Great Vintages, Brilliant Wines at Beaujolais’ Ch Thivin

Ch Thivin's claude geoffray

Claude Geoffray of Ch Thivin in Burgundy’s Beaujolais

There’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past five vintages is the “greatest ever” in Beaujolais.

Vintage 2014 delivered classic, vibrant, elegant wines that capture the essence of Gamay’s juicy joy. Harvest 2015 added much deeper, riper fruit and more density than usual, but with no loss of energy or minerality. Vintage 2016 brought things back to a more elegant style while 2017 showed more flesh and breadth. And 2018 delivered flesh and body with no loss of vivacity and style.

What will broach no argument is that Ch Thivin made utterly brilliant wines in all five years, continuing to cement their place among the very best in all of Beaujolais – arguably, among the best in Burgundy as a whole.

From 1383 to Today
chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThe estate founded in 1383 and purchased by the Geoffray family in 1877. The chateau (yes, there really is one), winery and the estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly.

The volcano’s very steep slope – around 40 degrees in the heart of the vineyard – provides excellent drainage, fantastic exposure to the sun, and the platform for the Geoffray family’s modern gravity-flow winery.

Ch Thivin photo of vineyards.jpgThe estate’s best vineyards perch on the sides of an extinct volcano called Mont Brouilly. When others in Beaujolais chased quick and easy cash in the Beaujolais Nouveau boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the Geoffray family just kept on making fine wine. Vineyards are plowed to create healthier soils, no insecticides are used, and grapes are harvested and sorted by hands.

Whole bunches of ripe, juicy Gamay grapes roll by gravity into tanks where fermentation starts naturally with no additions of yeast or enzymes or anything else. After a day, rosé tanks are pressed gently and finish fermentation in stainless steel. Reds soak for a week or so before pressing and racking into large, old, wood casks and bottling six months later. And for these wines, that’s it.

A Kermit Lynch Discovery
Ch Thivin was long well-known as one of Beaujolais’s great estates within France, but pretty much unheard of in the US until the 1970s. That’s when importer Kermit Lynch first visited the Domaine and made it one his earliest imports to the USA. And his description of Ch Thivin today is still the best summing up we can offer. Thivin’s wines, he says, are:

“a country squire who is not afraid to get his boots muddy. Handsome, virile, earthy, and an aristocrat.” – Kermit Lynch

An American in Burgundy

An American in Burgundy

Mark O'Connell Clos de la Chapelle

Kansas native Mark O’Connell

If you haven’t heard of Burgundy’s Domaine Clos de la Chapelle before, it’s because:  a) it’s a new name for a very old estate; and b) there’s very little wine! But it’s a name you should get to know and come to rely on for top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at decidedly affordable prices.

Kansas native Mark O’Connell fell in love with Burgundy years ago and, in 2005, purchased a barrel of wine at the famed Hospices de Beaune auction. As part of the deal, Mark came to Burgundy to work harvest – something he continued doing through 2010.

From Working Harvest to Owning Vineyards
Then, as the 2010 harvest wrapped up, Pierre Meurgey, then president of Beaune négociant Champy, asked Mark if he’d be interested in helping Champy purchase some new vineyards. Working with lawyer Philippe Remoissenet, they bought the historic Louis Boillot estate and its 3.1 acres of vines in Volnay and Pommard. They renamed the domaine for its most famous vineyard, the Volnay monopole of Clos de la Chapelle, and made their first vintage from vine to bottle in 2011.

Mark is now the managing partner and, from vintage 2017, the winemaker as well. He’s added to the Domaine’s vineyards, growing to a total of 10 acres of vines in Pommard, Volnay, Beaune and on the Grand Cru hill of Corton. All of the holdings are 1er or Grand Cru designated, and Mark farms them all like Grand Crus, pruning tightly to limit yields, working organically (certified), and transitioning to biodynamics.

Organic, Biodynamic, Meticulous.
And the farming and winemaking are meticulous. All of his vineyards are organic and biodynamic, with three annual plowings replacing herbicides and simple applications of copper, sulfur, and biodynamic homeopathic sprays replacing all other chemicals. The vines are pruned to only four shoots to limit yields and the fruit is handpicked and carefully sorted before fermentation with native yeasts. The reds see a little whole cluster for added spice and structure, and all the wines age in 20-35% new French oak to round off and gain more depth.

Brand New Winery, Old-Fashioned Work
Clos de la ChapelleFor vintage 2017, Mark moved the Domaine into a brand new, squeaky-clean winery but continued working in his restrained, oldfashioned way. While many of Mark’s vineyards naturally give fairly ripe, rich wines, the estate’s goal is to “obtain the purest wines possible.” The grapes are all picked and sorted by hand to ensure only prime, perfect, fruit goes into fermenters. The reds see 10-20% whole clusters depending on the vintage, and both reds and whites ferment with native yeasts and age in a modest 10-25% new oak (a touch higher in 2017 due to the need to purchase new barrels for the inaugural vintage of the new winery).

Three Clos de la Chapelle BurgudiesSmall Quantities, Restrained Pricing.
While Mark certainly doesn’t want to lose money – something that’s been hard to avoid in recent short-crop vintages! – he’s certainly been much more restrained on pricing than most of his neighbors. And that’s especially impressive given the tiny production levels here – only 1,500 cases total and down to as little as 75-375 cases each of the wines we’re featuring.

In vintage 2017 – a year that gave vivid, pure whites and wide-open and easy to love reds – Mark’s approach delivered a captivating set of white and red Burgundies you are sure to love.

At our special sale, six-bottle, and mix/match case pricing, all of these Dom Clos de la Chapelle wines represent outstanding value. And while all will develop nicely in cellar, each wine is a delight to taste and drink today. As you’ll see when you come by to try them this Friday (3-7pm) and Saturday (noon-4pm)!

Climb the Hill for Delicious Burgundy Values

Really good, stylish, delicious red and white Burgundy values are still out there – but you have to be willing to explore a bit to find them. So drive the road from Chassagne-Montrachet past St Aubin and climb the hill to the Haute-Cotes village of La Rochepot. That’s where you’ll find Jerome and Elisabeth Billard, sometimes their son Louis, and some of the most compelling white and red Burgundy values we’ve tasted in years!

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On our visit in March, Doug got to meet Jerome and Elisabeth … and Rafael the horse, an important part of Dom Billard’s vineyard care!

Jerome took over the family estate 20 years ago, in 1999, and promptly stopped selling to the local co-op and began bottling wine himself. He quickly converted his vineyards to organic farming and, while raising three children, gradually acquired small vineyard plots in select sites across the Cotes de Beaune.

Today his children are mostly grown and one son, Louis, is a budding winegrower working in the cellars at Domaine Romanee-Conti (on his days off, he helps Jerome work the family’s vineyards and is learning how to use Rafael the horse to reduce the use of tractors within the vines).

Dom Billard signElisabeth and Jerome of BillardBut the winegrowing philosophy has remained constant.

Low-Impact, Meticulous Farming: All of Billard’s vineyards are farmed organically with no chemical insecticides, fertilizers or herbicides. In four vineyards, plowing and mowing are done by horse, rather than tractor, to limit soil compactions. The vines are tightly pruned to limit fruit set and bunches are dropped while green to keep yields low.

Focus on Freshness: Jerome loves ripe fruit – but not over-ripe fruit. He picks each site to achieve fine balance of fruit flavors and acidity and then full destems and sorts grape by grape to ensure that only perfect berries make it into the wine.

Gently, Gently: Chardonnay is pressed slow and gently to extract pure juice with no bitterness from the skins or seeds. Pinot Noir goes into the fermenters as whole berries, and then are trod by foot to release the juice and extract color and structure with soft, supple, tannins. As much as possible, the young wine moves through the winery via gravity or air pressure to minimize harsh pumping.

Judicious Oak: Great Burgundy needs time in barrel and the finest, most concentrated, wines need at least a little new oak to achieve balance, finesse and complexity. But Jerome knows that too much wood flavor means that the unique signature of site and vintage can easily be overwhelmed. The whites all ferment and age in barrel, while the reds all see barrel for aging. But the quality of barrel is very high, the toast levels low, and the percentage of new oak kept down so each wine’s character and fruit can shine through.

Generosity, Drinkability, and Unmistakably Burgundy
In the open, attractive, delicious vintage 2017, this gave Billard a set of wines that have a lovely sense of generosity and drinkability but that remain unmistakably “Burgundy.” And in 2018, when ripeness levels are higher, his restraint produced cuvees of outstanding depth with no loss of finesse and freshness.

Folks, these are seriously good Burgundies that you don’t have to be “serious” to enjoy. Highly recommended. Get ’em.

The 2016 Guillon Burgudies: Intense Wines from Intense Men

Jean Michel and Alexis GuillonBy this point, most of you know that Jean-Michel Guillon and his son, Alexis, are the hardest working, most talented, and least compromising winegrowers in all of Burgundy.

Now more than 30 years since he stepped off a train in Burgundy with no vines and no winemaking experience, Jean-Michel and his son Alexis work the vineyards themselves (especially in August, when other winemakers take vacation just as the vines reach their most critical stage). They demand nothing less that perfectly ripe fruit, which allows them to make long, slow, intense fermentations running 3-5 weeks – extracting tons of flavor and only the most suave, ripe tannins.

Then they age their wines in the finest French oak money can buy. After Domaine Romanee-Conti and the Hospices de Beaune, Jean-Michel and Alexis are the single biggest buyers of new French oak in Burgundy ever year. Where growers who pick less ripe fruit and extract less during fermentation can find new oak overwhelm their wines, Guillon’s juice is so intense and deep that it needs the softening only new oak can give and absorbs the woody flavors with ease.

It seems to me that sometime around vintage 2011 or 2012, Jean-Michel and Alexis found the perfect match of forest, cooper, and toast level for each vineyard and cuvee they make. And vintage 2016 shows them at the height of their powers. I’ve already showed a few of the 2016s to colleagues in the wine trade. Their most common remark after tasting? “Wait, what? 100% new oak? No way!”

What Are The Wines Like?
guillon bottlesJean-Michel and Alexis have decided to no longer present their wines to critic Alan Meadows (“Burghound”), but his comments on the 2016 vintage overall are spot on for these wines. He writes:

“So, as with every vintage, the two questions for you as consumers that take precedence over everything else always are: should I buy the wines and if so, how much of them? The best wines are wonderfully refreshing, transparent and graceful with moderately firm tannic spines where the all-important element of balance is supplemented by good but not high acidities. They are balanced wines built for medium to sometimes longer-term aging yet they should also be reasonably approachable young if youthful fruit is your preference. Before I offer more detail, the short answer is yes on both accounts that the 2016s deserve a place in your cellars and there is no reason not to go heavy – I for one will be buying all that I can afford and find.”

Vintage comparisons are always imprecise and, possibly, especially unhelpful in framing the 2016s from Guillon. Speaking of the vintage overall, some have suggested they are like the 2008s, but with more ripeness. Others speak of 2012, but with better purity or 2014 with more density and grip. Meadows went with, “a combination of the transparency and vibrancy of 2010 with the suppleness and roundness of 2009 in a proportion of two-thirds of the former with one-third of the latter.”

Ripe, Deep … and Silky
For me, though, the word that keeps coming up in my notes is “silky.” While there’s plenty of ripeness and – especially in the 1er and Grand Cru wines – powerful grip, even the most dark and brooding of the 2016 Guillon cuvees feel and smell cool and fresh. And as they flow across your palate, show their fine tannins, and linger on and on and on, the best way to describe how they feel is “silk.”

Please don’t think notes like cool, elegant, pure and silky mean that these wines are light. Jean-Michel and Alexis do not work hundreds of hours in their vineyards to achieve optimal ripeness and then day upon day in the cellar to make “light” wines. All are deep, show excellent density, fine concentration and – where the site has it to offer – real power.

But, at the end of the day, these are the most beautiful wines I’ve ever tasted here. Don’t miss them.

A Word on Drinking the 2016s Now
Come to the store Saturday from noon-4pm and we’ll prove something conclusively: the 2016 Guillon wines are easy to taste and are already wonderfully expressive. But here’s how I’d approach actually drinking them at home.

If you want to taste any of the wines – or drink the Fixin or Cote de Nuits, both of which will give loads of pleasure tonight – then decant them for two full hours. The lovely puppy fat of fruit that you’ll experience when you first open the 2016s fades in about 30 minutes, and for the next hour and a half oak, earth, and angular feeling tannins can dominate. Just wait, though. Within two hours, the oak recedes and the fruit reemerges to create lovely balance and deliciousness.

You’ll see all the wines listed here with descriptions and pricing. Mix/match among these bottling for best six- and twelve-bottle savings.

Three Times Good, not Three Times the Price – Malandes Chablis

“What is important every year no matter what the weather or challenges is for us to make good, good, good Chablis.”

jm-2466

Dom des Malandes Chablis Vineyards

That’s what Domaine des Malandes founder/owner Lyne Marchive told me two Februaries ago as we discussed the wet 2014, warm 2015, and super challenging 2016 vintages and prepared to taste barrel and tank samples. And, as Lynn said, these wines are at least “Good times three!”

In a Class with Fevre and Dauvissat
Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate. Their wines earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert Clive Coates awarding Malandes a two-star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy.

That’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three-times the prices of Malandes.

Driving Quality to new Heights
What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (Burghound), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes

“continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

Amandine Marchive

Lyne’s daughter, Amandine Marchive is now co-manager with her brother

Vintage 2017 marks a transition at Dom des Malandes, as Lyne retired and handed over management of the estate to her three children: Richard (who has his own winery in Beujolais), Amandine and Marion. Winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau remains in charge of the cellar, though, and the style, quality and value continues to shine through!

Another Difficult Growing Season …
In February of 2017, as we stood in a village Chablis vineyard admiring the experimental hail netting Lyne had just installed, I asked her whether frost was a concern. “No, no, no,” said Lyne. “We learned how to deal with from the Champenoise in the 1970s.”

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne Marchive and her experimental hail netting.

But nothing could prepare anyone for the disaster of April 18-27. For 10 nights in a row, temperatures dropped below freezing, bottoming out at 19 degrees one night. With humidity levels fairly high, frost spread across the vineyards even as Malandes and others used fans and burned hay and smudge pots in a futile attempt to hold the ice at bay.

By the time the cold spell broke, Dom des Malandes had lost about 50% of their grapes – the same loses they experienced in 2016 from hail. Fortunately, the rest of the 2017 growing season was pretty much perfect, and while the grapes were ready early – Malandes began picking on Sept.r 4 – the fine weather allowed plenty of time to pick each site as it was ready.

… Yields Tiny Amounts of Brilliant Chablis
There is a strong critical consensus that vintage 2017 overall is the finest Chablis harvest since 2014, giving wines of attractive richness and early appeal with much better zip and zing than either 2015 or 2016. As winemaker Breteaudeau told Burghound, at Malandes, “We chose to begin picking on the 4th of September and brought in clean and ripe fruit that averaged between 12 and 13% in potential alcohols with good acidities and post-malo pHs of 3.2 to 3.3. As to the wines, our take is that they offer the purity of 2014 with the fleshiness and concentration of say 2012 or 2015.”

While many purists would disagree with me, I actually prefer Malandes’ 2017s to 2014 and every other vintage tasted since the 2011 vintage (the year we first tried these wines). Yes, the 2014s were a bit more vivid and pure and offered even greater transparency of site. But the extra dose of richness and lightly fleshy mouthfeel of the 2017s is simply delightful. The wines are delicious, fun to drink, and priced very, very well.

These Malandes’ 2017 releases come to us direct at simply unbeatable savings, especially if you mix/match your way to a case or more! Note that mix/match pricing will not display on your online order form or confirmation email but will be applied before your card is charged.

Malandes Chablis Bottles.png

Authentic Chablis from Louis Michel

Louis Michel ChablisThe Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since the 1600s and created Domaine Louis Michel in 1850. Over the past 40 years, winemaker Jean-Loup Michel has elevated Louis Michel to the upper echelons of Chablis producers and now his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel, is working with Jean-Loup to push quality higher still.

For more than 40 years, Louis Michel has been known for its elimination of any oak-influence on its top quality Chardonnay. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, Louis Michel has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, the Jean-Loup and Guillaume are willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, they harvest quickly, often bringing in the entire crop in only 4-5 days.

Natural Winemaking with Minimal Intervention – Guillaume’s first major impact on the winery was to return to all natural fermentations. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentations proceed with native yeasts and move through the process at their own pace. After fermentation, the wines rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) to attain a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

The result are wines that Robert Parker said “appear of a precision and of a purity absolutely extraordinary,” but that, as critic Sara Marsh said, are also “refined, glossily mineral wines, not in the nervy, edgy Chablis genre. The wines are composed, poised and smooth.”

Guillaume of Louis MichelThe 2016 Louis Michel Chablis
“Composed, poised and smooth” is a pretty good description of Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel’s 2016s. The wines are excellent – there’s just not very much of any of them. As critic Steven Tanzer says, “The 2016 growing season was a violent one, with frost, rain, hail, mildew and even grillure (i.e., grapes burned by sun) conspiring to cut Chablis production by 50% or more at many estates.”

The grapes that survived were pretty lovely though. As Guillaume says, “The good news is that the wines are good; the bad news is that there’s no wine.” He describes the 2016s as “fleshy and balanced,” with each wine showing the character of its site nicely (save, perhaps, the deliciously exotic Vaillons). All of the wines were picked at 12.2-12.3% potential alcohol, with some getting lightly chapitalized (i.e., having a little sugar added) to extend fermentations and draw out texture and flavor.

As always, Tanzer’s ratings are conservative and I expect others will award higher ratings as they publish their reports. But rather than worry about points, come and try the wines this weekend. You will be glad you did!

No Oak, No Fooling Around: Louis Michel Chablis

The Michel family has been growing and making Chablis since 1850 – six generations of family winemakers now led by young Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel with help from his uncle, fifth generation Louis Michel winemaker Jean-Loup Michel and his nephew, Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel. Always a respected Chablis house, the real revolution began here 40 years ago. As Jean-Loup explains:

“Chablis is not Meursault. We stopped using barrels for our wine-making almost forty years ago. In the past, barrels were the only containers that could be used to make wine, they were never used with the intention of imparting a woody taste: that’s why old barrels were used in preference to younger ones. Today, stainless steel tanks are perfectly suited to our wine-making: aside from their total neutrality, they allow the complexity and pureness of the aromas to come through, respecting the authentic taste of true Chablis, without any artificial wood. The only expression in our bottles comes from pure, clean and precise terroir.”

While anyone can make clean, crisp, Chablis in stainless steel, only elite growers and winemakers can balance Chablis classically bright acidity with mouthfilling richness without the help of oak. Louis Michel’s secret?

Great Sites – Over the decades, the Michel family has acquired prime vineyards in some of Chablis’ best terroirs. The estate’s 25 hectares of vineyard all lie in the heart of Chablis’ ancient vineyards. No fruit travels more than 2km to the winery and the Domaine’s three Grand Cru sites are mere meters away.

Meticulous, Organic, Vineyard Work – Each vineyard is managed individually, with its own regime of pruning, leaf pulling, green harvest, cover crops, and tilling designed to maximize vine health and help express the site.

Late Harvest of Fully Ripe Fruit – With no oak to hide flaws, Guillaume is willing to wait until each vineyard achieves optimal ripeness before beginning harvest. And, having risked crop loss to late season rain or rot, he harvests quickly – sometimes using multiple harvest teams to hand pick all of his 1er and Grand Cru grapes within a few days.

Natural Winemaking With Minimal Intervention – When he took the reins at Louis Michel, Guillaume took the bold step of ending use of cultured yeasts, allowing the wines to ferment only with wild yeast from the vineyards and winery. It’s a nerve wracking process, with some fermentations taking 2 months or longer to complete. But, by allowing the wines to proceed at their own pace, rest on their fine lees (8 months for Village, up to 12 for 1er and Grand Cru sites) without stirring, and never racking the wines until they are ready to bottle, Guillaume attains a rich, creamy, texture that balances the detailed acidity of Chablis.

Critical Praise for Quality and Value
Even though Domaine Louis Michel has flown “under the radar” in the US market, Burgundy insiders have lavished praise on the estate for years – and especially appreciate the no oak, all natural, philosophy. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says, “Those who favour stainless steel want the purest flavour of Chablis, with the firm streak of acidity and the mineral quality that the French describe as goût de pierre à fusil, or gunflint. Louis Michel’s is generally considered to be the epitome of this style.”

Burgundy expert (and MW) Clive Coates agrees: “This is a brilliant consistent estate, where there is no use of wood. The magnificently austere and steely wines keep much longer than most Chablis.” And, as Wine Advocate has reported, even though “Michel is notorious for his adherence to a stainless steel regimen of elevage, I do not find his wines lacking for depth and richness, although though they tend to be marked by refreshing, forward fruit, as well as scrupulous cleanliness. They also offer outstanding value.”

Food-friendly, honest, and very delicious wines that are also great value: that sums up why you’ve made Louis Michel our best-selling Chablis ever. The 2016 is another winner that you will not want to miss!