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!

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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.”

What Makes Chateauneuf Chateauneuf?

Lirac galet

Ten feel of pebbly path separate the Champauvin vineyard from Chateauneuf du Pape.

As you may know, the name and fame of the Rhone Valley wine region called Chateauneuf du Pape dates from the 1300s when the Papacy temporarily moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon. The Popes built a summer palace north of Avignon on the crest of a big hill overlooking the Rhone Valley. Locals called it “the Pope’s New Castle” – Chateauneuf du Pape. As the Church spurred growth in the Rhone’s vineyards to meet its ceremonial and social needs, the name came to be applied to the better vineyards surrounding the hill.

Once the Pope returned to Rome, the name dropped out of use and the wines came to be known simply as “vin d’Avignon” until the Chateauneuf name was resurrected in the mid-1800s. The wines gradually gained respect within France until phylloxera wiped out the vineyards in the late 1800s.

In the early 20th Century, growers in the area realized that they couldn’t compete with the rapidly developing Languedoc-Rousillon region in the south for pure bulk wine production. Seeking to improve quality, in the early 1930s they banded together to resurrect the brand of Chateauneuf du Pape and establish rules for what wines could or could not use that label. Their approach ultimately became the basis for all France’s designated wine regions – the Appelation Controlee system. The rules specified maximum yields, minimum alcoholic strength (12.5%), and determined which grapes were of acceptable quality (a hard debate settled on a list of 13 varieties).

Mapmaking Gone Wrong
And they drew a map specifying which lands were allowable for Chateauneuf du Pape and which would be left out (and ultimately be labeled Cotes du Rhone):

Cdp and Champauvins Map

To the south and west of the town of Chateauneuf, setting boundaries was easy. As the land sloped down towards the Rhone River, it eventually became too wet to support vineyards.

The eastern side was also easy, if not really based on vineyard character. The drafters simply followed the main road running from Avignon to Orange (now the A7 Autoroute) from the village of le Coulaire in the south and up to the end of the vineyards belonging to Chateau Beaucastel in the north. This sliced one of Beaucastel’s vineyards – called Coudoulet – in two, leaving half of the vineyard in and half out of Chateauneuf. Not entirely fair, but at least easy to explain.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery. The Jaume family farmed a collection of vineyards pretty much due west of Beaucastel and just under the Orange road. The vineyards have the same sub-soils and top-soils as Beaucastel, were covered by the rounded “galet” stones that are Chateauneuf’s hallmarks, and were planted to the same grapes. The logical thing to do would have been to simply continue to follow the road as it curved around to the west a little further and then allow the line to curve back down to the south to the river as the soils changed from red, iron rich gravel to more sand and limestone after the Jaume’s vineyards ended.

Instead, the drafters elected to abandon the Orange road just above Beaucastel and draw the boundary line down a narrow gravel path that ran right through the middle of the Jaume vineyards. The very fine vineyards planted in 1905 and still used for Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape Les Origines plus another medium-sized vineyard became Chateauneuf. The 35 hectare Champauvins vineyard, identical in every way to the vineyards across the 10 foot wide path would be Cotes du Rhone.

Outstanding Wine the Best Revenge!
champauvin and galetIt’s hard to imagine how frustrated and upset the Jaume family must have been when they saw the new region’s map, and we know they protested and demanded explanations for years (but never got one). And, when you visit the Jaume’s at their modest winery just outside Chateauneuf, you get the sense that they still are not entirely over the injustice of making Champauvins somehow “less” than vineyards a few feet away.

Fortunately, under the leadership first of Alain Jaume and today of his sons, Sebastien and Christophe, the family’s Domaine Grand Veneur has decided that quality is its own revenge. They farm Champauvins like the Chateauneuf vines across the path, working mainly by hand (necessary with bush vines and gravel-covered soils) and using certified organic viticultural techniques. Yields are similar to their Chateauneuf vineyards, meaning the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre grapes achieve fantastic ripeness without any excess of sugar or roasted, pruny flavors.

In the modern winery, the winemaking for Champauvins is “old school” all the way. Fermentations proceed slowly with gentle pump-overs to extract classic Rhone flavor and structure without adding any harsh tannins. Grenache (70% of the blend) ages in concrete tanks to help it retain color and fruit. Syrah and Mourvedre mellow in old oak casks, given them the tiny bit of air they need to round out without imparting any oak flavor.

The result is a wine chock-full of big, deep, aromas of kirsch, black cherry, crushed herb, wild lavender, black olive and dark chocolate flow from the glass. Those same notes flow across your palate in a rich, vibrant, wine that coats your mouth with flavor and leaves ripe, fine-grained, tannins lingering behind. If they wanted to, the Jaume family could give this the same heft and density that makes “true” Chateauneuf so cellar-worthy (if hard to enjoy young), but because it’s “just” Cotes du Rhone and cannot command Chateauneuf prices, they craft it to be open, supple, savory, and delicious right now.

Dom Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Cotes du Rhone

Tall Vines: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

jean-royer-rugby

Winemaker Jean-Marie played Rugby with top wine consultant Philippe Cambie.

Jean-Marie Royer reclaimed his family’s vineyards (leased out after his father’s early death) and began making wine in the mid-1980s.

With help from a former Rugby pal (now one of France’s top-tier consultants), Philippe Cambie, Jean-Marie made rich, bold, flamboyant wines – in other words, completely typical Chateauneuf du Pape.

Seeking Elegance and Freshness. About 10 years ago, Jean-Marie realized that he wanted more elegance and freshness in his wines and less alcoholic heat and jamminess. With help from Cambie, he adopted an unusual farming approach, allowing the vines to grow very tall – most growers “hedge” the vine tops to force the vines to put more energy into ripening fruit.
jean-royer-vines
In the winery, fermentation temperatures were lowered substantially, allowing for slow, gentle extraction of color and structure and flavor without blowing off the young wines’ perfume. Each varietal now ages in a mixture of old barrels and concrete tank before Royer and Cambie meet to taste and develop trial blends (and talk a LOT of rugby!).

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It! The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines just keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. After lauding Domain Jean Royer’s 2014 Chateauneufs for being “elegant, distinctly pure” and “filled with pure Grenache love,” both Wine Advocate and Vinous urged readers to try to find these wines – but warned they’re hard to come by in the USA.

“All of the 2014s from this estate are downright impressive and well worth seeking out.” – Jeb Dunnuck, Wine Advocate, October 2016.

“The Châteauneufs of Isabel and Jean-Marie Royer have consistently been among the appellation’s most graceful and Burgundy-like bottlings for the better part of the last two decades…Their wines enjoy a strong local following and a growing list of private customers from across Europe, and finding the wines outside the Continent is no easy task.” – Josh Raynolds, Vinous, April 2016

We first encountered Jean-Marie’s wines back in 2013 as the 2010s reached our market – and we were blown away. But with very little wine allocated to our area (and with me taking home significant chunks of our annual allotment), we’ve never had the ability to promote them widely. A visit with Jean-Marie last year seems to have fixed that, and our friends at Potomac Selections and broker Tom Calder have helped us get the wines to you at simply stunning prices. Snap ’em up!

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.

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.

Finding Value in Sablet’s Soils in the Rhone

Sablet

Sablet, France

Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac – the big names of France’s Southern Rhone region turn out some of the most exciting Grenache-based red wines in the world. But with growing fame comes growing prices, so value seekers need to get off the Rhone’s main wine path a bit and explore some of the Valley’s lesser-known villages, vineyards, and vigneron.

Which is why we were at the bi-annual Rhone Valley wine show in Avignon last March: looking for value. We found it in Ventoux, Vinsobre, Plan de Dieu and – in this case – in the slightly obscure Cotes du Rhone Village of Sablet.

The name refers to the village’s sandy soils (Sablet = Sand) dotted with patched of clay, a soil pattern shared with Gigondas which rises up just to the south of Sablet. As in Gigondas, Sablet’s soils drain water very, very, quickly, forcing vines to drive their roots deep into the earth in search of water and nutrients. It’s a touch warmer here than in Gigondas, giving more ripeness and supple textures but still showing better than average minerality and power.

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Meeting Winemaker Pablo Hocht and the Avignon Rhone Show

Young Pablo Hocht, assistant winemaker at St. Cosme in Gigondas, has done a brilliant job of capturing and celebrating Sablet’s potential – if on a micro-scale! – in this luscious 2013 Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet.

We’ve tasted a lot of Rhone reds made with less care and delivering much less pleasure but still somehow selling for $30+. The value in this satisfying, honest, and just plain delicious red is off the charts. Get some while you can.

 

Dom De Creve Coeur CdR Villages Sablet