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The Rhône, Day 10: Just One Visit

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 17, 2009 12:51pm ET

On my last day in the region, I scheduled just one visit—but I'm not slowing down. A visit with Michel Chapoutier takes a full day, as the portfolio of both the M. Chapoutier wines as well as the wines from Ferraton Père & Fils (which Chapoutier now owns outright) take a full day to work through. For background, you can reference previous Cellar Notes on 2003 and 2005 vintages of M. Chapoutier, as well as the 2005 vintage at Ferraton.

As usual, there’s always something going on here. Chapoutier has been making wine from a rented facility in the heart of Tain l’Hermitage for years now—but the team is racing to prepare to move into its own new winery facility, which can accommodate 10 million bottles of production annually, in time for the 2009 harvest. The new facility is located just north of town and can be seen from the autoroute.

Michel Chapoutier himself was off in Paris, arguing with a governmental agency that wants to outlaw free wine tastings—yet another anti-wine piece of legislation in the works for a country that has grown increasingly inhospitable to one of its greatest cultural traditions. With Chapoutier elsewhere, I tasted through the lineup of wines with technical director Gregory Viennois, 33, who has been at the company since 2004, and commercial director Pierre-Henri Morel, 31, who has been at the company since 2001.

The Ferraton Père & Fils lineup has quietly, steadily improved over the past few vintages as Chapoutier gained control of the winery. This is a source of some terrific value from normally high-priced appellations. The estate vineyards are farmed biodynamically, while some wines mix both estate and purchased fruit.

Starting with the whites, the all Marsanne Crozes-Hermitage White La Matinière 2007 is plump but pure, with delightful melon, citrus peel notes and a lush finish. The Ermitage White Le Reverdy 2007 is a blend of 50/50 Marsanne and Roussanne that shows more depth, with melon and creamed peach notes and a lush, lightly toasted finish. Other 2007 whites have already been reviewed, most in the Oct. 31, 2008, issue.

For the reds, the Côtes du Rhône Samorëns 2007 is still in vat, waiting to be bottled. It offers juicy mixed berry fruit with elegant toast and spice notes and a creamy finish. It has the fruit of the vintage, but stays fresh and restrained, and offers excellent value. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu 2007 is bottled and the blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault shows dark plum and black cherry fruit with a nice lacing of toast.

“It’s an easier style that Cairanne or Rasteau which have more garrigue flavor,” said Morel of the cuvée. “Plan de Dieu is darker, fresher fruit. We’re looking for a fruit style, as the Samorëns is already ‘traditional’ in style.”

The potentially outstanding Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Parvis 2007, made almost entirely from Grenache, is still in tank. It’s really juicy and velvety, with dark currant and fig notes that stay fresh and elegant. The long, minerally finish lets spice hints emerge and again it shows the depth of the fruit in the vintage without being bombastic. The Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière 2007 is bottled, showy a very stony profile, with notes of tobacco and braised fig backed by a tangy, sanguine finish. The wine is now a blend of 40 percent estate fruit with purchased fruit. The estate fruit is barrel aged; the purchased fruit in cement vat.

The St.-Joseph La Source 2007 (in tank) is from all purchased fruit sourced from vineyards in the southern half. It shows bright plum and violet notes with a sweet, toasty finish. The Cornas Les Grands Mûriers 2007 (the first vintage was 2006) is sourced from purchased fruit, including from the prime Les Eygats parcel. It offers the appellation’s textbook olive, currant and iron profile, with nicely integrated, briary tannins.

“We are not buying wine anymore in Cornas—only grapes,” said Morel. “We’ve added long-term contracts too—that’s one of the biggest changes we’ve made for Ferraton”.

The Côte-Rôtie L'Eglantine 2007 is admirably lush, with dark olive, mesquite and black tea notes weaving through blackberry fruit.

“Côte-Rôtie is the most demanded wine by the market,” said Morel with a bit of incredulity. “I still think Hermitage makes the better wines, but everyone seems to want Côte-Rôtie now.”

Continuing the portfolio of potentially outstanding wines is the Hermitage Les Miaux 2007. Production has dropped here as this is now only estate fruit, which is true for all the Hermitage cuvées now. It’s dark and loamy, but round and caressing in feel, with currant and braised fig notes. The Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil 2007 is bottled. It’s made in a bright, floral style, with a solid, minerally spine holding the red and black cherry fruit together. The finish is long and fresh.

The top two cuvées at the Ermitage Le Méal 2007, lush and captivating on the nose, with warm cocoa and plum sauce aromas giving way to a broad velvety palate with currant, fig and bittersweet ganache notes. Long, powerful finish. This continues to be one of the more overlooked Hermitage bottlings and flirts with classic quality. In contrast, the Ermitage Les Dionnières 2007 is more open and inviting, with plum and blackberry fruit laid over graphite and licorice notes. The round, briar-tinged finish has solid length—this at the upper range of outstanding.

For the M. Chapoutier lineup, all of the 2007 whites up to the Ermitage single-vineyard cuvées have been bottled.

It should be noted that any Chapoutier wines not taken by Chapoutier’s main U.S. importer are then contractually made available for any other importer to then pick up. Two of these wines are terrific values, starting with the Coteaux du Tricastin White La Ciboise 2007, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Viognier (for the first time in 2007). It’s very fresh, with tropical banana and melon notes backed by a hint of green fig and an open, easy finish. It’s a delightful quaffer offering very good quality and would retail for around $9 if it made its way to this market.

At M. Chapoutier, once you get in, you don't get out … not for a few hours anyway.
Topping that is the Viognier Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche Domaine des Granges de Mirabel 2007. The wine is sourced from a biodynamically farmed vineyard on schist and mica-schist soils similar to Condrieu. There are 10,000 cases of this plump, enticing star fruit, yellow apple and fennel-filled white that is backed by a round, mouthfilling texture. In the upper end of the very good range, and potentially retailing at about $12, this would be a dynamite summer back porch value.

There is a St.-Péray 2007 cuvée produced with an Anne-Sophie Pic & Michel Chapoutier label, as Chapoutier is friendly with the chef/owner of the Michelin three-starred restaurant in Valence. This Marsanne bottling is a barrel selection chosen by Denis Bertrand, the restaurant’s affable sommelier and his team. It’s very pure, with lovely citrus peel and honeysuckle notes backed by a mouthwatering finish. In contrast is the St.-Péray Le Tanneurs 2007, also Marsanne and vinified the same exact way, but with a slightly fatter feel, and a pleasant salted butter note framing the finish. Both are potentially outstanding.

The Hermitage White Chante-Alouette 2007 offers gorgeous mouthfeel and a lots of creamed melon, white peach and macadamia nut notes. The long finish of grilled nut and tropical fruit is offset nicely by a salted butter edge and once again this flirts with classic in quality—probably the best white wine value, dollar for dollar, in the entire portfolio.

All of the single-vineyard wines are now sealed with wax capsules since the 2006 vintage. In addition, Chapoutier has gone to a 25mm (rather than 24mm) wide cork to help further ensure the seal against oxidation, as the wines are meant for long-term aging.

The St.-Joseph White Les Granits 2007 is loaded with candied citrus peel, heather honey and melon rind notes enlivened by a long, bitter almond-tinged finish. It carries lots of power in reserve too and is easily the best white produced in the appellation.

The three Ermitage whites (Chapoutier uses the ancient spelling of the appellation, dropping the "H") were tasted alongside each other, and even the color is different for each, with the l’Ermite showing more brilliance, the Méal and de l’Orée showing slightly darker hued gold notes. The Ermitage White de l'Orée 2007 is very flashy, with creamed peach, nectarine, melon, lemon verbena and candied citrus peel notes backed by an intense and densely layered finish - it’s the most open and flattering of the three today. The Ermitage White Le Méal 2007 shows more bass than treble, with apricot, tangerine pulp, blanched almond and green fig notes on a muscular frame—it’s the most backward of the three today. The Ermitage White L'Ermite 2007 is all precision, with an intensely floral nose followed by racy citrus peel, honeysuckle, chamomile, salted butter and blanched almond notes laid over green fig and Jonagold apple flavors. The finish sails on, with incredible definition and length already. All three are potentially classic in quality, with the l’Ermite a half step ahead of its two sister cuvées.

The red portfolio is equally diverse, running up the quality/price scale as well. It starts with a Coteaux du Tricastin La Ciboise 2007 made from the typical southern Rhône blend of 80/20 Grenache and Syrah. It shows dark cherry and spice notes with a fresh, pebbly undertow. As with the Ciboise, the Côtes du Rhône Belleruche 2007 is matured in cement vats. The 70/30 Grenache and Syrah blend shows more weight, with fleshier plum and blackberry notes and well-integrated toast. This has become one of the best go-to values among the large volume Côtes du Rhône bottlings and could rival the super good ’04 version. The Coteaux du Tricastin Château des Estubiers 2007 is a 95/5 Syrah and Grenache blend, with one-quarter of the wine aged in demi-muid. It’s set to be bottled next week and is very enticing, with silky plum and boysenberry notes turning to a very racy iron note on the pastis-tinged finish.

”With the extra sun and heat in the south, some of the wines have higher alcohol, but the balance is good between the skin and pulp maturation and the aromas” said Viennois. “It’s dark in style, but with good precision. It’s more precise at this stage than ’05 and ’06 were at the same stage.”

But does that early definition mean the vintage might evolve a little faster than either of the two previous vintages?

“Perhaps. We’ll see,” said Viennois.

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau 2007 (80/20 Grenache and Syrah) is very stylish, relying more on its floral side than the light plum and vanilla notes and slightly firm, minerally finish. The Gigondas 2007 is also the typical 80/20 Grenache/Syrah blend. It’s very round and open, with cocoa, mesquite and hoisin sauce notes backed by a loamy edge on the finish. The St.-Joseph Deschants 2007 is taut and floral, with violet and incense notes leading the way, followed by a chalky spine that will need a little time to assimilate fully. The Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses 2007 is delightful, with vibrant plum and pastis hints followed by more typical iron, lavender and violet notes. The finish is long and tightly-grained. The Cornas Les Arènes 2007 combines fruit from the Les Eygats and St.-Pierre parcels to produce a briary, chalk and olive filled version with nice latent grip. It shows solid improvement over previous vintages of Chapoutier's Gigondas and is potentially outstanding.

Bouncing back to the southern Rhône, the three Châteauneuf-du-Pape cuvées are almost entirely Grenache (the Bernardine has a drop of Syrah). All are in their final blends and awaiting their mis. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2007 is very open, with lovely licorice and boysenberry notes that are fresh and stylish, with a long, silky finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Croix de Bois 2007 is loaded with pastis, spice, fruitcake and graphite notes all laid over a very silky frame. It’s darker and more up front than usual at this early stage as is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Barbe Rac 2007, which has delicious plum sauce, melted licorice, fruitcake and black tea notes flowing languidly over shiso leaf and mineral notes. The latter two wines have a track record for putting on weight as they age, as well, and show potentially classic quality now.

Swinging back again to the northern Rhône, the Hermitage La Sizeranne 2007 is set to be bottled in April. It’s very silky, a bit more than usual even, with plum sauce and graphite notes intermixed with floral and mineral notes. The long fig and spice filled finish is very graceful. The single vineyard wines are not yet bottled (that starts later this summer and into the fall). The lineup of parcel selection bottlings starts with the Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers 2007, which is really dark, with lots of blackberry and blueberry fruit laid over a mouthwatering graphite note. It gives Hermitage-like hints of spice and loam, though doesn’t have the length of its hill-born brothers.

As with the whites, typically the most overlooked wine here is the St.-Joseph Les Granits 2007, which has more in common with Hermitage than any Crozes does—it’s full of racy graphite, black tea, plum cake and cocoa notes wrapped around a dense core of plum and blackberry fruit. The appellation’s telltale iron-tinged finish completes the seduction. The Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée 2007 is surprisingly brutish for the vintage, with dark, almost chewy briar, blackberry and fig sauce notes pushed by sweet tapenade and charred wood hints. It’s long and dense on the finish and should flirt with classic quality.

The flagship Ermitage bottlings begin with the Ermitage Les Greffieux 2007, which was added as a single-vineyard wine starting with the 2001 vintage. It’s typically the most forward of the bunch, and sourced from 60-year-old vines at the top of the parcel (which extends down the hill, gaining more clay down at the bottom). It’s velvety and round, with lovely layers of blueberry and blackberry confiture laid over a long, loamy undertow. Typically a step up in power is the Ermitage Le Méal 2007, which is packed with warm fig, Turkish coffee, briar, currant and blackberry notes, followed by a long, cocoa-tinged, muscular finish that is rather tight today. From some 90-plus-year-old vines planted on granite and clay soils, the Ermitage Le Pavillon 2007 often delivers the most wild personality, with logan and mulberry notes, very briary tannins and a long fruitcake and spice filled finish. Sourced from the estate’s oldest vines at the very top of the hill and planted on pure granite soils comes the laserlike Ermitage L'Ermite 2007, which delivers a torrent of pure, unadorned, perfectly ripe blackberry, boysenberry and raspberry fruit flavors in a supertightly framed package, while blazing minerality extends the finish. It’s remarkably dense for the vintage as well, and should be among the top wines made in the Northern Rhône in 2007.

In addition, I also tasted through the wines made from recently purchased vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as yet unlabeled, but likely to bear the name of Pierre-Henri Morel. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2008 is made from a blend of parcels in the Palastor, Cabrières and Bois Dauphin lieux-dits and is made in the same manner as the Chapoutier wines (concrete vats only, no oak). It shows young, sappy kirsch fruit with a bright, violet finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Lieu Dit Pignan 2008, sourced from 50-year-old vines in the parcel made famous by Château Rayas, is richer and darker, but no less silky, with violet, plum and cassis notes that glide over a long, mineral-driven finish. Both are the debut vintages for this nascent estate, and offer potentially outstanding quality in this difficult vintage. There is also a Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône-Villages Signargues blend in the works as well.

Chapoutier also has 3 hectares of vines around Vienne, where a small group of vignerons is resurrecting the area (including Stéphane Ogier, Louis Chèze, Les Vins de Vienne and others). The Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Lucidus 2007 is 100 percent Syrah from vines planted in 2001 on south-facing schist soils, aged in 20 percent new oak barrels. In just its second vintage now, it’s very restrained in style, with floral and mesquite notes weaving through the silky blueberry fruit. The Chapoutier empire stretches into the Languedoc, as well as with joint ventures in both Portugal and Australia. Though I tasted the wines, I leave them for my colleagues Kim Marcus and Harvey Steiman to comment on, as they cover those regions.

Jeremy Sharib
San Francisco  —  March 17, 2009 5:24pm ET
Hi James. Great to meet you last night in SF and thanks for the taste of your new bottling! How can I get a hold of a few bottles to re-try after some maturation?

Good luck with the rest of the vintage! - Jeremy
James Molesworth
March 18, 2009 9:47am ET
Jeremy: Thanks for introducing yourself - always fun to meet a fellow wine lover.

Consider yourself one of a select few though...My wine will never be commercialized and there was just one barrel made. Those were the first bottles to ever be opened. You were in the right place at the right time!

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