Born To Rhône
A lunch with dynamo winemaker Michel Chapoutier, the fastest-moving man in the Rhône valley.
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.
Built like a fireplug, Michel embodies everything meant by the word dynamo. He's fast; he's decisive; he wants everything, and if he doesn't get it, it won't be his fault. All of which makes him distinctly un-French. As an American expatriate living in France for the past decade, I've noticed that the very descriptives Americans prize most--a "self-starter" with a "can-do" attitude--are anathema to the French, whose response to a request of any kind is invariably "It is not possible." But you don't build empires with that attitude. And Michel Chapoutier is building a wine empire. Since he took control, the domaine has increased in size exponentially. Chapoutier is currently the only vintner to hold land in all the major Rhône appellations, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south. Michel has also acquired vineyard land in Banyuls, near the Spanish border, has started three joint ventures in Australia and is exploring the possibility of buying more land in Roussillon, as well as a vineyard in Lebanon. And, finally, there are his négociant wines (blended wines made under the Chapoutier label), which account for roughly 60 percent of the 3 million bottles sold every year by the firm.
But, most important, Chapoutier is making great wine. Critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has said Chapoutier's is the most significant jump in quality he has ever seen. To accomplish this, Michel significantly lowered his yields, replaced old chestnut casks with small oak barrels and converted the domaine's vineyards from chemical-reliant viticulture to biodynamics, an ultra-strict form of organic agriculture that follows the principles laid out by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924. His neighbors, Michel recalls, thought he was crazy when he started plowing the rows between his vines rather than using weed killers; now they're considering following suit.
Chapoutier has also done away with the domaine's Grandes Cuvées. "The idea of blending vintages always horrified me," he says, "because the personality of each vintage is unique. To mix different vintages is to assassinate the terroir and the vintage. I always work with the vintage. I don't try to correct it. I'm not looking to make the best wine. I'm looking to make the wine that is the most faithful to its terroir and to its vintage." In this vein, Chapoutier has introduced a line of single-parcel wines within each appellation. In Hermitage, for example, while he still produces three whites and four reds that use grapes from several parcels--starting with his basic white, Chante-Alouette (Marsanne) and red, La Sizeranne (Syrah)--he now follows up with a group of single-parcel cuvées: L'Orée and Le Méal, for the white Hermitage; Le Méal, Le Pavillon and the rare and exquisite L'Ermite, for the red.
During my visit, I tasted alongside Chapoutier's brilliant enologist Alberic Mazoyer, starting with the wines from the humbler appellations of Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. Both regions have a reputation for producing workhorse wines that are good values. But in Chapoutier's case, the wines were exceptional. The 1998 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc Les Meysonniers, a slightly creamy wine with an intriguing mineral core, was a serious white, and the 1996 Crozes-Hermitage Rouge Les Varonniers Vieilles Vignes was so rich and concentrated, it could have passed for another producer's top-of-the-line Hermitage. By the time we reached Chapoutier's best wines, from Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, my tasting notes read like a thesaurus of laudatory adjectives: The 1997 Hermitage Blanc de L'Orée was "so rich it seems moelleux [mellow], velvety, very mineral. Utterly gorgeous....Complex is an understatement."
"When I started, I wanted to make powerhouse wines," Michel said, joining Mazoyer and me for a glass. "But that's making noise, not music. Now my aim is to make elegant wines with long finishes." Our tasting concluded, Michel took me on a speedy trip around the property. We toured his office (a mini-museum of Aboriginal art, Chagalls, works by local artists, Balinese paintings and quite a few vintage armoires) then moved on to the barns, where he raises peacocks, sheep, llamas, geese and chickens. (Livestock is another of his passions; he's planning to raise cattle on a ranch in nearby Ardèche.) Michel handed me a lamb to admire before we drove to his house, where his wife, Corinne, a petite brunet who manages to be both firm and soft-spoken, was busy in the kitchen making lunch.
Three Chapoutier reds--the 1998 Belleruche, the 1997 Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers and the 1997 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine--accompanied the first two courses: tasty grilled tuna with cilantro, and fresh goat cheese beaten with herbs and served with boiled potatoes and bacon (an Ardéchois dish). A juicy roasted chicken from the farmyard, seasoned with cumin, followed. Michel pulled out his 1997 Hermitage Blanc Chante-Alouette to accompany it, saying, "with spices like cumin, you need a nonacidic white." Our next course featured marinated steak, paired with three star Chapoutier reds, all Hermitages, all sublime: the 1997 La Sizeranne, the 1996 L'Ermite and the 1989 Le Pavillon.
As we ate, Michel kept talking. He wants to put his research on the Internet. He wants to start a consulting firm--on winemaking and biodynamic viticulture--that will ultimately evolve into a school. He is thinking about acquiring vineyards in North Africa. I tell him of my enthusiasm for the Priorat wines of Spain. He asks, "Should I buy a vineyard there?" Several weeks later, his secretary calls to ask for the name of the region I'd mentioned: Michel was going to Spain to check it out.
Jacqueline Friedrich wrote about visiting strasbourg with André Ostertag, one of Alsace's top vintners, in the October 1999 issue of FOOD & WINE. She is the author of the award-winning book A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire (Henry Holt)