I love Maison M. Chapoutier, to give the company its full and proper title, though I’ll admit that it was the aura around the company itself and not its wines that attracted me first, in particular its colourful figurehead Michel Chapoutier; you may remember him from my first Wine Wisdom posts in fact.
Though I’ve never had the chance to meet him, Chapoutier seems to me to be a fantastically idiosyncratic and colourful character: opinionated, deliberately and consciously contrarian, proud, stubborn, revolutionary, arrogant, bombastic, narcissistic, and so much more. He seems to be a person that some love to hate, and others hate to love. He’s ruthless and cold on one hand then generous and emotive on the other, noted for his hyperbole and grand pronouncements, and talking effusively at length about minutiae others often overlook, whether for better or worse. Love him or hate him, you can’t but be captivated by this man and, by extension for me at least, his wines too.
I originally began this post as a review of one of his excellent wines, but ended up spending a couple of happy hours picking over the details of this fascinating man and his company. Here’s a little review of it all – enjoy!
Chapoutier: The Company and the Man
The story of how the M. Chapoutier business as we know it today came about is like something out of House of Cards.
Michel Chapoutier’s grandfather, Marc, handed over the reins to the family winery to Michel’s father and brother in 1977, though only nominally. In what may be seen as a foreshadowing of his grandson’s own ambitions, Marc still maintained control over vinification – i.e. growing the grapes and making the wine itself – leaving his son and grandson the relatively demoted tasks of bottling, ageing and distribution.
In 1987 a 23-year-old Michel returned from a few years working in other wine regions to join his grandfather in the vineyard, and immediately set about impressing his own stamp on the Chapoutier brand. But as his brother and father were responsible for the finishing of the wines then they were never going to be “his” wines in their entirety, a troubling situation for the obsessive Michel.
Taking his grievances directly to his grandfather, he was offered the chance of assuming the head role of the family business ahead of his own father, an opportunity that itself should have been conceited enough to keep him happy. But still this wasn’t enough for the driven young Michel, who didn’t fancy sharing the spoils of his hard work with what he saw as his lazy and therefore undeserving family members.
So, in 1990, at only 26 years old, Michel Chapoutier bought the company outright from his grandfather, firing all family members involved in the firm soon after. In my mind this plays out like the final scene of The Godfather, where the heads of all the rival families are toppled in one fell swoop. Ruthless doesn’t quite cover it.
Unusually, unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Rhône doesn’t have an official cru (vineyard) classification system, despite the region’s wine being some of the most renowned and diverse in the world.
There are, however, lieux-dits, “named places” or place names that denote vineyard sites and plots within each appellation which have been recognised – either historically or via more recent investigation – as producing wines of a distinct quality or character. Chapoutier has been voracious in his appetite for snapping up these lieux-dits and now is one of the largest holders of some of the most rare and exclusive plots of land in the Rhône, including most notably a large swathe of the fabled Hermitage hill.
Chapoutier is also famous for his production methods. Most of his wines are certified organic, with the top wines going one step further by being produced biodynamically. Biodynamic winemaking is like organic farming on speed: not only are synthetic sprays banned in their entirety, but soil treatments such as natural sprays and manure are treated with certain ‘preparations’ such as “flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder” and “oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal.”
Not only that but certain key vineyard jobs such as pruning, picking and the aforementioned spraying are performed according to the phases of the moon. I kid you not. There are more winemakers than you’d think around the world practicing biodynamics at the moment, with many transitioning to the practice. I won’t try and cover this weird and wonderful way of making wine in this blog, but Jamie Goode (again) has an excellent and comprehensive explainer here should you wish to know more.
M. Chapoutier Crozes-Ermitage ‘Les Varonniers’ 2003
So, on to the wine. This one comes from Crozes-Hermitage in the northern Rhône, which is the largest appellation in the region and can produce some nice if ordinary wines.
But this is a Chapoutier wine, and not only that but Les Varonniers is from his ‘Sélections Parcellaires‘ top tier of wines, so you can fully expect it be anything but ‘ordinary.’
The wine is sourced from a lieux-dit known as Varognes; originally it was blended with wine produced from another Crozes-Hermitage lieux-dit called Les Meysonniers, with the resulting contraction of the two names giving “Varonniers.” Now, however, it is completely sourced from the Varognes plot alone, which boasts vines with an average age of 65 years and an esteemed placement at the fringe of Hermitage hill.
The wine was very reductive and funky on initial opening and needed a bit of air to blow this off before some gamey, barnyard aromas revealed themselves before moving on to very savoury, meaty notes. Eventually some dried fruits such as redcurrants and raisins were evident, overlaid with some typical spice. And I may be crazy, but I thought I detected some lavendar – but that’s sure a more South of France thing?
Anyway, that gamey characteristic appeared again on the palate again, with layers of leather and a little liquorice too. It had lovely acidity and tannin – enough to warrant good food, but not so much not to be able to enjoy on its own. A gentle long finish completed this delightful wine.
(Thanks to Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak site for providing much of the detail for this post)