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Day 7 in the Rhône, Part 2: M. Chapoutier

From Hermitage to St.-Joseph, Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, the domaine's most recent wines may be its best ever
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 2, 2011 3:00pm ET

This continues my notes on tastings and visits during Day 7 of my current trip through the Northern Rhône. After visiting Alain Voge, Pierre-Henri Morel and Ferraton Père & Fils, I headed to M. Chapoutier to taste the most recent vintages. Here are my notes.

M. Chapoutier

Michel Chapoutier continues to expand his lineup—he was away tending to his new vineyards in Portugal during my visit. He also has his first Alsatian wines set to be released, along with his continuing efforts in Australia and the Languedoc. For this tasting, I was joined by general director Pierre-Henri Morel (for notes on Morel's own wines, see the Day 7, Part 1 blog entry).

Chapoutier does produce some special-label wines in conjunction with chef/owner Anne-Sophie Pic of Maison Pic, the celebrated three-star restaurant in Valence and the wines are now coming to the U.S. market. The Pic & Chapoutier St.-Péray 2010 combines fruit from a parcel owned by the Pic family along with purchased fruit. It is a brisk, refreshing blanched almond- and honeysuckle-filled version while the Pic & Chapoutier St.-Péray Payrolles 2010 is a selection of old vines from the Pic-owned parcel and there was just a single demi-muid of 400 liters produced. It's significantly richer, with lush, flashy papaya, quince and creamed Jonagold apple notes and long finish that has enough buried minerality for balance. Chapoutier's own St.-Péray Les Tanneurs 2009 is a full-blown, ripe, enticing melon-, peach- and apricot-filled white with a nice coating of grilled hazelnut on the finish. The St.-Joseph White Deschants 2009 is also open and ready to drink, with plump candied grapefruit, peach and apricot notes and a light toasted note on the finish.

"We are buying more and more grapes, as opposed to wines, now that we have the new winery which gives us the space and facilities we needed to handle growth," said Morel. "So for the first time, the Deschants in '09 represents only grapes that we handled under contract, controlling the viticulture ourselves."

The Condrieu Invitare 2009 is also corpulent in feel, with mango, apricot and toasted almond notes and a long, lush finish.

"That is the general profile for the '09 whites. Opulent, fat, with the exception of a few great terroirs, where you still kept the minerality," said Morel.

The heart of the white lineup (which, save for the Condrieu are all Marsanne) starts with the Hermitage White Chante-Alouette 2009, which is very plump in this vintage, with a core of mango and quince and extra apricot and toast notes filling in on the finish. The St.-Joseph White Les Granits 2009 is always a terrific sleeper here, delivering a mini-Hermitage experience with its gorgeous Jonagold apple, macadamia nut and chamomile notes and long Cavaillon melon-filled finish.

The Ermitage White de l'Orée 2009 is quite flashy, with sweetened butter, toasted brioche, mango and creamed peach notes. It has the ripeness of the vintage, but it's balanced by its east-facing limestone soils that provided the freshness to keep it balanced. In contrast, the Ermitage White Le Méal 2009 is even more exotic, with its southern exposure basking a bit more in the sun, delivering crème fraîche, macadamia nut, persimmon, clementine and beeswax notes and a flash of bitter orange to keep the finish honest. The Ermitage White L'Ermite 2009 returns to east exposure and is sourced from the oldest vines at the top of the hill, so it combines the intense Jonagold, Cavaillon melon and quince fruit of the vintage, with a racier, salted butter- and quinine-filled finish that has the best cut and definition of the three single-parcel Ermitage whites.

Moving to the red 2009s, the Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche 2009 is the workhorse cuvée, with an average of 45,000 cases produced annually. Vinified only in concrete vats and bottled quickly the following spring, it's a fresh, sleek violet-, rose- and red cherry-filled wines with a precise, crunchy finish. The Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers 2009 (20,000 cases annually) comes mostly from the ripe, expressive Les Chassis plain, which displays itself in the sappy plum and red currant fruit core and long, juicy finish. It has weight, but stays open and easily approachable.

The St.-Joseph Deschants 2009 (28,000 cases produced annually) is very expressive, with bright anise and violet notes that stay perfumy and fresh through the Damson plum-filled finish.

The Cornas Les Arènes 2009 packs a punch, with dark, almost chewy briar, blackberry and currant paste notes laced with braised fig and melted licorice. The Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses 2009 is also nicely packed, with dark black Mission fig, warm currant confiture, Maduro tobacco and a long sweet tapenade-filled finish, which sports very juicy acidity for the vintage.

The Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne 2009 is really dense, with briar, pastis, fig paste and plum sauce notes and lots of Maduro tobacco. It's perhaps the most serious vintage ever for the wine and should age exceptionally well for 10 years or more. There are only 1,200 cases of the wine.

For the single-vineyard wines, the Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers 2009 is very flattering, with dense, velvety layers of crushed fig and boysenberry liberally laced with bittersweet cocoa and espresso, and a flicker of tobacco at the very end. The St.-Joseph Les Granits 2009 is one of the tighter '09s here, with brisk minerality overlaying the red currant and blackberry fruit. It's still quite primal, but very long. The Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée 2009 is also primal and packed, and mirrors the Les Bécasses with its dark, smoldering tobacco and fig notes, with extra depth and a sanguine streak moving through the finish. This will take a while to unwind fully.

Among the Hermitage parcel selections, the Ermitage Les Greffieux 2009 (which debuted in 2001) is always the fleshiest and most forward of the cuvées, with alluring loam, roasted fig, spicebread and dark licorice notes. It's rich, as usual, but it also shows more and more delineation with each passing vintage. The Ermitage Le Méal 2009 is expressive, with macerated red currant, Damson plum and anise notes and loads of sweet spice on the well-structured finish.

"2009 was warm, but the nights were cool, so that balanced. The real factor of the vintage was no rain for all of August, so ripeness came early by the beginning of September. And we wound up harvesting everything within two weeks, rather than over four weeks or more," said Morel.

So, when a harvest is compressed, time-wise, does the vintage character then trump terroir character, I asked?

"The short answer is 'yes.' But the better terroirs can cut through the power of a ripe vintage. Even though they are harvested closer together in '09, Méal was still harvested before Pavillon and Pavillon before l'Ermite, as always. The best terroirs still decide everything," said Morel.

The Ermitage Le Pavillon 2009 is much more polished than usual (I find it typically very briary) with gorgeous linzer and black currant paste aromas and flavors, and long, polished tannins coursing through the dense finish. The Ermitage L'Ermite 2009 is absolutely stunning, with the thickest layers of all the reds here, sporting blackberry, fig and crushed currant fruit, loads of graphite and roasted Maduro tobacco and a tarry, rather muscular edge on the finish that is less polished and refined than usual, with more overt power. It should cruise for two decades and be among the longest-lived wines of the vintage.

We then moved on to more 2010s.

"The challenge after 2009 was to see what came next. 2009 was a great vintage for sure, but we prefer the terroir expression of the '10s. It was a cooler year overall, so the Marsanne was really fresh. From the vintages that I know, the 2010 whites are clearly the best that we have done here," said Morel.

The Crozes-Hermitage Whites Petit Ruche 2010 is lovely, with a bright blanched almond note cutting through the plump pear and white peach flavors and adding length to the finish. The Crozes-Hermitage White Meysonniers 2010 is a long, graceful wine that lets its chamomile, creamed pear and heather notes play out beautifully through the suave finish.

The St.-Péray Les Tanneurs 2010 bursts with fresh pear, crème fraîche and heather notes, while staying tight and pure with a long, chalk-filled finish. It balances weight and purity wonderfully. An overlooked appellation in general, the wine should retail for under $25—which makes it a terrific value. The St.-Joseph White Deschants 2010 is tight, with peach pit, pear peel and honeysuckle notes that stay mouthwatering through the finish.

Additional values in the portfolio here include the Viognier Vin de France Les Vignes de Pilate 2010, a gorgeously frank, unadorned peach- and anise-filled wine with a flash of green plum. Equally refreshing is the Viognier Vin de Pays de Coteaux de l'Ardeche Domaine des Granges de Mirabel 2010, made from all estate grown, biodynamically farmed fruit on schist soils, delivering enticing fig, anise and tangy minerality. This packs an enormous amount of character in a modest package (generally under $20) and could flirt with some Condrieus in a blind tasting. Both are buy-by-the-case bottlings ideal for summer drinking.

The Condrieu Invitare 2010 is very promising, with gorgeous, intense pear eau de vie, yellow apple and melon notes that sail effortlessly despite their weight. It's easily fresher, purer and longer than the '09 version.

There's always something new at Chapoutier too—as if the portfolio weren't big enough. A single-vineyard selection St.-Péray Lieu-Dit Hongrie 2010 makes its debut. It delivers a richer expression of Marsanne, with dried mango, peach and persimmon notes and a long, brioche-filled finish that is almost outsized for the St.-Péray appellation. It's a hedonistic wine.

The Hermitage White Chante-Alouette 2010 is perhaps the best vintage yet, as it will certainly rival the classic-quality '06. It's loaded with ripe pear, melon and fig notes seamlessly melded together, while additional floral, sweetened butter and macadamia nut notes fill in the background and hang on the very lengthy finish. The St.-Joseph White Les Granits 2010 is equally stunning, with more precise pear, golden raisin, fig and yellow apple fruit and a seamless finish that just glides on and on. It too should rival the classic '06 vintage.

"The changes in the whites here over the recent vintages are when we do the sulphur addition, less new oak, only demi-muid now and a touch of CO2 right before bottling, which keeps them fresh. The whites don't really shut down the way they used to. We're seeing the whites stay open during their time in bottle now," said Morel.

The Ermitage White de l'Orée 2010 is a stunning display of harnessed power, with creamed Jonagold apple, heather honey and crème fraîche. The Ermitage White Le Méal 2010 is a stunning display of unbridled power, as the vineyard's typically ripe mango, persimmon, golden raisin, sweetened butter and creamed melon flavors are on full display, all tumbling over eachother on the finish. Topping them both is the sensational drive of the Ermitage White L'Ermite 2010, which is almost tannic in its cut, with bitter citrus oil, blanched almond and white peach notes backed by quinine, chamomile, creamed plantain and green fig notes. The tightest of the three white Ermitage bottlings, it should easily last for two decades and it's as close to perfection as a wine can probably get (I've still yet to find a perfect wine).

The Condrieu Coteau de Chery 2010 is another new addition to the lineup, as the team at Chapoutier feels the vineyard now merits a separate bottling (it had gone into the Condrieu Invitare previously). It's exuberant, with mouthfilling pear, quince and fig notes and a long, creamy, anise-tinged finish that displays both depth and elegance. It has less overt power and is backed by more minerality, with a hint of quinine, than most Condrieus.

Back to tasty values, the Côtes du Rhône Rosé Belleruche 2010 is a lovely pale salmon color, with a precise, stone and strawberry profile and admirable length. The Tavel 2010 is a ripe, juicy style, with darker mulled strawberry and watermelon flavors. Both wines are thoroughly delicious and well under $20 per bottle.

The first grouping of 2010 reds here displays the freshness and delineation of the vintage wonderfully—the fruit is dark and packed, the wines are easy to digest and not tiring at all to drink, with long, racy finishes. The Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche 2010 has lovely weight—dark and fleshy, but still graceful, with plum and mulled black cherry fruit laced with a chalky hint. The Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers 2010 is plump and forward, with dark cocoa, espresso and melted fig notes. The St.-Joseph Deschants 2010 marries the brisk, graphite-driven structure of the vintage with fresh plum and anise. The Cornas Les Arènes 2010 is packed, more so than the '09, with terrifically fresh briar, bay leaf, anise and tobacco notes that should unfurl nicely with mid-term cellaring of three to five years. The Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses 2010 delivers mouthfilling briar, melted licorice snap, crushed blueberry and dark tobacco notes, with a long, smoldering finish of graphite and ash, and it should rival the '05 for the best version of the wine so far.

"We moved from purchasing 4 tons [out of the total production] to purchasing 67 tons [out of the total production] of grapes in '09 for the Les Bécasses, which means more than 90 percent of the production we are now controlling the viticulture, rather than just buying juice," said Morel. "Côte-Rôtie and Cornas are the two appellations where we have the strongest control over the négoce wines we're making."

Starting with the vineyard-selection bottlings, production here is down an average of 30 percent in '10, according to Morel, as the vintage produced thick-skinned grapes with noticeably less juice than usual. The Hermitage Monier de la Sizerrane 2010 combines fruit from the bottom of Bessards, Méal and Greffieux and it too should rival the '05 for the best vintages I've tasted here, with dark, chewy, but defined tar, espresso, blackberry paste and graphite notes that pound out the finish with determination. The Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers 2010 shows a great, focused beam of blueberry, blackberry and plum fruit, with racy graphite and a long, spice-filled finish and it's easily the best vintage yet. The St.-Joseph Les Granits 2010 is potentially classic, and a step ahead of the '03/'05 vintages, with a torrent of cassis, plum and fig fruit and mouthwatering graphite that stretches out the very long finish. The Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée 2010 is the most densely layered, young version yet, with the authoritative structure of the '05 vintage married to fleshier blackberry, fig and boysenberry fruit and lush spice and tobacco notes.

The Ermitage Les Greffieux 2010 is gorgeous, with powerful dark fig, cocoa and boysenberry notes pushed by more espresso, anise and dark toast. The Ermitage Le Méal 2010 is vivacious, with mouthwatering acidity helping to support the dense layers of linzer, blackberry and anise. It's polished and very long, with loads of spicebox and dark tobacco notes too just starting to develop. There's serious grip, but it's deeply embedded in the fruit. The Ermitage Le Pavillon 2010 is again not as zesty in texture as usual, though it offers its distinctive loganberry, linzer and anise profile, with very long, dark cocoa powder-coated tannins. It shuts down faster on the finish now than the Méal, with more brute force yet to harmonize. The Ermitage L'Ermite 2010 is equally powerful, but much more refined, with the sleek graphite edge of the vintage jumping out from the start, while dense yet silky layers of black currant, fig, blackberry and crushed cherry meld together, all backed by gorgeous black tea and smoldering charcoal notes. All three are clearly potentially classic, with better freshness, persistence and definition than the extremely impressive 2009s.

More Southern Rhônes

Though the focus of the tasting was the Northern Rhônes, where M. Chapoutier is based, the estate does produce a range of both values and high-end Southern Rhône bottlings.

The new Marius brand is named for Michel Chapoutier's great-grandfather, who built the winery that housed Chapoutier's operations from 1929 through 2010. The Pays d'Oc White Marius 2010 is a blend of Terret and Vermentino, sourced primarily from the Gard despite the more generic Pays d'Oc appellation. Just released and available under screw cap, this $8 bottling offers crunchy lime, kiwi and citrus peel notes with a brisk, refreshing finish—ideal either after tasting several dozen Northern Rhône wines or just by itself on a back porch in summer.

The Lubéron White Ciboise 2010 is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Viognier, and it offers similarly crunchy kiwi and lime notes with an extra roundness on the finish and a flash of anise. At around $9 per bottle, it's another ideal summer value. The Côtes du Rhône White Bellruche 2010 is Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc, with a stony frame to the lime pulp and honeysuckle notes.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White La Bernardine 2009 is all Grenache Blanc, featuring plump hazelnut, white peach, heather honey and brioche notes and a corpulent finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape White La Bernardine 2010 shows more freshness and lift, with the honeysuckle and straw notes up front followed by citronella, heather and white peach flavors and a creamy finish.

The Pays d'Oc Marius Red 2010 is a 70/30 blend of Grenache and Syrah that delivers easy-drinking, friendly Grenache character of silky cherry fruit, spice and shiso leaf notes and a breezy finish, thanks to its light 13.5 percent alcohol. The Lubéron La Ciboise 2010 is an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah, with slightly firmer edges to the blacker cherry fruit backed by lightly toasted spice and is another deliciously uncomplicated, single-digit-priced value. The Côtes du Rhône Bellruche 2010 continues to be one of the most consistent Southern Rhône values, with a fresh, lively beam of red and black cherry fruit showing flickers of lavender and mineral on the pleasantly firm finish.

The Gigondas 2009 is a solid example of the appellation, with cushy structure and dark plum and fig fruit laced with black tea. The Gigondas 2010 is fresher in style, with fleshy plum and fig fruit once again, but more graphite on the finish as well as more length.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2009 is deliciously pure, with a lovely beam of linzer and blackberry fruit laced with sweet spice on the finish.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2010 is darker and more persistent though, with the linzer, fig bread, toasted spice and graphite notes showing extra richness and definition through the finish.

The parcel selection bottlings are represented by the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Croix de Bois 2009, a silky, very stylish rendering of Grenache thanks to its classic argilo-calcaire (clay/limestone) terroir, with perfumy raspberry and black tea notes and a long, shiso leaf-filled finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Croix de Bois 2010 is denser, with more Black Forest cake, fig bread and graphite and a long, dark, spice-filled finish that sports more obvious grip than the '09, easily rivaling the superb '04, '05 and '07 vintages.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Barbe Rac 2009 is also entirely Grenache and vinified in concrete as well, from the southwestern corner of the appellation. The wine is incredibly lush, with freshly crushed raspberry fruit, velvety mouthfeel and a long, enticing incense- and spice-filled finish. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Barbe Rac 2010 is a deceptively large-scaled wine in the making—it's silky and suave, but the linzer, cassis and black cherry fruit is very dense. The structure is fine-grained and supple, but very persistent. It sports the density of the '07 but the freshness of the '01 and is clearly a potential classic in the making.

As always, I give great kudos to the thoroughly professional staff at Chapoutier, which not only manages an immense portfolio of wines with great attention to detail and quality, but also spends an entire day pouring glasses and answering questions for me. It's always one of the most impressive and intensive tastings I do every year—always exhausting in its way, but always thrilling enough that I can't wait for the next one.

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