When Michel Chapoutier assumed control of his family's Northern Rhône winery in 1990, it produced 550,000 bottles a year of traditional-style wines, and business was pretty good. "But Michel likes to change things," said senior editor James Molesworth. He updated the vinification and élevage, converted to biodynamic farming and began to bottle many vineyard parcels separately instead of making a single Hermitage blend.
Today, M. Chapoutier produces more than 500,000 cases a year, is the largest vineyard owner on the prestigious hill of Hermitage, and consistently makes outstanding and classic reds and whites. Along with owning two other independent Rhône domaines, Chapoutier, a father of two, makes wines in places such as Alsace, Australia, Languedoc-Roussillon and Portugal.
"He is one of the most energetic and dynamic vintners I have ever come across. … I have no idea how he does it all," said Molesworth. (Read "King of the Hill" for more.)
To help explain his single-vineyard philosophy, Chapoutier poured the rich, layered M. Chapoutier Ermitage White de l'Orée 2010 (97 points, $220), from a parcel of 100-year-old vines that yields 1 ton per acre. (Less than 200 cases are made and only about 30 imported into the United States.) It is made entirely from Marsanne, a grape that has low acidity but the ability to age for a long time, which he attributes to its element of bitterness, akin to tannins.
"When I bought the winery from my grandfather, I was young, a dreamer, not very reasonable," Chapoutier recounted. He didn't like the house style, which he felt was not respectful of the terroir. His idea was not to create the best wine possible but to capture the best picture of the site, regardless of the growing conditions each year.
"If we say this vintage is not good, it's a little like if when children are 8 years old, we decide their future professions—who will be president and who will work as a taxi driver," he said. "Plenty of people will not have their chance, so we have to give the chance to the terroir. … The idea is that year after year, vintage after vintage, the style—because of the climate—will be different, and we will be happy to have this difference of style. … We are not here to judge if a vintage is acceptable or not."
One of Chapoutier's best friends came to him in 1994 and asked if he still had any wines from his birth year, 1954. The vintage was deemed a poor one in the Rhône, but he found 600 bottles of '54 Châteauneuf-du-Pape in his cellar, which they hadn't been able to sell. The last time it was tasted was in 1964, and it was considered too old then. They opened it anyway. ("I don't care if it's not good because I was not the winemaker at the time.") And "the wine was amazing—we drank the 600 bottles in one year!"
Chapoutier, who loves to cook, concluded by stressing that "wine is to be married with food"—its expression is limited without it. "I really believe all winemakers should take some cooking courses."
"A bad marriage is when you have a dominant person with a subordinate person. I always try to explain that to my wife," he quipped, getting a big laugh from the crowd. A good marriage is complementary, relies on compromise, looks for length and complexity instead of power. "The food has to influence the personality of the wine, and the wine has to influence the personality of the food. They have to change to create a combined personality."
M. Chapoutier Ermitage White de l'Orée 2010 (97 points, $220)