Lirac vs. Chateauneuf du Pape

Lirac galet

Lirac vineyards are very similar to those of Chateauneuf

It’s hardly surprising that Clos de Sixte Lirac regularly gets compared to the much more expensive wines of Chateauneuf du Pape. Sitting just across the Rhone River on the western bank, Lirac is essentially the other half of Chateauneuf.

The climate and subsoil are essentially identical to Chateauneuf, and – like Chateauneuf – most of the vineyards are covered in large, rounded stones called “galet” left behind by the Rhone when it filled the entire valley in ancient times.

From Fame to Phylloxera
When the Papacy arrived in Avignon in the early 1300s and began searching out sources of wine for communion and celebration, Lirac was quickly identified as the source of the very finest wine in the region. We know that Pope Innocent IV paid a premium for the 20 casks of Lirac he purchased in 1357.

Even after the Pope’s returned to Rome, Lirac’s fame as the Rhone’s best wine continued to grow. Both King Henry IV and Louis XIV regularly served Lirac at their courts. By the end of the 1700s Lirac was, as the Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “a much more important wine center than Chateauneuf du Pape.”

With high demand came the temptation for fraud, and unscrupulous winemakers throughout the Rhone – including in Chateauneuf – often tried to pass their “inferior” wines off as Lirac. To help stamp out this fraud, in 1737 the king of France ordered that casks shipped from Roquemaure should be branded “CDR” – for Cotes du Rhone – as a sign that they were authentic and of the highest quality.

Lirac thrived as the Southern Rhone’s premier wine region right up until phylloxera arrived in 1863. By 1870, essentially no vines remained in Lirac or Chateauneuf du Pape. But the growers of Chateauneuf were quicker to reorganize and replant and reestablish the region’s reputation for great, robust, reds. For most of the 20th Century, Lirac languished as a land of small producers, negotiants, co-ops, and indifferent white, red and pink wine.

A Pivotal Force in Lirac’s Rebirth
Alain Jaume & FilsAlong with Fabrice and Christophe Delorme of Dom de la Mordoree and Henri de Lanzac of Ch de Segries, Alain Jaume has been a pivotal force in starting Lirac on its return to fame.

Talk to any member of the Jaume family, and you’ll quickly notice how their eyes light up and speech gets faster and more intense when they discuss Clos de Sixte. While they are certainly proud of their award-winning Chateauneuf du Papes, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone, this Lirac vineyard holds a special place in the family’s heart.

They are (justifiably) proud of this wine that is helping re-establish the reputation of the once famous Lirac vineyard. Certified organic farming, hand harvesting, careful selection of only the best fruit, and the kind of winemaking – long, slow, fermentations and aging the Syrah (35%) and Mourvedre (15%) components in French oak barrels are the kind of care and expense normally only seen in top-flight Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

And, normally, the price of this glorious red Rhone resembles Chateauneuf, too. As critic Robert Parker said of the fine 2009, at the $30 release price, “Clos de Sixte may look expensive, but this is a sensational wine capable of lasting for a decade or more.” It’s impressive that the Jaume family’s 2016 Clos de Sixte Lirac carried the same $30 release price as the 2009. Our best in the USA $18.98/ea case price is more impressive still!

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Jean Royer: From Pure Power to Powerful Purity

jean-royer-vinesJean-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.

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.

Royer lets the vine keep growing on top while pulling leaves from around the bunches and then aggressively thinning the crop over the summer. He’s now able to hang his fruit longer (developing more flavor and supple tannins) while still retaining more acid and developing less sugar than his neighbors.

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!).

The results are impressive – in fact, in some ways these are the most impressive wines I know of. They are complex and worth of cellaring and paying attention to. But they’re also utterly delicious and flat-out fun to drink. And while they are distinctively “Chateauneuf,” loaded with the ripe fruit, black olive and savory herb that defines this great Southern Rhone region, they are also open and accessible enough that even folks who normally only drink California wines love them too.

Beautiful CdP – If You Can Find It!
The critical praise for Jean-Marie Royer’s wines keeps piling up, even as the wines get harder and harder to find here in the USA. As Josh Raynolds explained when reviewing last year’s releases:

“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 a couple of years ago 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. Get ‘em while you can!

Stunning Sancerre from Bernard Fleuriet

The international wine press is beginning to catch on to what’s happening at the Fleuriet estate. I guess it’s possible that there’s a better winegrower working in Sancerre today than Bernard Fleuriet. There certainly are bigger, better known, higher-production estates. But I can’t imagine that there’s anyone making more brilliant white and red Sancerre with this kind of intensity, depth and utterly captivating complexity. Whether you’re a diehard Sauvignon Blanc lover or adore the kind of powerfully pure Pinot Noir you normally only find in 1er Cru Burgundy sites, you really simply have to try these wines.


The Fleuriet brothers established their estate in 1991 and over the years have accumulated about 50 acres of vineyards in 35 different plots across Sancerre. Their sites capture all of Sancerre’s mineral diversity, with about 10% of the vines growing on silex (flint), 40% on white Kimmeridgian limestone marls, and the rest on soils covered in chalk pebbles (Caillottes).

Mineral Diversity, Prime Locations
What all the sites share is prime locations – all face south or southeast to receive the warm sunshine needed to fully ripen Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in this northerly winegrowing region.

They work their vines as naturally as possible with minimal pesticides and no herbicides. Both for quality and reflecting the many steep slopes they farm, all Fleuriet grapes are harvested by hand and sorted to ensure only perfectly ripe, flavorful, grapes are used. And, from first pick to final bottling, Bernard Fleuriet takes extreme care to ensure the juice and wine are protected from oxygen beyond what they absorb from barrel and concrete tank.

Concrete … and Oak
For fermentation, Bernard generally prefers concrete to stainless steel, allowing very small amounts of oxygen in through the walls of the tank to accentuate texture and depth. Increasingly he is using egg-shaped fermenters which promote a constant, gentle, movement of the lees to add still more texture without having to open the tank for stirring.

And then there’s the oak. For the whites, as I said last year, I have never encountered a finer use of French oak barrel with Sauvignon Blanc (and, yes, I’ve tasted Didier Dagueneau’s much more expensive Pouilly Fumes). For the whites that see barrel, the oak is perfectly gauged to accentuate Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent minerality and add fantastic depth and precision of texture without covering the ripe fruit in wood flavor. Seriously – it’s not possible to do a better job of matching wood to Sauvignon Blanc.

Revelatory Reds
The reds have been an equally impressive revelation. The “basic” La Magie des Cailloutes red is a more intense and ripe version of what you hope for in Sancerre rouge – a very Pinot Noir fruitiness with touches of earth and spice and a texture that invites enjoyment with everyday foods. The Sancerre Rouge Anthocyanes 2015 is something else entirely. Imagine Burgundy’s Jean Michel Guillon growing and making Pinot in Sancerre and you’ll be on the right track.

All of these wines are delicious today – as you’ll see when you come by Saturday, June 23,  from noon-4pm to taste them with importer Olivier Daubresse. All will get even better over the next few years. And all are terrific values at our mix/match prices.

As you’ll see when you look at the wine descriptions, reviewers are beginning to realize what’s going on here, and the wines are earning big scores as they are tasted by the critics. Before the rush is on, come, try, and secure some for yourself.

Chablis Quality Like the “Big Boys”…

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesI’ve always wondered how Chablis as fine as Dom des Malandes could always remain so…well, to be blunt: cheap! It’s not like the estate is new or unknown. Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate.

The wines have earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert Clive Coates awarding Malandes a two-star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy. To put that in context, that’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three-times the prices of Malandes.

What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

But why are the prices so reasonable – even before we slash them further with our direct import savings?

… Priced With Modesty and Practicality
Malandes Chablis VineyardSpending an afternoon and evening with Lyne in Chablis last February helped me understand. Lyne’s family – the Tremblays well known in Chablis – have been living, farming and making wine here for a long time. They have always been practical business people – Lyne said her grandfather was one of the first growers in Chablis to stop selling to the co-op and bottle and sell all his own production starting in the early 1900s. Bottled wine was more of a risk, but turned a much better profit.

Entrepreneurial ambition has always been tempered by the realities of trying to make a living the cold, stony, soils of Chablis. Lyne explained that it was simply impossible for a small grower to make a living from grapes and wine in Chablis until the mid-1970s. Frost in the spring, vine-killing cold weather in winter, summer hail, and ill-timed rain near harvest conspired to wipe out nearly 100% of Chablis production in two to three years per decade. Lyne remembers the brutal stretch of 1952, ’52 and ’54 when her father had no grapes (and not much grain) for three consecutive years. In 1954 he was forced to leave home and pick grapes in Beaujolais to make enough money to feed the family.

By the mid-1970s growers in Chablis had learned frost and winter cold management techniques from their neighbors in Champagne (Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy’s Beaune), opening the doors to the potential to making a living from wine. So Lyne took over from her father and, with husband Jean-Bernard Marchive, created Domaine des Malandes.

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne with Chablis’ First Ever Hail Nets

Innovation in Wine Growing … and Marketing
Even as she prepares to retire and hand over the estate to her son and youngest daughter, Lyne remains an innovator. Hail has been a problem in Chablis for years and seems to be intensifying with global climate change. Some of Lyne’s vines grow in what is basically a thunderstorm channel – a valley between two hills that captures storms and funnels their maximum impact right on the fragile vines.

After the disastrous 2016 storm season, Lyne decided she’d had enough. Although it took nine months of intensive studies, legal filings and lobbying, two months ago she received a permit to test Chablis first ever hail netting system. No other grower has been brave enough to step up to try it, so she’s rolling it out as a test with a mix of protected and unprotected rows. As she says, it’s very expensive – but then so is losing the entire harvest to hail.

“No one else was willing. So I decided I must go ahead by myself. I believe it’s what we must do to make good, good, good, Chablis.”

As Neal Martin of Wine Advocate said after a blind tasting of Lyne’s 2014 and 2015 Chablis last year, “I was very impressed by the consistency here. Proprietor Lyne Archive, with winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau, crafted some really quite superb Premier Crus that shone out. It’s great to see this well-known name in Chablis doing so well – long may it continue.” We think it will.

The Extraordinary 2016 Chablis of Domaine des Malandes
Dom des MalandesAs Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

Once again, that’s true for Malandes’ 2016 releases, which are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. The steep losses during the challenging growing season means we weren’t able to get any 2016 Grand Cru Les Clos, but we do have a tiny bit of 2015 available. The 2016 Villages cuvee is a fantastic “house white” for now and 3-4 years to come. And both 1er Crus are classic bottlings you won’t want to miss.

Below you’ll find our and critics’ notes on all four wines. Please note that Alan Meadows – aka Burghound – tasted the 2016s at a very awkward moment of their evolution, either right after pre-bottling sulfuring or, worse, right after bottling. The reduction he complains of has resolved and all of the wines are clearly even better than his reviews suggest. Happy hunting!

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!

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!

Does Rosé Age? A Case Study with Vignelaure

outside roseWe often get asked, “Does rosé age?” And our answer: “no and yes!”

“No” because very, very, few pink wines are better at age four or five than they were on release. But “yes!” because almost all of the pink wine we buy gets better as it recovers from the shock of early spring bottling and shipment. I find that most good rosés peak somewhere between August and Thanksgiving and then hold nicely into the following year.

And if a pink wine has enough tannin and acid to protect it, it can keep right on improving for 24 months and is actually at its best in its second summer. The 93 point 2015 Vignelaure rosé is a perfect example.

Despite our eye-popping $9.98/ea by the case price (more on why that’s true later), this is not your typical, just-bottled and rushed to market rosé. But, then, Chateau Vignelaure is not your typical Provence wine estate.

A Top Site for Cabernet. Georges Brunet, owner of Third Growth Ch La Lagune in Bordeaux, discovered the Vignelaure site in the early 1960s. With soils perfectly suited to Cabernet and 1,300 feet of elevation moderating Provence’s intense sunshine, he planted the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings taken from La Lagune. By the mid-1970s, Vignelaure – meaning “the vineyard of the sacred spring” – had gained fame as one of Provence’s best, agreeable, and distinctive reds.

In his benchmark 1987 book on Rhone and Provence, Robert Parker called Vignelaure “one of the showpiece properties not only of Provence, but of France…Chateau Vignelaure specializes in red wine, capable of ageing 15-20 years, produced from a blend of two great wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Vignelaure’s wines are elegant expressions of Provencal wine-making at its best.”

ch Vignelaure bottleAdding a Rosé. Starting in 1993, Vignelaure added top-flight rosé to the portfolio, too. They blend 40% Grenache and 30% Syrah – the region’s classic rosé grapes – with 30% of their stunning Cabernet Sauvignon to create a wine with authentic Provençal character plus one extra notch of richness, power, and ability to age. The Grenache, Syrah, and most of the Cabernet ferment and age in tank while a little of the Cabernet rests in barrel.

The result is a rosé that was good when it landed here last summer but has only gotten better in the past 10 months or so. There’s been no dimming of the aromas and flavors of red berries, tangerine and crushed herb. But the texture is even better, round and plush and mouthfilling but still light and fresh. Delicious right now, but no rush: save a bottle or two for Thanksgiving!

A Note about the Price. This rosé released last year at a $20 price (we offered it at $16.98 last year). Why so much less this year? It’s a combination of factors. Start with Vignelaure’s fairly late arrival last year (we didn’t get any until late July) so that the importer didn’t sell all they had by the end of rosé season. Then add in America’s obsession with drinking only the youngest, just-released pink wines from the most recent harvest. Put those together with a wine that’s actually better than it was last year and you get one heck of a deal!