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Friday, June 27, 2008

Michel Chapoutier, Masterpiece Theater

As I try to assemble my tasting impressions from this domaine I can’t help but ask, what can be said of this brash, yet phenomenally talented man that already hasn’t been well documented? His name seems to be synonymous w/ controversy, yet the breadth and scope of his operation is undeniably impressive. From the Hermitage hill to the land down under, he’s left an enological mark that spans the globe.

While his namesake domaine takes a backseat to Guigal in Cote Rotie, traveling south to the village of Tain makes Chapoutier’s Hermitage presence palpable, as it seems omnipresent, always looming in the distance like a halo. While Chave and Jaboulet are legendary domaines of the appellation, whose powerful reds are etched in literature like a symphony of classical verses, the white wines of Chapoutier have played the tune that touches me most. Truth be told, I went to a hearty, red wine region in search of un joli vin blanc, and found more than I bargained for.

Walking through the immaculately groomed tasting facility was an experience all its own, proving to be as stark a contrast as any when compared to the dingy cellars of my beloved Chateauneuf du Pape producers. While viewing a polished, corporate video presentation was hardly the welcome I’d come to expect from my visits in the Rhone, the visual tour certainly made the domaine’s message as clear as a bell. The buzz words ‘eco-system balance’ and ‘soil oxygenation’ punctuated Michel’s fanatical biodynamic principles that he instituted after he joined the domaine in 1989 (Chapoutier became a certified biodynamic producer in 1999). From Michel’s perspective, the vineyards had been completely desiccated from the years of pesticide/herbicide/fungicide abuse and had to be restored to life. The use of chemical fertilizers were banished in favor of whey, cowpat and ester sprays, the soils treated with organic compost and vineyard replanting was done at higher-densities, forcing the vine’s roots to dig even deeper for nourishment. The radical ‘house-cleaning’ at the domaine also included a drastic reduction of eviscerating finings/filtrations, exclusive usage of wild yeasts, vigorous canopy management/crop thinning to reduce the yield, hand harvesting and separating each bottling into a particular terroir, as the varied geologies and exposures all produce distinct expressions. In my opinion, it’s important for younger producers to carve out unique parcels of land and experiment w/ multiple cuvees as it’s a natural learning process for the vintner. I also believe that these experiences w/ smaller segments of a greater terroir will eventually provide the vintner w/ the necessary tools to express their greater terroir in an even more profound fashion, much like a chef understanding what proportion to use each ingredient to master the main course. While this theory of ‘progression’ is a generalization of sorts, I do think it helps elucidate the proliferation of separate cuvees in regions like Chateauneuf du Pape, chock full of new domaines that are essentially learning their own lands.

The domaine’s ‘mono-cepage’ (or one grape, one terroir) concept extends across all appellations in the Rhone. Their Cote Rotie is void of Viognier, their Chateauneuf du Pape reds are pure Grenache and their whites from the north are all 100 percent Marsanne. The Hermitage-based whites are some of the most polarizing, unadulterated expressions of terroir that I’ve ever come into contact with. While the big-ticket whites are frightfully expensive, the Saint Joseph & Crozes-Hermitage cuvees can prove to be thrilling, thrifty introductions to what heights Marsanne can achieve from the granite based soils of the Northern Rhone.

Tasting notes to follow…


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