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!


Through Heat, Rain, Frost and Hail … Success in Chablis

Guillaume of Louis Michel

Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel

Writing about the vintage in Chablis the past five years has been…well, for those of us who have gotten to know the women and men who grow and make these classy, dry, and mineral-laced Chardonnays, perhaps “depressing” is the best word. Frost, scorching heat, ill-timed rain, and – again and again – severe hail have struck Chablis with mind-numbing regularity.

In the words of the late, much missed, Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something.”

A Rush to Harvest
Vintage 2015 started out so well! The growing season started in early April and flowering happened on schedule under clement skies in early June. Despite some very hot weather in late June (109 degrees on June 24!) and a very dry July and August, a touch of refreshing rain in mid-August got the vines going. As growers went to bed on the night of August 31, they were expecting a great harvest and Louis Michel expected to start picking on September 6.

At 1:30 am on September 1, the bottom fell out. Hail pelted almost all of Chablis for an hour or more, leaving leaves shredded and some of the fruit damaged. At Louis Michel, everything went on overdrive, with every available picker and harvesting machine (including some borrowed from growers less impacted by the hail) pressed into service to get the fruit off the vines and into the winery before rot set in. By September 4, all fruit impacted by hail was in the winery, pressed, and ready to ferment.

Then – the Magic of Doing Nothing
Louis Michel ChablisWhen you taste the Louis Michel 2015s, the question you’re going to ask is, “What magic did winemaker Guillaume Gicqueau-Michel work in the winery to make such great Chablis under such challenging conditions?” The answer: Nothing.

Because “nothing” is what Guillaume does. The pressed juice went into stainless steel tanks and then…sat there until the yeast living in the winery air decided to start bubbling away. The only two winemaking decision Guillaume made was a) to keep things cool (as always) and b) to rack the finished wine off the fine lees a bit earlier than usual.

Louis Michel Montee de Tonnerre BottleWas acid added? Nope – correctly grown grapes keep their acid even in hot seasons. Sugar added to increase alcohol? Nope – the fruit came in at a just-right 12-13%. Lees stirred to add richness? Nope – older vines and warm weather gave all the richness you’d want. Oak used to shape or intensify the wines? Nope again – the only oak barrels in this winery have been cut in half and have flowers growing in them!

As in the past few harvests, the hardest part of Guillaume job after the grapes came into the winery was calling customers around the world to tell them they couldn’t have all the cases they wanted, because the hail and heat reduced the crop by 20-30%. Next year, we’ll tell you how even more severe hail brought yields down 30-40%. The year after, we’ll have to talk about how 2017’s bitter spring frosts cost the Domaine half its fruit.

For now, though, we have once again secured an above average allocation of these very much above average wines. Enjoy them while you can!

Australian Wine’s Evolving Style

KangarooWhen you hear “Australian wine,” if you remember the 90s, you might shudder as you remember all the lukewarm glasses of way, way jammy and overoaked Shiraz and Chardonnay you drank at parties that gave you a headache halfway through the glass.

After the initial “critter wine” craze, the Australian wine industry suffered from a bit of backlash, having become known for a certain style of wine at a certain price, and not much else. Nine dollar Shiraz receded from view for a while, and Malbec became the jammy, inexpensive red du jour to sip at your neighbors’ barbecue.

A New Style from Australia
We’re introducing a new wine in the store this week, St Kilda Chardonnay Southeastern Australia 2016, that represents an overall settling on a new, more moderate style that has happened with Australian Chardonnay in particular and wine in general in Australia in the last few years.

St Kilda ChardonnaySt. Kilda is the complete opposite of the overripe, overoaked fruit bombs we’ve all come to associate with Australian wine in all ways but a really important one: the price.

In the early 2000s some producers went down a similar path that some California did, picking their fruit way too early and producing wines that tasted thin and underripe. Jancis Robinson recently wrote that she is, “finding more life, interest and certainly value in the best of the new generation of Australian Chardonnays than I am in the great bulk of white burgundies,” and what we’ve been tasting recently has us inclined to agree.

St. Kilda is the complete opposite of the overripe, overoaked fruit bombs we’ve all come to associate with Australian wine in all ways but a really important one: the price. So give Australian Chardonnay another look! We think you’ll be glad you did.

News from Willamette Valley: New Pinot and … Chardonnay

Meg and I are just back from a quick trip to Oregon and meetings with some of our favorite Willamette Valley winemakers. We’re lining up new shipments of some of your favorites from vintages 2014 and 2015, including some real stunners from John Grochau, Patricia Green Cellars, and Belle Pente. And watch for small quantities of some new Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the culty, hard-to-find Walter Scott.

A New Focus: Chardonnay. But the real story in the Willamette Valley right now is that – after 40 years of ups and downs – Chardonnay has finally arrived! At pretty much every stop, we found Chardonnay that showcases some of the energy, minerality and complexity you’d expect from top Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet married to the juicy, ripe, fruit flavors found in the best of California’s cool Sonoma Coast sites.

During my very first visit to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 2009, Chardonnay was on the wane. More than one winemaker told me they’d not figured out Pinot Noir’s natural white grape partner and that they either had or were considering grafting over their Chardonnay vines to Pinot Gris or Noir.

Returning in the summer of 2013, I heard folks say that Chardonnay really should work in the Willamette Valley, but that the original plantings were in the wrong places or of the wrong clones. “We really ought to figure this out,” was a common comment. Coming back in mid-summer of 2015, we heard, “You know, maybe we can figure this out!” although compelling wines in bottle were few and far between.

Last week, Chardonnay was a focus of conversation and tasting everywhere we went. Patricia Green has made their first Chardonnay in years, John Grochau’s Chards were zesty and rich, and newcomer Walter Scott has committed to making Chardonnay a full 50% of their production. No question, Chardonnay is on its way back in the Willamette Valley!

oregon-chardonnaysA Trio of Tempting Willamette Valley Chardonnays. Chardonnays from Grochau and Walter Scott are definitely on our “buy” list for later this year, and Chardonnay has clearly “arrived” at Belle Pente’s Yamhill-Carleton estate vineyard and in the old-vines Dundee Hills vineyards of Arterberry Maresh and Oregon Pioneer Eyrie.

Not much of any of these is made and less still is available. But all are well worth checking out to get a feel for why Willamette Valley Chardonnay is the “next big thing” for the world’s most popular white wine grape! Stop by this weekend for a taste!

From “Rat’s Jump” to Sublime – Getting to Know Meursault

meursaultNo one knows for sure where the name “Meursault” comes from, but in the village here’s the story they tell.

The Romans had a fort up on the Meursault hill and near it was a stream. The soldiers observed mice coming up to the stream and then jumping over the cold water to get from one side to the other. They soon began calling the stream “Muris Saltus” – or the “rat jump” – and the name eventually stuck to the small village growing beneath the fort.

Whatever the source of the name, the three communes of Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault make up the finest collection of Chardonnay vineyards in the world. But with no “Montrachet” to add caché, Meursault has spent much of its history playing second fiddle to Puligny and Chassagne.

Comparing Puligny and Meursault
In fact, Meursault’s wines are no less outstanding than Puligny to the south, but the wines are a bit different. Fine Puligny is peachy, citrusy, floral, and sports a deep, pervasive, wet rock minerality with a strong citric drive.

Meursault, in contrast, is richer, even fatter, with more golden fruit – pear, apple, apricot – and classically shows a wonderful layer of buttery richness – “buttered and toasted nut” is a common tasting note here. In part the differences are a reflection of terrior.

Meursault and Puligny’s vineyards are both rich in limestone, but the types are different (Pierre de Chassagne in Puligny vs. Comblachien for Meursault). More importantly, Puligny’s best vineyards are higher and more exposed while Meursault’s are lower and more sheltered.

Digging Cellars
But a fluke in the terrior of the villages themselves – vs. the vineyards – plays a role, too. The water table in the village of Puligny is high, so digging deep cellars is difficult and rare. Limited cellar space means most Puligny-Montrachet needs to be in and out of barrel before the next harvest comes in. Or, as is often the case, taken by negotiants to more spacious cellars in Beaune for elevage.

michelot-cellarIn Meursault, the soils are dry and soft, making cellars fairly easy to dig. And over the past 50 years, negotiants have been willing to pay much more for wine from Puligny than Meursault, leading more Meursault growers to make and sell their own finished wine. Winemaker Francois Mikulski tells the story of bringing in his first crop and then trying to sell his wine in barrel to the negotiants. The prices he was offered were so low that he went to the bank and borrowed enough to buy bottles and corks and sell the wine himself!

With cellar space ample and negotiant prices low, more Meursault growers not only made their own wine – they could afford to allow it to spend more than 10 months in barrel to gain richness, complexity, and notes of nutty deliciousness. So today’s Meursault reflects both the unique character of its vineyards and a funny quirk of Burgundy economics!

A Benchmark Storms Back
Writing in 2008, Burgundy expert Clive Coats said, “Nearly 40 years ago, when I was studying for the Master of Wine examination, one of my tutors recommended two estates which produced yardstick white Burgundy: Michelot in Meursault and Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet.”

That “yardstick” status came from the hard work of Bernard Michelot, a fifth generation winegrower who modernized the winemaking, increased the use of new barrels, and tended his large set of vineyard holdings with meticulous care.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, the estate failed to keep up with the ever improving quality of its neighbors. As Bernard aged, he was forced to split up the estate between his children and sell off some vineyards to deal with France’s punitive inheritance taxes. Daughter Genevieve Michelot took 7ha and founded Michelot Mere et Fil. Son-in-law Jean-François Mestre and his wife, Odile Michelot, kept Domaine Michelot but were forced to place some of the wine and vineyards in a separate cellar, Domaine Mestre-Michelot. The separate cellars and Bernard’s continued presence (he passed away earlier this year at age 99) perhaps served as barriers to further innovation.

michelot-familyOver the past decade, though, Domaine Michelot has come roaring back. Jean-François has been allowed to merge the two separate cellars – so all the wine is Domaine Michelot now. He and his son Nicolas have converted all of their vineyards to organic farming. Grass is allowed to grow between the rows to stress the vines and then plowed under to enrich the soils. Most chemical treatments have been dropped and copper and sulfur use have been reduced substantially.

michelot-mersautIn the cellars, Mestre has slightly increased the amount of new oak used – around 33% for the 1er Cru wines – but also moved to larger barrels to prevent too much oak flavor in the wine. All of the wines – from Bourgogne Blanc up – spend 12 full months in barrel before wracking by gravity into tank. There they rest for an additional 4-6 months to harmonize and settle before bottling.

The result of all these changes: superb wines that are once again “textbook” (or “yardstick” if you prefer) Meursault. Rich, full of ripe fruit, creamy in texture with plenty of vibrancy, and laced with plenty of toasted buttered nut goodness. Do not miss them!

Chablis: The Home of Fine White Wine Values

Dom des Malandes“Values” probably isn’t quite the right word here. What we really mean is “QPR” – Quality to Price Ratio. But either way, the region of Chablis is currently the best source we know for white wines that give complexity, richness, and refreshment, not only for lovers of White Burgundy, but also for fans of white wines from anywhere in the world.

And this week, we are offering four great 2014 Chablis from Dom des Malandes an excellent “QPR” prices.

Changes in Chablis. The wines from the chalk and Kimmeridgian clay (found also in Sancerre) in this northernmost outpost of Burgundy (only Champagne and Alsace are farther North) have historically been thought of as “steely,” “flinty,” and “saline” – brisk, high-acid wines built for shellfish and lacking the richness, depth, and power found further south.

Chablis_Grand_Cru_vineyardsBut the combination of climate change (warmer weather) and rapid improvement in viticulture (lower yields and waiting for ripeness) mean that modern Chablis has elevated its quality to new heights even as its style has changed. And Chablis continues to mature earlier than wines of the regions further south in Burgundy – no bad thing for folks who don’t want to cellar wines for decades or who worry about premature oxidization. In fact, more and more, experienced Burgundy lovers are heading north for great white Burgundy at surprising value prices.

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesMalandes: Wines You Need to Try. Domaine des Malandes has been in the Tremblay family for generations and has been run by Lyne Marchive since 1972. The wines have always been “solid,” but as winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau has asserted himself since joining the Domaine in 2006, the wines have moved up the scale to “outstanding”! As Allen Meadows, who writes as Burghound, said after tasting the Domaine’s 2014s:

“I have said this before but it’s worth repeating that [these winemakers] continue to drive the quality … 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.” – Allen Meadows, Burghound

But, your window is closing. As Decanter magazine reported last week, “Chablis prices to rise as weather hits 2016 vintage.” Overall production will be off 50% and Malandes lost its entire crop.

Malandes’ 2014 releases are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. From a Village Chablis to drink as a “house white” to two different majestic 1er Crus and the profound Grand Cru Les Clos, all of Malandes’ 2014s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings.

Why is most California Chardonnay so Bad?

Tasting the new vintage of Poppy Chardonnay 2014 an honest, fruit-filled, lightly oaked beauty that sells for a song – made us think of two questions:

  • Why isn’t there more really good, honest, generous California Chardonnay out there for under $12? And …
  • Why is so much California Chardonnay so…er…bad?

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great California Chardonnay out there. But finding the good ones seems to involve tasting an awful lot of awful wine. In fact, I just looked at my tasting notes for the past year. We’ve tried something like 150 different Cali Chards, and fewer than one in five – 16% of you want to be precise – made it onto our “Open to Buy” list – meaning we thought they were good enough in quality and price/value to offer you. And fewer than a dozen of those actually made it onto the shelf by knocking off a current selection.

Admittedly, we’re pickier than some. We demand that any California Chardonnay we sell have nice ripe fruit, that any oak and butter flavors be balanced and attractive, and that the wine finishes clean and fresh without any bitterness or puckery bite or sticky sweetness. And the wine has to sell at a price that makes sense – if you’re paying $25 for it, a Chardonnay should be a nice step up from whatever you’d find for $6.99 at the grocery store.

Why are those kinds of Chardonnays so hard to find? Four reasons.

First, “Chardonnay” has become a “brand” as much as a wine. This all started back during America’s great white wine boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Folks were looking for something with less alcohol than cocktails and classier than beer to sip on the porch, at parties and while out showing off big hair and flared pants at the disco and fern bar. Crisp, clean, fairly low-alcohol white wine fit the bill and sales exploded.

Back then, if you ordered “a glass of white wine,” you’d get something either sickly sweet like Blue Nun or crisp but bland like Gallo Chablis – a wine named for a great French Chardonnay region but made without any Chardonnay at all. How to get something with a bit more body, a touch more flavor, and a ton more refreshing? Chardonnay fit all those requirements, was the grape used to make some of the world’s best whites (i.e., white Burgundy), and was fun to say, too. So, pretty soon, “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay” became one of the most common phrases heard in bars and clubs across the country – right after “What’s your sign, baby?”

When Chardonnay became the generic term for dry white wine, America’s vinous industrial complex swung into action, planting Chardonnay pretty much anywhere grapes would grow and banging it into bottle as fast and hard as possible. Hardly a recipe for quality!

Second, Jess Jackson accidentally discovered that Americans “talk dry but drink sweet.” In 1982, Jackson had a big vat of Chardonnay bubbling away when the fermentation “stuck” – the yeast all died before all of the grapes’ sugar had turned into alcohol. Jess could hardly afford to toss all that wine, so he stuck it in some barrels to add a little oak flavor, bottled it, and shipped it out to the market.

The crowd went wild. Sales of KJ Chardonnay exploded as folks discovered they really liked this rich, creamy, slightly oaky and a tiny bit sweet white wine. Over the years, a few winemakers how to make genuinely interesting wines in this style – Rombauer probably leads the pack here. But unless this style of wine starts with really great fruit and is very carefully nurtured through fermentation and aging, it ends up tasting like Butter Caramel Life-Savers dusted in ground oak chips and a dash of bitter quinine. Perhaps interesting for a sip, but you certainly wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass of the stuff!

America’s vinous industrial complex was less worried about quality and much more about making a quick buck. As demand soared, they kept planting Chardonnay – it’s a pretty flexible vine and it will produce a pretty large crop of grapes almost anywhere you plant it, including places like the scorching hot Central Valley where table grapes do well but wine grapes – not so much.

That leads us to the third reason why most California Chardonnay is so bad: most California Chardonnay vines are growing in places better suited for tomatoes and table grapes than for wine.

Chardonnay is the Golden Retriever of wine grapes. It’s friendly, agreeable, and eager to please. Given firm discipline and careful training, it will stay friendly but also develop real polish, finesse and class. Left to its own devices, it will slobber all over you and make a great big stinky mess. Either way, the dog has a strong tendency to end up resembling its owner – and the grape ends up reflecting the personality of its winemaker.

Chardonnay practically begs winemakers to do stuff to it. Pick it early, you get steely acids and minerality. Pick it late, and you get a tropical fruit basket. Ferment it cool in a steel tank and you’ll have fresh, crisp flavors. Ferment it warmer in oak barrels and you’ll get broad, creamy textures and spice.

Let it go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, and you’ll get even more softness and a new set of buttery, creamy flavors. Leave it in oak for a while longer, and you’ll add nutty, smoky notes. Use some kinds of barrels and – BAM! – you’ve got vanilla. Use others and get whispers of toast and spice.

When all these choices are made carefully, respecting the character of the fruit, the climate where it was grown, and the notion that a great wine is about balance and finesse, then Chardonnay can be a great, great wine even when grown in sunny California. But, we’re Americans, and we’re prone to believe that if a little of something is good, a whole lot of it will be better.

And having a whole lot of some stuff and not nearly enough of others is the fourth reason so much California Chardonnay is so unfortunately awful. And the hard work required to make a balanced, delicious Chardonnay is why so many of California’s best cost as much as they do.

We’ve got a whole shelf full of balanced, fruit-filled, lip-smackingly delicious California Chardonnays that prove that it doesn’t have to be this way – but, remember, we had to taste a bunch of bad ones to find the bottles worth your time.

Poppy Chardonnay 2014 is definitely in the “worth your time” class. It’s from a place that’s right on the edge of “too warm” for good Chardonnay, so the winemakers had to do a little extra work to keep it in balance. You can read more about how they did it here or swing by the store this week and give it a try. And, if you have any California horror stories or even some great finds, let us know in the comments below!