Michel Chapoutier, 40, has emerged as one of the Rhône's most dynamic leaders. Displeased with the route his father was taking, Michel purchased a majority of the family firm from his grandfather in 1990, and has since turned it into a perennially superb producer, with its own store in Tain.
Chapoutier's 2003 lineup is a wild ride, with both the reds and whites showing an uncommon depth of fruit. In some cases, his biodynamically farmed vineyards produced less than half a ton per acre. Despite this, the wines do not show excessive tannins or alcohol.
Despite Chapoutier's large portfolio (I tasted through nearly 50 wines), it was hard to find any cuvées in 2003 that were not potentially outstanding. The portfolio is divided into two levels: the regular wines, which are blends from various parcels, and the Sélection Parcellaires, or single-vineyard wines.
Among the regular cuvées, the St.-Joseph Deschants, Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses, Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers and Hermitage La Sizeranne all showed lush, creamy fruit, along with notes of violets, graphite, tobacco and minerals. Despite the modern approach to winemaking here (destemming, a long maceration and new oak barrels), the wines still show their terroir. "It's easy to make concentrated wines," Chapoutier says. "The real task is complexity and balance."
The 2003 Sélection Parcellaires are a big step up. The St.-Joseph Les Granits is a gorgeously stitched-together wine, with racy fruit and minerality. The Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée is loaded with dark chocolate notes but has a silky texture. Chapoutier's Ermitage wines, for which he is best known, are all very impressive: L'Ermite, Le Méal and Le Pavillon, as well as Les Gréffieux (a new bottling from plots at the bottom of the hill of Hermitage), are extremely dense wines, yet nearly effortless to drink thanks to their remarkable sense of balance. Le Méal checks in at more than 16 percent alcohol, yet doesn't show a blip of heat.
"This shows that vinegrowing is more important than winemaking," Chapoutier says about his 2003s. "This can't be done in the winery. You need a farming attitude, and I'm addicted to the expression of the soil."
To get a sense of what Chapoutier's 2003 whites are like, take your best white Burgundy experience, dial up the bass a bit and play it loud. The wines show all the dense, thick, exotic fruit flavors you'd expect from the heat of the vintage yet, like their red counterparts, still maintain a bracing minerality along with a firm, almost tannic spine.
"There is less acidity in 2003, yes," Chapoutier says. "But also more nervosité, as the lower yields bring greater minerality to the wines."
Though Chapoutier's 2002 wines (I reviewed the whites last summer) show the qualities of the vintage, they have a very good level of fruit and concentration. "I am very pleased with my 2002s," he says, and he should be. They are a testament to both the breed of their terroir and the tender loving care Chapoutier bestows on them.
|Jean-Louis Chave's 2003 red Hermitage is a case study in terroir.|
A suave intellectual with a blue-collar ethic, Chave, 36, rarely leaves his domaine to travel. He produces a little more than 3,000 cases annually of Hermitage, nearly two-thirds of which is red. All the parcels are vinified separately, with blending done only after a long elevage. "First you make the wine, then you worry about blending," Chave says.
Chave sees the 2003 vintage as an anomaly, one where "only a small percentage of wines will be fabulous." If so, then Chave is part of that small percentage. Tasting through the component parts of his 2003 red Hermitage--from the racy, crème de cassis-flavored Les Baum to the truffle- and leather-scented Ermite to the incredibly dense, structured Le Méal--is a case study in terroir. I wish I could taste this wine's evolution on a daily basis.
The '03 white Hermitage, produced from a field blend of old-vine Marsanne and Roussanne, is equally impressive. The Ermite parcel shows an oily, viscous quality, with notes of almond and fig, while the Les Rocoules portion shows a lacier structure, with more peach and mineral notes. Again it seems as if Chave will have an embarrassment of riches from which to make his final blend.
Chave's white Hermitage has a track record for aging (we sampled the 1991 and '88 as well). And interestingly, it receives no skin contact or batonnage (stirring of the lees)--the wine's richness is "purely natural," Chave says. "Today's wine science is all about acidity. In Hermitage, it's about everything but acidity," he adds. "[Here] alcohol and glycerin provide the structure; you just need to make sure the wine doesn't become too heavy."
Recently, Chave has been busy overseeing new plantings in St.-Joseph on some absurdly steep slopes. ("This isn't planting a vineyard," he says. "It's building a vineyard.") Married not long ago, he has also restored a house on top of the Hermitage hill, where he now lives.
He and his wife, Erin, have begun their own import company in the United States to handle their négociant wines, which Chave felt had become too expensive. "Côtes du Rhône should not be more than $20 a bottle," he says, with a twang of frustration.
The Jean-Louis Chave Séléction négociant line is made without any new oak, and the 2003 St.-Joseph and Côtes du Rhône reds tasted from tank showed ripe, dark berry flavors with plenty of game and mineral notes. If the Chaves succeed in their plan to lower the price point, these wines should be very solid values.
In 2002, Chave made a ruthless selection for the négociant wines, cutting production in half in an attempt to maintain quality. The 2002 St.-Joseph Offerus was just being bottling during my visit, and it showed taut structure, with dried cherry and lavender notes.
|Jean-Luc Colombo owns about 30 acres in Cornas, where he produces his well-known reds.|
Colombo owns nearly 30 acres of vineyards in Cornas, fragmented over 25 different parcels, and also purchases grapes from the appellation. However, his Cornas Les Méjeans is being phased out (the 2001 vintage was its last incarnation) in favor of the Cornas Terres Brûlées, which will now be his sole Cornas cuvée from purchased grapes. The 2003 Terres Brûlées shows lush raspberry fruit, with a hint of Cornas' telltale olive note. Production of the cuvée will be augmented starting in 2005 when Colombo begins leasing vineyards owned by Jean Lionnet, another Cornas producer.
Currently, the domaine produces around 75,000 cases annually, of which nearly 40 percent are earmarked for the United States.
Among Colombo's estate wines are two single-vineyard bottlings from Cornas, La Louvée and Les Ruchets. Both sites are located on the lower third of the Cornas hill, the difference being that Les Ruchets has an eastern exposure while La Louvée has a full southern exposure. The 2003 Les Ruchets shows black cherry, mineral and briar notes; it's not as round as the Terres Brûlées, but it does have more length. Both wines are topped, however, by the 2003 La Louvée, a powerful, rich wine with velvety tannins and a latent minerally finish.
Colombo's 2002 reds stand in marked contrast to his 2003s and 2001s; while they offer good to very good fruit, they show the rigid tannins and herbal profile of the difficult vintage.
Colombo, who lives on the hill of Cornas, has a great respect for the appellation's history, and he is helping to develop additional vineyards on its rugged hillsides. Nonetheless, his modernist approach to winemaking--primarily his use of new oak--irks some producers in Cornas. ("It's not real Cornas," said one vigneron.) But Colombo has been using "modern" techniques for his entire 22-year career, so doesn't that make him a traditionalist by now? No, his style is not at all like that of Verset or Clape, two acknowledged leaders in Cornas' traditionalist camp, but isn't that what makes for a good horse race?
|Yields at E. Guigal, including their La Turque vineyard, were extremely low in 2003.|
Of the 6 million bottles produced by E. Guigal annually, generic Côtes du Rhône red and white bottlings represent the majority, but its flagship wines are the high-end bottlings from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, particularly the single-vineyard trio known as the "La La" wines.
When faced with obvious greatness, it is daunting for a young critic to put it fully into context. The 2003 Côte-Rôtie cuvées of La Turque, La Mouline and La Landonne are a stunning lineup. What's amazing is that, despite being only one-third of the way through their elevage (they receive 42 months of barrel aging), they already exhibit considerable dimension and definition, along with their telltale personalities. La Mouline is a seamless, pure, crème de cassis beauty; La Turque is a forceful, raw expression of torréfaction and structure; and La Landonne is a streamlined, fine-grained, yet incredibly dark-fruited wine. All will likely flirt with perfection after bottling.
Yields at Guigal in 2003, as elsewhere in the Rhône, were extremely low, 40 percent to 60 percent less than normal. "2003 was an extreme vintage, one for the well-equipped," says Philippe, to whom Marcel has been shifting ownership of small portions of the company since he turned 18. "The fermentations were very fast, and control of the malolactic was critical because of volatile acidity levels. A young vigneron not prepared for this could lose his '03s."
The Guigals have a new wine as well, the Hermitage Ex Voto, which is produced only in top vintages from the domaine's own vineyards. The 2003--a blend of grapes from the Bessards, Greffieux, Murets and Ermite portions of the hill--is a very impressive young wine, with silky, dense crème de cassis and blackberry flavors. The Ex Voto will debut with the February release of the 2001 vintage, which shows roasted meat, tar and truffle nuances to go with its succulent black cherry fruit. The bottling was skipped in the difficult 2002 vintage, and those parcels of vines were used in the regular Hermitage cuvée instead.
|E. Guigal's new cuvée, Hermitage Ex Voto, will be released in February.|
While white wine accounts for less than 4 percent of the entire Rhône's production, Philippe says, it is 25 percent of Guigal's production--an endorsement for those who need prodding to try the region's whites. In 2003, the crop for the St.-Joseph Lieu Dit St.-Joseph was so small, it was vinified entirely in new oak casks, when only 50 percent new oak is the norm for this bottling. Produced from 50-year-old vines, the wine carries its 15 percent alcohol remarkably well, while offering a load of dried, tropical fruits. Guigal's 2003 Condrieus are ostentatious and powerful, a tribute to the heat of the vintage. I have already reviewed them from bottle; their reviews ran in the Dec. 15 issue of Wine Spectator Insider and will appear in Wine Spectator's Jan. 31 - Feb. 28, 2005, issue.
As for the 2002 vintage, Guigal's reds typically show the rigid, firm tannins of the vintage, with moderate to occasionally very good intensity of fruit. (I did not taste the '02 La La wines.) Philippe provides a frank and accurate assessment: "For 2002, I explain it this way: You drive two hours north to Beaune, and it's a great vintage. You drive two hours south to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it's the worst vintage ever. In Ampuis, we're right in the middle."
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