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!

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Discovering Burgundy’s Viré-Clessé

Vire-Clesse.pngEven a lot of diehard white Burgundy fans don’t recognize the small AOC of Viré-Clessé

But insiders know this chalky, limestone-rich slice of Burgundy’s Macon region delivers some of the region’s most exciting, minerally and dry Chardonnays.

Kind of a Mini-Cote d’Or
Amid the topsy-turvy hills of the Macon, the long, southeast-facing limestone ridge running between the villages of Viré and Clessé stands out as kind of a mini-Cote d’Or. It’s a region of long-standing fame within Burgundy, but one that did not gain an AOC title when those were being handed out in the late 1930s.

Importer Ed Addiss of Wine Traditions brings us today’s featured wines, and his brief summary of Vire-Clesse history captures the story nicely:

In 1937 the wines of Viré sold for the same price as those of Pouilly-Fuisse and when the Appellation D’Origine Controlée was offered to the wine producers of Viré in that year, they refused because they didn’t want to pay the extra tax that came along with the upgraded status. The thinking was that they already sold all the wine they produced at a good price, so why pay the government more money just to have official recognition. In 1963, having regretted their earlier decision they applied to the INAO for recognition and were denied, a decision based primarily on the small size of Viré’s vineyards which totaled 120 hectares. Finally, after many years of pressing their case with the INAO the growers of Viré decided to join forces with the growers in the neighboring village of Clessé to create a joined appellation. In 1997 the INAO voted to accept their proposal and the appellation of Viré-Clessé was born.

Recognizing the superior soils and exposure, the growers of Vire and Clesse elected to adopt some of the Macon’s strictest rules to ensure all Vire-Clesse would be of high quality. Most importantly, the region permits the lowest residual sugar levels – meaning the driest wines – in all of Burgundy! With no more than 3 g/l of sugar in the wines, there’s no way to hide under-ripe fruit or sloppy winegrowing. Which is one reason that wines labeled Vire-Clesse have some of the highest average quality levels of any region in the Macon!

We have a limited amount of two new 2015 Viré Clessé from winemaker Alexis Duchet. Give them a try!

2015 Burgundy from Guillon: Intense Wines from Intense Men

Last March, I found myself walking from Domaine Guillon’s chilly cellars to lunch with Alexis Guillon. We’d just finished tasting 2016 from barrel (looking great!) and the 2015s from bottle. “Just how special is vintage 2015?” I asked. Alexis told me he’d been talking to his father-in-law (also a winegrower) and other older growers in the village about the same question. “They told me that once in a lifetime you experience a vintage like this. 1959, 1947, 1929 – 2015 is like that, they told me. Perhaps the greatest vintage I’ll ever see.”

This is the eighth time I’ve written about the new vintage from Jean-Michel Guillon. By this point, most of you know that these are the hardest working, most talented, and least compromising winegrowers in all of Burgundy. Now 30 years since he stepped off a train in Burgundy with no vines and no winemaking experience, Jean-Michel farms

Jean Michelle and AlexisJean-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. So with the breathtaking fruit of 2015 came into the winery, they were ready to produce the best wines they’ve ever made.

What Are The Wines Like?
Guillon WinesThe easy way to talk about a new vintage is to say, “It’s like xxxx” or, perhaps, “A cross between yyyy and zzzz.” I don’t think that approach really works in understanding the 2015 Guillon reds.

Yes, it’s definitely true that 2015 is a great vintage at Domaine Guillon and the quality of the wines certainly should be compared to 2002, 2005, 2009 and 2010 here. Both Wine Advocate and Burghound have this as the finest vintage in Burgundy since 2005. Tanzer says it reminds him of 1990 and that many growers think it’s a better, longer-lived, version of 1985. And, as I mentioned, Jean-Michel and Alexis think 1959 and 1947 are appropriate benchmarks.

At the end of the day, though, Guillon’s 2015s are not exactly like any recent vintage. They are every bit as ripe as in 2005 and 2009, but the fruit flavors are fresher, move vivid and vivacious. They match 2005 and 2010 in sheer quantity of tannins, but the 2015s are so much more silky smooth as they finish. In fact, the most common word I find in my tasting notes is “silk.” In some cases it’s silk flowing over a fine breeze of ripe, juicy, vivacious fruit. And in others it’s a silk glove adding finesse to the iron fist inside. But whatever else you may say about Guillon’s stunning 2015s, you’ll have to agree that they have amazingly silky textures.

They are also more detailed, precise and delineated than any young Guillon wines I recall tasting. Yes the Gevrey 1er Crus are dense, deep, and super-intense and need some time to open up and strut their stuff. But even at the high-end, there’s a fantastic purity and clarity to the flavors that run right on through the long and generous finishes.

Best of all, I think Tanzer’s comments about the early drinkability of 2015 red Burgundy overall applies here as well. Most of these wines are delicious right now (although some need an hour or two of air) and are easy to taste and enjoy at table. And the supple tannins and lovely balance of fruit, earth and spice means you’ll probably be able to check in on their development with pleasure anytime you’d like. Unlike the 2005s (and some 2010s) that have shut-down hard, these 2015s are likely to stay open and delicious across most of their development.

What to Buy?
The easy answer: “Buy all of them and as much as you can!” Unfortunately – and as we warned you last year – the 30% decline in yield in 2015 and disastrously short 2016 harvest coupled with exploding global demand for Jean-Michel’s wines means that these 2015s are more expensive than in the past. All remain substantially under-priced relative to the Guillons’ neighbors and our prices are more than competitive. But, still, we realize choices must be made.

Feel free to call us and we’ll be happy to develop recommendations to fit your personal tastes, cellar preferences, and budget. But if you’re only buying one Guillon 2015, make it:

  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Champonnets VV Cuvee Margaux 2015 – From 90 year-old vines, Jean-Michel only bottles the old vines separately in years so great that the rest of the Champonnets cuvee can stand the loss. Only the fourth time this has ever been made – the others were 2002, 2005 and 2009 – and only 75 cases bottled. Named for Jean-Michel’s mother, it’s dense, powerful, a bit chocolaty and very, very, long. I waited until Jean-Michel had consumed a bit of his own wine at our wine dinner before asking for 10 cases of this. You will not find it elsewhere.

Other wines to pay special attention to:

  • Guillon Fixin Hauts Crais 2015 – Less dark, dense, and structured than the other wines in this offer, the 2015 Fixin is a joy to drink right now and is just going to get better. It’s very vivid and fresh with ripe red berry fruit and a mouthwatering finish. This is fantastic value and there are a few magnums, too.
  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Champeaux 2015 – The other 1er Crus usually capture more attention, but Champeaux is a really, really, beautiful wine in 2015 with fine minerality an excellent length.
  • Guillon Morey Saint Denis 1er Cru La Riotte 2015 – Always one of the more sexy wines of this set, in 2015 it’s a bit more trim and shows the fantastic silky purity of the vintage but still has plenty of generous fruit. Not as firm or earthy as the Gevrey wines, but really fun.
  • Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Petit Chapelle 2015 – This normally a wine you really have to work at to taste. With Grand Cru-level concentration and structure, it can be hard to penetrate young. In 2015, Burghound says, “while it would be infanticide to open one early, this just makes one feel like drinking it.”

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

Fine Wine, Fine Vintages in Beaujolais

chateau-thivin-domaine-mont-brouillyThere’s going to be quite an argument about which of the past three 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. And the 2016 harvest – while seriously reduced by hail and frost – may turn out to marry the best characteristics of 2015 and 2014 combined.

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

Ancient Volcano, Modern Winery
Ch Thivin la_famille_geoffray The 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.

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 were 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.

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 I think 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.”

2014 Burgundy: For Drinkers and Collectors!

After years of crazy weather, short harvests, and very good quality, 2014 is a HUGE relief – if not especially easy for winegrowers. Yields returned to something closer to “normal” levels with no loss of quality, although the weather remained unpredictable.

The growing season started very early, with a warm spring getting the vines going about three weeks earlier than normal. The early growing season seemed promising, relaxed and abundant, at least until late June when a series of hail storms swept up and down the Cote d’Or, costing growers 10-30% of their fruit. Then, the weather turned cool and stayed that way through all of July and August.

The warm, dry spring followed by cool, wet summer, meant that the growing season lasted a bit longer than usual – instead of the typical 100 days from flowering to harvest, most growers ended up hanging their fruit for an extra week or event two. The fruit that came in during late September was ripe in terms of skins and seeds, but had a bit less juice and a touch less sugar than might have been expected.

Thick skins, ripe flesh, skins and seeds, plus moderate sugars came together in fermentation vats to create some of the most delicious, immediately tempting wines we’ve seen from the Cote d’Or since 2009.

As Allen Meadows (“Burghound”) said:

“I am avidly enthusiastic about the 2014 vintage in the Cote de Nuits…While it is true that the 2014 vintage is user-friendly in that in many cases the wines will be accessible young, I believe that it is also true that they are going to age extremely well. There is a beguiling freshness coupled with first-rate drinkability that makes the 2014s extremely pleasurable… Two of the aspects that I like best about the 2014s is their transparency to the underlying terrior coupled with their sheer drinkability. This transparency is enhanced by terrific vibrancy because the wines really do taste alive in the mouth…They’re ripe yet they are what the French call digest, or refreshing, where the first sip invites the next which is in fact what makes them so drinkable.”

Jean-Michel GuillonJean-Michel Guillon agrees with Burghound’s assessment, saying of his 2014s, “They’re generous and fleshy and easy-to-like though with good freshness and transparency. They’re the kind of burgundies that almost everyone likes because there’s really nothing not to like.”

One thing we especially “like” about Jean-Michel’s wines are the prices – unchanged from 2013! In a world where first-rate Cote de Nuit’s producers’ “regular” Bourgognes can often top $40, it’s refreshing to be able to enjoy the work of a true Burgundy master for comfortable prices like these.

Thibault Liger-Belair: Resurrecting a Great Name

Thibault Liger-Belair

Meet and Taste with Burgundy’s Thibault Liger-Belair on Saturday, April 18, 12-4 pm.

Thibault Liger-Belair’s ancestors tended vineyards and made wine in Burgundy’s Nuits Saint Georges from 1720 on, but in the early 20th century, the best vineyards were leased out to other winemakers.

Thibault studied winemaking before starting his career at a Parisian communications firm and then trying his hand at a dot-com start-up. In 2001 – at the age of 26 – he realized that he needed to return to Burgundy and resurrect the family Domaine.

From his first vintage in 2002, Thibault’s work attracted notice. Over the years, he’s gradually expanded the Domaine by taking back family vineyards as leases ended, purchasing additional vineyards, and adding a small negotiant business as well.

No Rules, Just Great Wine
As he explained during our visit in February 2014, his goal is to make wines that represent and reflect their vintage and terroir while avoiding harsh tannins and delivering pleasure to the drinker. He has converted the Domaine vineyards to biodynamics to build vine health and achieve ripeness, and is willing to take yields as low as he has to in order to get ripe fruit. In most of his vineyards, Thibault is allowed to harvest 30-40 hectoliters of juice per hectare of land. In practice, he rarely keeps 30HL, often drops fruit down to 20, and – as with the 2012 Nuits Saint Georges Charmot – can go as low as 10 hectoliters per hectare. Whatever it takes to get ripe, healthy fruit.

Once in the winery, his recipe is…no recipe! In general, Thibault prefers to avoid the flavor of oak in his wines, and most see 20-30% new oak (50% is his maximum). His oak barrels are custom-made for each vineyard, always using staves dried at least 36 months but mixing wood from forests grown on sand, clay, and stone – often in the same barrel! – to take advantage of each type’s different characteristics.

Fruit is always sorted twice – in the vineyard and on a sorting table at the winery – and given a pre-fermentation cold soak to begin gentle extraction. Whole clusters are usually mixed with destemmed fruit, although the exact ratio varies by vineyard and vintage. Gentle pumpovers during fermentation are supplemented by more vigorous punchdowns – sometimes only 2 or 3 in total, other times daily. Then, the wines go into their designated barrels and stay there until he feels they are ready to bottle.

The 2012s are an outstanding set of Burgundies, and a fine introduction to the work of what has become a Nuits Saint George benchmark. Thibault described them as “like 2010 but with more flesh,” and all are showing their fine quality and outstanding potential right now.

JJ Confuron’s 2012 Burgundies

jj confuron

Wines on tasting Saturday, Jan. 17, 12-4 pm

We’ve purchased JJ Confuron wines for the store in the past (the 2006s, especially, were lovely), but a tasting with the local importer, JAO Imports, last summer convinced us to go as big as we could with this fantastic set of 2012 reds.

As you’d expect from a small, very in-demand estate like this, we were only able to get limited supplies of what we thought were the best wines – and we were delighted to get a few bottles of the ultra-rare and utterly profound Grand Cru Romanee St. Vivant!

Extraordinary Vineyard Sites. The vineyard sites themselves are the story here. The Domaine’s 8.5 hectares of vines were part of the legendary Charles Noellat estate. Over the course of the 20th Century, the Noellat properties were divided in three – part going with Charles’s granddaughter to Hudelot-Noellat, part purchased by Lalou Bize-Leroy in 1988, and the remainder to Confuron through his wife, Andee Noellat. Today, these three famous Domaines farm their vines side-by-side – including in one of the best slices of the Grand Cru Romanee Saint Vivant – one using conventional farming (Hudelot-Noellat), one biodynamic (Leroy) and one organic (Confuron).

All of Confuron’s 2012s were hand harvested on a block-by-block basis as winemaker Alain Meunier (Confuron’s son-in-law and, with wife Sophie, the current owner of the estate) decided the fruit was ripe and ready. Grapes came into the winery at natural alcohol levels of 12-13%, which is exactly what Meunier strives for.

Fruit for the village wines was 100% destemmed while 20% whole clusters were used in the 1er and Grand Crus. Meunier believes that using a good proportion of top-quality barrels help his wines shed excess fat without masking the pure fruit or adding unattractive wood tannins. The village wines receive 30% new oak, the 1er Crus 40-50% and the Grand Crus about 60% new wood each year. The resulting wines are, as Clive Coates says, “classy, poised, and very fine.”

A Note about the Critics’ Notes … We tasted and selected our favorite wines from Confuron’s 2012s before we looked at any reviews, although for the most part, the critics’ opinions are similar to ours. We’ve included Burghound’s ratings here because of Allen Meadows’ long involvement with the region and estate. But take some of his critique about reduction with a grain of salt. Meadows tastes wines like these very early in their elevage (too early, I think). Because Meunier does minimal racking of the wines before assembling his final cuvee for bottling, the wines often show funky reductive notes when Meadows tastes them.

Neal Martin (Wine Advocate) and Steve Tanzer both taste later in the year, often after the racking to bottling tank. I usually find their assessments more useful. Last, the local folks at International Wine Review (i-Wine) tasted the wines the same day I did – theirs are the only reviews based on the finished, bottled wines.