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harvey steiman at large

Chapoutier in Australia

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 25, 2007 8:44am ET

In the northern Rhône, some of the best-known wineries are right in town. In Burgundy and Bordeaux, even in the southern Rhône, most of the wines are made in village or rural settings. But in Tain-l'Hermitage, such famous names as Chave and Chapoutier built their wineries smack in the middle of houses and offices.

Thus it is only a mild surprise to find Chapoutier's Australian headquarters behind a brick façade and storefront window glass on the main street of Heathcote in central Victoria. Admittedly, Heathcote isn't that big. It's basically one long street, running about a kilometer or so, plus a few side streets.

But you don't see very many wineries in towns or cities in Australia. And if you do, they're in the suburbs, not on the main street.

Ron Laughton, proprietor of Jasper Hill winery in Heathcote, heard the building was for sale and snapped it up for his joint venture with Chapoutier, which has finally borne fruit. Chapoutier likes the building so much that he uses it to make all his Australian wines, which includes a partnership with the Terlato family of Chicago in vineyards located in Pyrenees (that's western Victoria, not the mountain range in Europe). Chapoutier also has his own vineyard in Mt. Benson, in the Limestone Coast of South Australia.

Michel Chapoutier is planning to build an apartment in the loft above the barrel room. He seems to like Australia. Benjamin Darnault, his French-born winemaker in Heathcote, says Chapoutier has a distinguished collection of aboriginal art in his French offices.

The Heathcote building actually dates from the late 19th century, but it had been modified and bastardized almost beyond recognition when Laughton found it. The best thing about it was that it had a commercial bakery built onto it, just about the right size for a winery.

Laughton and Chapoutier fitted it out with a row of concrete fermentation tanks, converted the storeroom to a barrel room and the storefront to an office and wine lab. It has garage-door access out the back to an alley, so the grape gondolas don't clutter up the main street.

It feels just like Tain. Amazing.

It was 10 years ago that Laughton told me, over a tasting in San Francisco, that he had just come from France and made the deal with Chapoutier. It has taken this long to get the Syrah cuttings, from Chapoutier's oldest vineyards in France, through the certification and propogation process. The first section was planted on own roots last year. The first wines are from Shiraz cuttings in Laughton's half of the vineyard, which is adjacent to Jasper Hill's Georgia's Paddock.

The first vintage of their wine, 2005, is about to be released in Australia under the name La Pleiade, which Chapoutier and Laughton chose because it's a constellation that can be seen from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Sean Thackrey, who makes a wine called Pleiades in California, objected to their using the moniker in the U.S., so the American bottling will be called Cambrien. It's the French word for the Cambrian soils that distinguish the best sites in Heathcote.

I tasted a preview bottle of the 2005 Cambrien with Darnault. It shows a crisp, minerally style that draws a vivid bead of raspberry and strawberry fruit, which lasts against tight tannins. The 2006, which was waiting in tank for bottling, shows darker fruit and feels more supple, more elegant.

The wines from Pyrenees and Robe are several steps ahead. I liked the 2004s from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, the Pyrenees vineyards, when I reviewed them last year. The Shiraz-Viognier (91, $19) made the Top 100 at #85. The ripe, complex 2005, tasted at the winery, seems like a worthy follow-up.

The higher-priced wine, called Lieu-Dits Malakoff, is more vivid, both in 2004 and the soon-to-be-released 2005. The 2006, tasted before bottling, seems more generous, with darker fruit. From what I tasted in Victoria, '06 looks like a banner year for the state, which did better in that vintage than South Australia did.

The Mt. Benson wine, called Domaine Tournon Australia, was actually the first one out, from the 2003 vintage. I have not seen the wines in the U.S., but the '03 tasted green, with more olive than fruit. The 2005, just bottled, tasted gamy at the winery, but riper and broader than the '03.

Chapoutier deliberately chose some of Australia's cooler regions to better emulate the weather conditions of Hermitage. The wines have the crisp tannins and bright fruit of a well-made Crozes-Hermitage, but not the depth you might expect from Hermitage itself.

Then again, who knows what might happen with the vines have a dozen years on them? For now, it's an exciting prospect that adds an extra frisson to what's happening in Australia.

Sandy Wasserman
scottsdale —  April 26, 2007 10:21am ET
I myself just returned from a similar trip this past week, sounds like we crossed paths at some places. I was very impressed w/ Jim Barry and Peter had our group in stiches from laughing so hard. Yalumba is a great stop w/ even greater people. Lunch in Heggies vineyard and visiting Pewsey Vale vineyards in Eden Valley was special. Stephen Henschke took time w/ us as he watched some matoro come in from vineyards. Overall a great place, I too wish I had another 3 weeks to spend visiting. It was then off to Sydney to play. What a great city. I could use more time there aswell.

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