Thu 31 May 2012
Maison M. Chapoutier traces its roots to 1808, when Marius Chapoutier and his family moved to the Northern Rhône town of Tain l’Hermitage from the Ardeche mountains. In their new home, Marius broke into the wine business by acquiring an estate owned by Comte Monier de la Sizeranne, but the dedicated acquisition of vineyards didn’t actually begin until 1879 with Polydor Chapoutier. For much of the 20th Century, the domaine was run by the well-known, out-spoken and miniscule Max Chapoutier, though when he retired in 1977, quality went into decline. The revival occurred in 1990, when 26-year-old Michel Chapoutier took over operations, and in the process of building back the family’s reputation and in expanding throughout the Rhône — the company produces wine from every region of the long north-south-running valley — and into other areas of the South of France and to other countries made himself into one of the wine world’s most influential figures.
Chapoutier has been run on biodynamic principles since 1991. Use of new oak and small barrels is judicious. In a region where wines are frequently blends of several grape varieties, Chapoutier often holds to a single-variety philosophy; the two white wines under consideration today, for example, employ only marsanne grapes, with no roussanne, as might be typical, while Chapoutier’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape is all grenache. The other innovation for which the company is well-known is that since 1996 the labels for all Chapoutier wines include information in Braille.
You know how it is when you sniff and then take a sip of a wine and you don’t want the experience and the sensation ever to end? That’s how I felt with these Hermitage blanc wines from Chapoutier, which I tasted at “The Return to Terroir” event in New York at the end of February. I didn’t want that one-inch pour (if the pourer is generous); I wanted a full glass, the bottle, a table at a great restaurant overlooking Central Park or the Seine with LL and simple but extraordinary food and a chauffeur-driver Mercedes at my disposal, a brilliant night in which strange and wonderful constellations leaned out from their galactic watch-towers. In the circumstance, I had to content myself with what I was given, and believe me I harbored these pours as if they were liquid gold, of which, in fact, the wines reminded me. In whatever amount, these were magnificent, complete, confident, rare, expensive — and very different — wines.
Imported by Terlato Wines International, New York. Image of Michel Chapoutier from vitaminbwine.com.
Made completely from marsanne grapes, the M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, was made one-third in new oak casks and two-thirds in stainless steel, the understanding being that casks are generally larger than the standard barriques. This is a complex and many-layered wine, packed with detail in deep and broad dimension, exuberant without being flashy. Fairly amazing aromas jump from the glass in a welter of roasted lemons and peaches, buttered cinnamon toast and Bit o’ Honey, jasmine and honeysuckle, bees’-wax and hazelnuts. Plump and fleshy without being quite voluptuous, the wine is steadied by the implicit tact of taut acidity and buttressed by scintillating limestone-like minerality. To flavors of peaches and greengage plums add notes of quince, ginger and slightly bitter orange marmelade (without the latter’s sweetness, for the wine is boldly dry) and touches of dried thyme and cedar. The finish is long, racy, spicy, with hints of slate, lime peel and grapefruit rind. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. 350 six-pack cases imported. Exceptional. About $92.
M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, shares pedigree with its cousin of the Lark’s-Song yet feels very different. There’s more structure here, more reticence and a sense of rigorous elimination for the sake of purity and intensity, spareness and elegance. Also made completely from marsanne grapes, grown on vines 60 to 70 years old, the wine aged half in “big wooden barrels” (quoting the winery website) and half in cement vats for six months. The color is medium gold with faint green shadows; the bouquet features scents of verbena and lemongrass, some austere and slightly astringent little white flower, candle wax, roasted lemon and a back-note of sage, all tightly woven and subtly unfurling. The wine’s spicy element grows — cloves, sandalwood, allspice — as does its mineral qualities in the limestone-shale range, ensconced in a texture that’s dense, chewy and supple. Flavors of macerated quince, pears and peaches are full-blown and tasty, yet their ripeness is subdued by a savory quality and by the authority of brisk, bright acidity. The finish packs in limestone and slate to the point of crystalline austerity. 13.5 percent alcohol. 40 six-pack cases imported. This for the near future and the ages; best from 2014 or ’15 to 2028 or ’30. Exceptional. About $190.