Superb Quality from the Heart of Provence

Dom d'eole wineryDomaine d’Eole is a unique, if young estate created in 1992 by German oenologist Matthias Wimmer, purchased and transformed to certified organic farming by his partner, estate-owner and French financier Christian Raimont, and introduced into the United States by importer Olivier Daubresse.

The Domaine sits in the heart of the Provence, south of Avignon and northwest of Aix-en-Provence, at the base of the low Chaîne des Alpilles mountain range. The Alpilles block some of the Mistrial wind’s intensity – the fan is set to “medium” here rather than “high” – but still allow for some cool air from the Mediterranean Sea – just 25 miles south – to reach the vineyards.

What doesn’t reach the vineyards is a lot of rain, and what rain that does fall drains quickly through the complex, very ancient, limestone soils. The vines drive their roots deep for nutrients and water, and the alternating hot and cool, but always dry, climate is perfect for farming without chemical additives, pesticides, or sprays.

D'Eole Matthias Wimmer and Christian RaimontThe estate’s first, and only winemaker – German-born Matthias Wimmer – pointed towards organic farming from the estate’s founding in 1992 and achieved Ecocert Organic Certification in 1996. That same year, French financier Christian Raimont purchased d’Eole and enabled Matthias to invest in a state of the art winery and maintain his commitment to organics and ultra-low yields.

Seriously Small Crop Farming
About those yields. The Coteaux d’Aix en Provence appellation is most famous for its rosé wines and the farming rules here are built on the assumption that fresh, fruity, and pink is about all that’s required for success. So, vineyards in this rugged, non-irrigated, region can go all the way up to 60 hectoliters per hectare, a level that’s normally achieved by letting the vines groan under the weight of berries and not worrying about getting everything ripe – after all, you’re just making pink wine, right?

Dom d'eole bottlesAt Domaine d’Eole, things are a bit more serious. For red, white and rosé wines, the goal is perfect ripeness with plenty of intensity and structure. In the winter, vines are pruned severely, limiting the number of fruit-bearing buds that can form in the spring. Then, the “second crop” that forms in late spring is removed and the main crop adjusted by “green harvesting” – cutting off grape bunches – to ensure that each vine is balanced and prepared to deliver ripe grapes. Last, during harvest, trained harvesters inspect each grape bunch, leaving any that aren’t fully ripe and perfect condition on the ground to rot and, eventually, feed next year’s crop.

Across the d’Eole vineyards, then, the maximum yield Wimmer and Raimont allow to ripen and reach the winery is only 30 hectoliters per hectare – half of the legal crop. Smaller crop levels make farming more expensive – it actually takes more work to grow 30hl/ha than it does to let 60hl/ha hang! – but it pays off in better ripeness, silkier texture, and much, much, more flavor and complexity.

Dom d'eole roseWe’re showcasing the unique benefits of organic farming and ultra-low yields in today’s featured wine, the Domaine d’Eole Rosé 2017. But you have to taste the red and white wines to understand the full story. Join us this Saturday as estate owner Christian Raimont pours great selections from new releases and wines aged to perfection, too!

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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!

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!

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!

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