As a passionate lover of Syrah, I have the deepest respect, and admiration for Michel Chapoutier. Ok you can even call me a groupie, cause often times winemaker are my rock stars, especially when they make incredible Syrahs. The opportunity to meet with Michel Chapoutier and drink his wines from the world-famous Hill of Hermitage in Northern Rhone was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Michel Chapoutier is jovial, fun-loving, and full of laughs. He is artistic in his expressions, not just of his wines but also of his philosophy. He is a master storyteller and master of a little hill called Hermitage.
Michel makes some of the most prestigious and sought after wines throughout the Rhone Valley, but it is his Hermitage wines that bring him the most acclaim and recognition. To drink Hermitage wines with the King of the Rhone Valley himself, was a rare, memorable and special afternoon of philosophy, food, fun and lots of laughter.
Michel Chapoutier – Background
Michel Chapoutier bought the family winery from his grandfather in 1990, when the family was in financial trouble. He immediately changed the winemaking practices of his family with the vision to produce wines of terroir. He converted the family vineyards to biodynamic, at a time when being biodynamic was not even in vogue. He did not like the style of wines his family was making, he wanted wines of terroir. Michel wanted to make single varietal wines that were a snapshot of the soil and the grape varietal.
Terroir – Defining the T-Word
Michel Chapoutier can be described in so many ways, many have said he is a trailblazer, that he is innovative, and that he is an extremely smart businessman. Michel is all those things, but what I came away with is quite simple, he is a passionate winemaker with a clear understanding of terroir.
The T-Word, is used over and over and over. For me, the word terroir has always seemed so illusive, and hard to fully understand the way the French comprehend it. Terroir is a term that I had just chalked up as hard to translate. It was not until I heard Michel Chapoutier explain terroir, that I really grasped the full understanding of its French definition.
Michel says, “Terroir is a merging of soils, climates and humans.” Soils are pedological and geological in nature. When referring to climate, microclimates of the region are important but so is the vintage. The vintage is an important part of the equation when discussing terroir. Lastly when we consider terroir, we are looking at human traditions talents, and expertise. The soils, climate, vintage and people give diversity to the definition of terroir.
Marriage of Wine and Food
As the conversations over lunch moved from biodynamic farming, to terroir, to wine and food pairings, we learned that Michel Chapoutier is an amazing chef. Being a food lover is a qualification he feels every winemaker should have. Like a good marriage the wine and food need to be in harmony. Neither the food, nor the wine should be dominant, more powerful or subordinate. “Wine should have flavor and texture, so as to complement the food. For a marriage to be successful, both the wine and the food need to be complementary to the other.”
The Hill of Hermitage
“Complex geology, gives complex wine”, says Michel. Some of the best wines in world are produced on this tiny Hill of Hermitage. There is great diversity of soil on Hermitage. Michel’s goal is to extract this diversity into his wines. The famous Hill of Hermitage is only 123 hectares of which 34 are owned by Chapoutier. He produces single varietal wines in this region, so that the wines can be a signature of the soil and the vineyards.
Hermitage is the only place in the world that has four distinct soils, from four different geological times; primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary. In Hermitage you have all geological eras in one small area, making the wines of Hermitage the greatest in the world.
In addition to the unique and diverse soils, Syrah was born in Hermitage, and it creates the best expression of this noble varietal. Hermitage wines are rich, concentrated, tannic wines that can evolve for decades. The true expressions of these wines come out when the wine has some age. As Michel will tell you, these wines evolve into soft, elegant, wines that can age for many decades to come.
Chapoutier Wines from Hermitage
M. Chapoutier La Combe Pilate IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2016 (SRP $38.99)
The symbol on this bottle is the alchemic symbol for the spirit of wine, representing Michel’s commitment to biodynamic wines, and making wines from single varietals that are the purest expressions of their terroir. La Combe Pilate is a 100% Viognier from hillside vines grown close to Michel’s home. The vines are grown high in altitude, which is great for Viognier. This wine is beautifully expressive on the nose and the palate. There are notes of orange blossom and peach on the front end, and expressions of flintly, stony minerality on the finish. Michel recommends pairing this wine with spicy Indian cuisine.
M. Chapoutier Hermitage Chante-Aloutte 2016 (SRP $110)
100% Marsanne from Hermitage, this wine is name after a tiny chapel at the highest point that was once home to hermits. The vineyards have a dense terroir with steep southerly facing terraces with unique microclimates that impart rich complexity in the wines. The Marsanne is hand-harvested from three different vineyards: Le Méal, has old fluvio-glacial alluvial deposit soil with numerous deposits; Les Murets with granitic soils and alluvial deposits again granitic, Chante-Alouette is set on loess soil with a fine layer of clay and limestone. The oldest vines date back to 1929. The wine is rich, powerful and bold.
I had the Chante-Aloutte with an exquisite preparation of Foie Gras. This is a rare wine as many Hermitages are a blend Marsanne and Roussanne. Michel decided to make this a single varietal as he feels the Roussanne ages the wine quicker. Michel believes this Marsanne can easily age for 100 years.
M. Chapoutier Hermitage Moneier de la Sizeranne 2012 (SRP $135)
100% Syrah. M. Chapoutier was the first winery to put Braille on a wine label. This symbol draws its origin from the Hermitage vineyard. Maurice Monier de la Sizeranne, former owner of the plot of the Hermitage, la Sizeranne, is also the inventor of Braille. A deep intense wine that is unfiltered and unfined is intense and harmonious. I have had this wine on several occasions prior but drinking this wine with Michel, hearing stories about the terroir, and pairing it with the finest french cuisine in NYC, was bar none. This is an incredibly special Syrah that stole my heart and my palate.
M. Chapoutier Ermitage Le Pavillon 2014 (SRP $320)
100% Syrah. This is quite an exceptional and rare wine. Only 600 cases produced. Made from 65-year-old vines on the granitic Les Bessards section of Hermitage. Full-bodied, concentrated, and balanced with notes of rocks, graphite, mint, mocha, sage and blackcurrant. The wine is a complex blend of power and finesse. WOW!!
Michel Chapoutier is known around the world as the King of Rhone, but behind this lofty title is a family man, that is intelligent, philosophical, funny, charming, and dedicated. He is a hardworking soul with determination and vision. He had the vision and courage to define terroir in his own philosophical way, and then to stay true to that vision, and make the best wines possible from the best possible vineyard sites from a little hill known as Hermitage.