There's a lightly firm edge still to be absorbed but modest cellaring should tame that as the structure is ripe. The 2012 St.-Joseph Lieu-Dit Paradis is sourced from a parcel in Mauves at the top of the hill featuring loess soils similar to those in Chante-Alouette on the hill of Hermitage across the river. This mini-Hermitage, if you will, drives plum and cassis fruit along with very fine-grained tannins underneath, while a sanguine echo drifts through on the finish. In contrast, the 2012 St.-Joseph Lieu-Dit St.-Joseph is from the more common granite soils found in the middle slope, just above Tournon. It's a touch racier in feel, with a hint of briar flittering in the background while sappy plum and blackberry fruit plays out on the front end. The long pastis and apple wood-infused finish is mouthwatering.

The 2012 Côte-Rôtie Lieu-Dit Montmain is a single-parcel selection from just below Les Grandes Places. It is mouthwatering from the start, with lots of bay and tobacco notes, a hint of sweet tapenade and a solid core of crushed plum and black cherry fruit. This grip is nicely integrated on the finish and there's ample stuffing here to cellar this for several years.

The parcel selection Cornas bottlings have been among the most eye opening wines here in recent vintages and the 2012 Cornas Lieu-Dit Patou is no let down, offering very engaging pastis, plum coulis and raspberry notes lined with tobacco leaf and iron notes. There's lovely acidity stitching up the finish and this should cellar well. The 2012 Cornas Lieu-Dit Les Eygats is more structured, with charcoal, briar and tapenade notes emerging from the core of plum and blackberry paste. The briary edge really kicks in on the finish too, giving it a very energetic edge.

Like the full portfolio here, the 2012 Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil has quietly established a very solid track record. This version is sleek and polished, with lovely plum and blackberry fruit lined subtly with pastis and ganache notes. There's ample bass but freshness to match. The 2012 Ermitage Les Dionnières is very bass-reliant, with loam, licorice and blackberry paste flavors that pump along. The finish lets the loamy edge play out, with an echo of iron that should emerge more with time. Cellaring should be easy enough as the wine is loaded with grip. The 2012 Ermitage Le Méal isn't shy on grip either, but it's more briary in feel, with pastis, plum skin, blackberry paste and licorice snap notes that are still tumbling with each other. When they settle in this could flirt with the quality of the 2010 and '05 versions.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Eric Campos
Canada —  November 20, 2013 12:11am ET
James, when tasting at Chapoutier, do you have a chance to taste older whites? The main attraction tends to be tasting older reds, but some of these whites are pretty long lived, too. I'm particularly interested in some of his whites from 05-06, which seem to be real powerhouses, and which are starting to mature.

thanks!
James Molesworth
New York —  November 20, 2013 7:29am ET
Eric: Yes, sometimes I'm lucky enough to try the older wines, whites as well as reds. I prefer the '06s stylistically for their purity, as opposed to the more opulent '05s. Both vintages are excellent in terms of quality though, and both are drinking well now.

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