When you take the train from Paris to the Rhône Valley, the region's great vineyards come into view just south of the provincial town of Vienne. To the right are the steep slopes of the famed Côte Rôtie vineyards, rising high above the river. Amid the vines are placards bearing the names of the proprietors in bold letters, prime among them, CHAPOUTIER. Farther south, another impossibly steep vineyard, Hermitage, looms. Its slopes, too, are dotted with signs, the majority of which similarly proclaim the presence of CHAPOUTIER. Chapoutier likewise seems to own much of the little Rhône town of Tain l'Hermitage--including the best hotel, Le Pavillon de l'Ermitage, and a handsome wine shop across the street from it, as well as several offices and a handful of winemaking cellars.
There are, of course, other big names in Tain--Jaboulet and Chave, to mention just two. But it is Chapoutier, specifically Michel Chapoutier, who owns 25 percent of the 320 acres of vines in Hermitage and who has, in a mere decade, managed to change the way Rhône wines are made.
Maison M. Chapoutier, founded in 1808, long had a reputation for honorable if somewhat rustic, rather lackluster wines. This even included its star bottlings, the Grandes Cuvées, blended from several of the best vintages. But since Max Chapoutier handed over control of the domaine in 1990 to his sons Michel and Marc (who recently left the business), then 25 and 26 respectively, Chapoutier wines have been nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, after my first taste of a Michel-era Hermitage at a restaurant in Rouen, I was determined to meet the man.