More than angular Bordeaux or earthy Burgundy, or even the fat, smoky offerings from Northern Rhône, the wines of the Southern Rhône epitomize the notion of ‘user friendly.’ Big and luscious when young, rich and fruit-centered as they age, these wines are not only sumptuous at all stages, they are often available at price points very congenial to consumers. A veritable varietal free-for-all with up to 19 different grapes legally permitted, this includes using white-skinned grapes (in particular, Viognier) in red wine to add perfume and spice and results in some of the most distinctive cuvées in France.
The irony of Southern Rhône, perhaps, is that the most famous name, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, may bludgeon a drinker with its sheer, high-alcohol hedonism. But in honesty, in the broader context, Châteauneuf operates in a personal orbit somewhat removed from the greater appellation, with its own PR machine, workforce and identity.
This week’s wine package highlights seven of CdP’s Southern Rhône co-stars. None are really rivals, and they certainly are not also-rans, and although a few may style themselves after Châteauneuf, they are all unique representatives of their individual places of origin.
They’re also examples of the realities of the global warming in Southern Rhône, where vineyards at higher elevations are finding that changing conditions can actually work in their favor. If nothing else, it this combination of pluck, reason and savoir faire that may be viewed as the benchmark ideology behind the elegant and opulently textured wines of Southern Rhône beyond du Pape.
The core of the cuvée concept in any wine region is that individual varieties tend to have both strengths and weaknesses; if a vintner can take advantage of a strength and compensate for a weakness, success is achieved. In Southern Rhône, the industry slang ‘GSM’ refers to the magical synergy that comes from a classic marriage of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, although not necessarily in that order. Grenache provides abundant fruit and soft spice while Syrah is responsible for a tannic backbone and body-structure with black pepper notes and Mourvèdre adds color, complexity and elegance.
Although the acronym ‘GSM’ likely originated in Australia, the spiritual home for this triumvirate is Southern Rhône, where the complementary meshing of the three varieties became the official mode of the region in 1937. By local law, a minimum of 30% GSM must make up at least 70% of the blend. That said, the blends tend to be a bit lopsided in Southern Rhône. Grenache is the most widely planted grape and tends to make up the lion’s share of overall blends, with other varieties adding counterpoint notes, but not dominance.
To say that the wines of Lirac are lyrical is not just a pun; the noted combination of elegant perfume and savory grace softens the might. Lirac’s reds are similar in style to the softest of the Côtes du Rhône Villages but miles ahead in complexity: 85% of Lirac production is red, with rosés accounting for 5% and whites the remaining 10%.
Lirac’s two thousand acres are directly across the Rhône from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and the appellation shares the same iconic galets roulés scattered throughout the sandy limestone soils. Vineyards on Lirac’s upper terraces are generally made of red clay and the large pebbles are here known as ‘terrasses villafranchiennes’; the soil of the lower vineyards shows more loess and clay-limestone. All elevations are prone to summer drought and, under certain strictures, irrigation is allowed.
“The terroir of Lirac is often hidden in the shadows of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” says Laure Poisson of Les Vignerons de Tavel & Lirac. “But in recent years, Lirac has emerged from the shadows to become something different, something unique.”
GSM represents the Big Three in Southern Rhône, but at Domaine de la Mordorée, the most significant trio is Christophe and Fabrice Delorme along with their father Francis. In 1986, they purchased an estate in Tavel with the intention of producing world-class wine while remaining dedicated to an ecologically-sound stewardship of their land. The success of the venture may be measured by the glowing praise heaped upon them by Robert Parker Jr. in 2007: “With 135 acres spread throughout some of the most impressive appellations of the Southern Rhône, Christophe Delorme and his brother have produced one exquisite wine after another. Of course, the top cuvées of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are rare and expensive, but this is a place to find terrific Côtes-du-Rhônes and Liracs as well. Delorme is equally adept at dry whites as well as reds, and turns out some stunning rosés both under the Côtes-du-Rhône and Tavel appellations.”
With the untimely passing of Christophe in 2015, his daughter Ambre has stepped in; also invaluable to the current team is winemaker Rémy Chauvet, who worked as Christophe’s cellar manager. The 135 acres mentioned by Parker Jr. cover 38 parcels in Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, Côtes-du-Rhone and Condrieu; the variety of terroirs thus explored make trellising a vital consideration. Says Fabrice, “Goblet training is used for older, untrellised vineyards, with the canopy remaining free, a traditional pruning method provides better resistance to wind and drought and lesser sensitivity to trunk diseases. Cordon de Royat training is used for newer, trellised vineyards. The newer method allows for higher vines, leaving a larger leaf surface exposed to the sun, which yield colorful grapes that are richer in tannins and in sugar. Exposure to sunlight also produces healthier grapes and allows a greater development of aromas.”
Land stewardship remains vital to the Mordorée culture, which adheres to the raisonnée method—intervening in the vineyard only when necessary. The yield is reduced in the vineyard by ébourgeonnage (de-budding in spring) and vendanges vertes (green harvesting) in the summer.
1. Domaine de la Mordorée ‘La Reine des Bois’, 2019 Lirac ($38)
40% Syrah and 30% each of Grenache and Mourvèdre grown on 40-year-old vines among the famous ‘galets roulés’—large stone pebbles—that mark this part of the Rhône’s sand and clay soils. While 10% is fermented in older casks, 90% of the wine goes into stainless steel; the wine shows juicy forest berry behind crushed-stone minerality livened up with sizzling black spice. It’s lush and velvety with violet notes and a touch of mocha.
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2. Domaine de la Mordorée ‘La Dame Rousse’, 2019 Lirac ($26)
The ‘Redheaded Lady’ is a blend of 50% Grenache and 50% Syrah grown on 50 acres of 40-year-old vines. It’s loaded with smoky black cherries, licorice, scorched terra cotta and a richly expressed minerality that is characteristic of this pebble-littered terroir.
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Where the terrain of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is sun and wind, Gigondas is forest and scrubland filled with wild lavender, sage and thyme, forming the archetypal ‘garrigue’ of Southern France. These brambly, herbal aromatics are a common in tasting notes of Gigondas wines, and it is perhaps testimonial to the phenomenal power of terroir that grapes and wildflowers can coax the same flavors from the earth: a combination of limestone soils on the Montmirail slopes to the east, and rocky, sandy, free-draining soils on the flatter, lower-lying plains to the north and west.
Maximum yield in Gigondas is set at 36 hectoliters per hectare, only slightly more than the restrictions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As an additional quality assurance, a technique known as ‘triage’ is employed—the mandatory separation of healthy grapes from imperfect grapes.
With forty acres of prime Gigondas terroir facing the rocky slopes of Les Dentelles de Montmirail and another 55 in Vacqueyras, brothers Jean-Michel and Frédéric Vache credit success to a number of factors, including old-vine parcels, a conscientious approach to winemaking and their atmospheric 11th century cellar. Among the technical aspects favored by their process are long maceration periods, extended élevages and no new oak.
In the Vacqueyras, their vineyards grow on somewhat exclusive terroir; the safres and marls of the Miocene era represent less than 10% of the appellation. In the extreme south of Gigondas dominated by the remains of an old, 8th century watchtower (La Tour Sarrasine), the southerly exposures of the hillside vines receive ideal sunshine balanced by cool nights and enhanced by the clay-rich soils.
Of the origins of the estate’s name, Frédéric explains: “The Vache and Archimbaud families are among the oldest families in Vacqueyras. Indeed, they are already present in the first Clerical registers of the 17th century. The oldest part of the building, currently our tasting cellar, dates from the 12th century and would have belonged to the Knights Templar. A farmer was then in charge of livestock and crops. This farmer was called ‘Chasal’, a word which over time was to become ‘Cazaux’, the current name of the estate.”
Jean-Michel adds, “The first plantations of vines date from the middle of the 19th century, on the poorest soils, where nothing else could grow. In these times when food sufficiency was at the center of all concerns, the vines simply ensured the family consumption of wine. In the 20th century, the cultivation of the vine intensified to become a monoculture from 1957, immediately after the catastrophic frosts of 1956 which ravaged the olive, apricot and cherry orchards.”
3. Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux ‘La Tour Sarrasine’, 2020 Gigondas ($31)
A blend of 70% Grenache and 15% each of Syrah and Mourvèdre from vines between 30 and 60 years old. The wine is redolent of black bramble-berries and shows notes of new saddle leather, lavender and Herbes de Provence. The fruit is in the forefront behind tannins, and a great balance between the two offers a pure and seamless mouthfeel.
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Quality will out: Vacqueyras was once one of the Côtes du Rhône villages, but the consistent quality of its wines—in particular, its intensely concentrated reds—earned it an upgrade to a full, independent AOC in 1990. With Gigondas to the northeast and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the northwest, Vacqueyras is a wine that resembles both, although it is generally considered to be slightly less refined. By law, the wines of Vacqueyras are required to contain at least 50% Grenache, while Syrah and Mourvèdre must together account for at least 20%. Any of the other Côtes du Rhône varieties may make up 10 percent—Carignan was formerly excluded, but is now permitted.
Vacqueyras nestles at the feet of the Dentelles de Montmirail foothills, and the finest vineyard sites are on the steep, southwest-facing limestone slopes just to the east of the town. These hills demonstrate the origins of the landscape, divided between limestone ridges at 1650 feet and an alluvio-glacial terrace formed many thousands of years ago. The climate is strictly Mediterranean—the sea is 50 miles to the south—blessing the region with a long, hot, dry growing season, ensuring maximum ripeness in its vineyards. This, combined with south-westerly exposures, explains the relatively high density of vines in Vacqueyras’ vineyards.
4. Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux ‘Cuvée des Templiers’, 2018 Vacqueyras ($28)
50% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre from vines between 30 and 50 years old; Plush and juicy, the fruit-jamming quality of Grenache is balanced by sharper, savory tones of Syrah and Mourvèdre to make a keenly balanced, silky-textured red nuanced by hints of toast, wet earth and cocoa powder.
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Domaine de La Colline St. Jean has been family-owned for several generations; the dynamic Roland Alazard, who passed away in 2013, has passed down the reins to his son Cyril and his daughter Aurélie, who have dedicated themselves to preserving the character and traditions of this classic Côtes-du-Rhône wine.
Their sixty acres of south facing vineyards in Vin de Pays du Vaucluse (IGP), Côtes-du-Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Beaumes de Venise include vines of an average age of 50 years and are planted primarily on clay and limestone.
5. Domaine de La Colline Saint Jean ‘Vieilles Vignes’, 2019 Vacqueyras ($33)
80% Grenache and 20% Syrah from vines between 85 and 110 years old. Picked manually, then sorted and destemmed, following which, the must is macerated on the skins for 20 days in concrete vats. The wine displays ripe black fruits, plum, brandied cherries, and finely-grained tannins that leave the impression of chocolate dust.
In the world of wine, longevity is the consummation devoutly to be wished; it means staying power, both on the palate and in the field. Domaine La Garrigue was founded in 1850 by the same family that runs the property today. Brothers Maxime and Pierre Bernard are at the helm, with wives, children, nieces and nephews all at work, and there is plenty to be done: At over two hundred acres, it is the largest domain in Vacqueyras and the Bernard family was instrumental in having the region elevated to Cru status.
There are three terroirs in Vacqueyras, and La Garrigue has plots in each of them, aware of what each brings to the party. Red-clay-under-galets plateau of La Garrigue (not coincidentally, where Domaine la Garrigue is located) offers power and depth, the sandy soils around the village of Vacqueyras bring finesse and the rocky limestone slopes at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail mean structure.
This property focuses on making wines with minimal manipulation to let the terroir speak through the wines. The oldest vines of Domaine de la Garrigue were planted in the late 1940’s, just after the Germans left the area after World War II.
6. Domaine La Garrigue ‘Albert & Camille’, 2019 Vacqueyras ($26)
75% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, 5% Cinsault grown on clay-limestone and sand on an ancient river terrace. La Garrigue’s flagship wine is a quintessential and charming Vacqueyras loaded with brandied cherry, Damson plum and mulberry above complex undertones of leather, pepper and spice.
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Cairanne picked up Cru status in 2016, and with the stroke of that bureaucratic pen, no longer had to label itself a Côtes du Rhône Villages. Found east of Orange, the soils of Cairanne are predominantly built of alluvial limestone from several local rivers and streams; red, iron-rich earth over sandstone bedrock is also found throughout the appellation. Topography ranges from the glacial plateau to the south of the town to the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail foothills to the north and west.
Cairanne is often called ‘the gateway to the Southern Rhône’, combining the typically northern Syrah grape with the much heat-loving Grenache and Mourvèdre. The Mediterranean is dry with plenty of sunshine, and most importantly, vineyard health is heavily influenced by the Mistral wind.
Denis Alary of Domaine Alary considers himself a perfectionist as well as a grand idealist; his seventy acres of vineyard, entirely in Cairanne, is where he goes to relieve the stress that accompanies the loftiness of his ambitions. “Alone,” he says: “Without a cell phone.” As he took over the estate from his father Daniel, the oenologist is now passing responsibility to his son Jean-Étienne who brings an international reputation to this dry, dusty corner of France, having vinified at New Zealand’s Seresin, Australia’s Henschke and in France at Confuron-Cotetidot in Burgundy.
7. Domaine Alary ‘L’Estévenas’, 2019 Cairanne ($26)
60% Grenache, 40% Syrah. Blackberries, a wine jammed with black cherries, applewood, garrigue and floral notes with loads of Provençal charm, notable complexity, fine tannins and a long, mineral-crisp finish.
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“Rasteau is a powerful wine,” says Helen Durand of Domaine du Trapadis. “Power and freshness aren’t opposites here. Even if acidity is soft, there is freshness from minerality and finesse, particularly with age.”
Long considered one of the best of the Côtes du Rhône Villages, the appellation obtained Cru status for dry red wines in 2010—previously, it had been heralded for its fortified sweet wine, Vin Doux Naturel (VDN). The climate is typical of Southern Rhône except that the south-facing hillsides provide protection from the cool Mistral winds; the soils are relatively diverse, though it is the higher proportion of clay which gives the red wines their distinctive body and richness. Rootstocks are chosen to take account of the soil type, so each vine can be grown in the most suitable location. Many parcels are covered in rounded cobbles, carried down from the Alps by the Ouvèze when the glaciers melted over 18 million years ago. These retain heat well, storing it by day and releasing it to the vines at night to produce excellent concentration in the grapes. In summer, the vines must search deeper to find the nutrients they require. They develop strong root systems which helps minimize hydric stress; thus, as in most wine regions, the poor soils of Rasteau soils can produce extremely high-quality wines.
A family-run estate for eight generations, brothers Daniel & Frédéric Coulon and Daniel’s sons Victor and Antonin carry forward the torch amid a mosaic of limestone, round pebbles on a clay substrate with varying amounts of iron and fine sedimentary sand. There are 13 legally permitted varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Beaurenard grows them all. After allowing a specific plot to remain fallow for twelve years, the Coulons splice-grafted each allowable grape variety chosen from the estate’s oldest vines and created a Conservatory: “Our primary goal was to safeguard the natural genetic heritage that is particularly well adapted to the terroir. But we were also mindful of future generations, and if global warning continues, to increase the proportion of varieties that contain less sugar and contribute aromatic complexity.”
8. Domaine de Beaurenard, 2019 Rasteau ($33)
80% Grenache, 17% Syrah and 3% Mourvèdre from Beaurenard’s sixty acres in Rasteau, the wine displays an array of floral scents in the nose in the nose with garrigue and wild blackberry notes. Fruity and spicy on the palate with wild raspberry, rosemary and thyme with an appealing tannic structure.
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To say ‘Tavel rosé’ is to repeat yourself since, by law, all wine from Tavel is rosé. Creeping along the right bank of the Rhône River in the Gard, the soils of Tavel are a potpourri of small stones called galets roulés, fine sand and fractured limestone, and the hot, dry climate allows the grapes (predominantly Grenache, Syrah and Clairette) to achieve full phenolic ripeness. As a result, Tavel rosé tends to be richer and more deeply colored than the salmon-pink wines from other regions, with an associated complexity of flavor in the glass.
The estate (which has belonged to the Congregation of Missionary Fathers of the Holy Family since the 18th century) operates under the motto, ‘Auspice clara Manissy Stella’, or, ‘beneath the protection of the bright star of Manissy.’ Since 2004, it has also operated under the auspices of Florian André, whose winemaking and cellar skills have upheld the Château’s reputation for Tête de Cuvée barrel-aged rosé.
9. Château de Manissy ‘Cuvée des Lys’, 2021 Tavel ($19)
60% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 20% Clairette from vines that average 45 years old, grown in clay, river rock and fine-grained sand. It opens with aromas of white flowers and spring strawberries, filling out in a silky blend of watermelon and pomegranate; it is rich in minerality and intriguingly peppery on the finish with notes of honeysuckle and lime.
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Sweet wines have been made in Beaumes de Venise since the 14th century; they were granted their own controlled appellation in 1945. The village is known for red wines as well, sold under the Beaumes-de-Venise appellation, created in 2005. Surrounded by Côtes du Ventoux in the south and east and Vacqueyras and Gigondas to the west and north, the land is Provençal in essence, with alternating sunbaked hills and fields of scree and lavender, with soils ranging from heavy clay to sand and gravel.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is made from Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains and a darker version with a similar, if slightly darker profile. The technique employed involves the traditional process of ‘mutage’ wherein grapes are picked in whole bunches, with several passes to ensure optimum ripeness and to ensure that the grapes have natural sugar level of 252 grams per liter or more. Grape spirit (at a minimum of 96 percent pure) is added to the partially fermented grape must to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation. It in turn results in a high level of residual sugar – at least 100 grams per liter must be achieved in the finished wine. Alcohol content must be a minimum of 15 percent by volume.
The word ‘Beaumes’ gives an idea of how far back this part of France traces human habitation—it means ‘caves’, which was the domestic arrangement of the original neighbors of current Domaine des Bernardins owners Andrew and Elisabeth Hall.
The winemaking tradition here is nearly as storied; the property was previously owned by Bernardin monks and was transformed into a wine estate by Louis Castaud, who was concerned about the village’s production methods were disappearing. Within ten years, in 1945, he had achieved appellation status for Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, and today, his daughter Renée Castaud is still active in running the estate, assisted by granddaughter Elisabeth and husband Andrew, and now, their son Romain. The family still has one bottle of 1847 Muscat that is very highly prized.
The vineyards consist of 54 acres, with 37 acres of Muscat and 17 acres of Syrah and Cinsault for Côtes du Rhône Rouge production. The viticulture is traditional; pruning, de-budding, trellising, leaf removal and picking are done by hand while the soil is prepared by good, old-fashioned ploughing, using organic compost made from grape marc of the discarded stalks and skins. Domaine des Bernardins follows standards for sustainable agriculture.
10. Domaine des Bernardins ‘Hommage’, nv Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (VDN) ($41) 500 ml
75% Muscat Petits Grains Blancs, 25% Muscat Petits Grains Noirs; golden and grapey, unctuous with honey, grilled pineapple, lemon zest, rosewater, baked apple and fresh ginger. A great viscosity carries a long finish of lavender and crème brûlée with a touch of oak and cayenne at the end.
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Preceding the 2018 growing season, both the winter and spring were wet and mild, but despite some light rain falling during flowering, it was still reasonably successful. Unexpected storms in June caused some difficulties with mildew and rot, more pronounced the further south you look. The rot meant many producers had to spray but, unfortunately, a large amount of the crop was still lost. Eventually, the damp weather dried up and a hot, dry summer took its place. By the time it came to harvest, temperatures were high and producers had to work quickly when handling the grapes.
Mildew was a particular problem for susceptible Grenache and, as one of the mainstay grapes of the Southern Rhône, this was particularly devastating. Many organic growers who didn’t spray suffered horrendously with heavily reduced yields. Winemakers who typically used Grenache as a dominant component of their blends and suffered heavy losses had to shift the focus onto others, namely Mourvèdre. Even so, the vintage is generally considered to have produced a few wonderful densely concentrated wines with strong fruit flavors and excellent structure.
The 2019 vintage began well and finished better; a cold, dry winter delayed budburst a bit, but it arrived under idyllic conditions and progressed evenly. Likewise flowering a fruit set without the mildew of 2018.
Sizzling midsummer heatwaves striking in June and lasting through July have become the norm in southern France, but rains in August were welcome relief. The harvest was mostly done in September and the resulting wines are very good. For the reds, reports suggest that they are extremely concentrated – unsurprising considering the summer heat – but very well balanced with great acidity, indicating that the grapes had crucial periods of time, such as chilly nights, to cool down.
Another in string of fine vintages for Southern Rhône, the year began with a mild winter which transitioned into to a balmy and unusually dry and frost-free spring, prompting both an early budburst and flowering. Early summer brought welcome rain showers before an intensely hot arid summer set in. In sharp relief to the sweltering sunbaked days, chilly nights helped to cool and regulate the vines, while the odd intermittent shower helped to both rehydrate and revive the vines. The warm weather occasionally delivered periods of humidity which made powdery mildew and other diseases a concern, however, most producers were able to mitigate the risks.
The high temperatures made for an earlier than usual harvest and pickers set to work early in the day to avoid the extreme midday heat. Picking at cooler times is also better for the grapes as it tends to preserve their aromatic character. Both whites and reds were picked well ahead of their usual timeframes and light rains fell over the harvest, helping to rehydrate the last grapes on the vines.
As benign as the spring weather was in 2020, 2021 unleashed the opposite. Unusual highs in March prompted unseasonable vine growth, which was then hit by a climactic freight train in April when a series of bitter frosts dramatically cut yields. The summer was spotty, with persistent drizzle in June and cataclysmic thunderstorms in July and August, leaving in its wake, alongside vine damage, humidity that encouraged disease.
Such a seesaw of conditions meant that grapes were slow to reach phenolic ripeness and, as a result, the harvest came later and was longer and slower than normal. Fortunately, picking occurred in better weather and the resulting wines were quite good. In general, both the reds and whites have been described as sophisticated with firm structure and acidity and although alcohol was lower than in other years, there was still enough to give sufficient body. Like the alcohol, the fruit character was less intense than in previous years but what was there was fresh, clear and pretty.
In a recent review, the scientific community outlined the 2021 assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the panel uncovered how the last four decades have been sequentially warmer than any other decade since 1850.
A spoonful of grape-sugar may help the science go down: “In order to maintain proper growing temperatures, many vineyard owners have sought expansion towards elevation, where not only are mean temperatures lower but there is a higher thermal amplitude and global radiation, particularly in the UV spectrum. Additionally, under higher altitudes, grapes display higher anthocyanin content and higher acidity, alleviating the effects of CC conditions that cause a premature ripening” and concluded that they had noticed how “wines produced from high altitude vineyards tend to have better color, higher acidity and more desirable aromatic profiles.”
In plain English, this means that the vineyards of Rhône’s south, which in the past were not overly concerned with elevation, have begun to edge upward into the mountains. Throughout most of its viticultural history, grapes were grown primarily on rocky flatlands where ample sunlight could pump richness and alcohol into the wines, and elevations of 500 feet or more were, in cooler times, considered marginal for grape growing. Over the past twenty years, however, with the average daily temperature in the valleys rising, experimental vignerons have begun to explore the terroirs of the hillsides surrounding the current vineyards. The wines they are producing are ripening earlier and display a freshness and precision unlike anything you’d expect from the Southern Rhône.
Still, it’s a panacea, not a cure: “It’s going to be an adaptation which will allow us to keep making balanced wines,” says Louis Barruol, president of the Gigondas growers’ syndicate and the proprietor of the historic Château de Saint Cosme. Higher altitude vineyards are considered one of the many answers to global warming, for sure. But there is no miracle.
As one of Chablis’ most respected holders of Grand Cru vineyard land, Domaine Laroche is in many ways synonymous with the appellation. Shored up by a thousand years of history, the first Laroche to own land was Jean Victor whom in 1850, bought his first parcels of vines in the village of Maligny, a short distance from the village of Chablis. Passed along from father to son, the Laroche vineyards continued to expand gradually and by the mid-1960s totaled fifteen acres. In 1967, when Henri Laroche inherited this land, he had witnessed three years in the 1950s and 1960s in which there was no production at all; his vines yielded very little, and it was impossible to make a living from vine-growing alone—local farmers had turned to cereal crops and animal rearing to survive. Winemaking became something of a Chablisean afterthought, and so plagued was the region with spring frosts that Henri managed to save a section using rudimentary techniques such as burning straw and old tires.
With his son Michel joining the team, Laroche expanded into the best Crus in Chablis, for a current total of 222 acres, including 15 acres of Grand Crus, 52 acres of Premier Crus, and 156 acres of Chablis AOP. Only Chardonnay grapes are grown, of course, and the best vineyards are planted primarily on the region’s unique Kimmeridgian soil—a mixture of clay, chalk and fossilized oyster shells, renowned for producing crisp, mineral-driven, precise and elegant wines prized throughout the world.
In 2000, Michel Laroche founded the Union des Grands Crus de Chablis for the purpose of promoting Chablis wines. He implemented quality controls still used by the members, with specific requirements regarding the management of the vineyards (density of plantings) and winemaking (at least 13 months of aging). Domaine Laroche is still an active member of the Union today, confirming its position as a leader in the appellation.
According to Louis Moreau, president of the Chablis Commission, “2020 mild in the winter, dry in spring and enjoyed a summer with high temperatures along with a drought in August. Most of the Bourgogne region saw a very early bud-break this year, with seasonal temperatures above normal to kick off the growing season. Therefore the challenge was to preserve the vine, harvest early but at maturity and being able to maintain our Chablis typicity—which is a purity of minerality which will shine through in the 2020 vintage.”
As the northernmost region in Burgundy (situated between Paris and Beaune), Chablis is planted entirely to Chardonnay on characteristic Kimmeridgian subsoil—primarily marl with bands of fossil-rich limestone. Chablis is prone to hot summers and harsh winters, with spring frost and hail storms counted among common threats, and these threats have been multiple whammies in the past few vintages.
“This year was kind to Chablis in terms of these climactic events; a reprieve in a year of nearly constant tension,” writes Cécile Mathiaud, head of public relations for the Bourgogne Wine Board.
2020 Domaine Laroche ‘Vieille Voye’ Chablis ($44)
Vieille Voye (the ‘Old Way’) encompasses 17 continuous acres located beneath Premier Cru Les Vaillons on typical Kimmeridgian terroir. Even when full ripeness is achieved, the wine maintains the typical salty character of the terroir.
2020 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Beauroys ($69)
Les Beauroys is a left-bank (of the Serein river) Premier Cru vineyard; the wines are typically flinty and crisp.
2020 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Côte de Léchet ($72)
The 150-acre Côte de Léchet vineyard lies just above the small village of Milly on a steep slope topped with forest. Its southeasterly exposure tempers the morning sun, in contrast to the sunset-facing slopes on the other side of the valley, encouraging slower ripening in Chablis’ relatively cool continental climate and ensures that the acidity that typifies the region’s wines flourishes.
2020 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru L’Homme Mort ($82)
The grimly named ‘Dead Man’ vineyard is one of the most northerly Premier Crus in Chablis. It’s located within the larger Fourchaume Premier Cru vineyard, just south of the town of Maligny. The wines are tight, with toasted bread hints and a strongly tangy character.
2020 Domaine Laroche ‘La Réserve de l’Obédience’ Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots ($234)
Located on the easternmost side of Chablis, Les Blanchots is unique among the Grand Crus of Chablis. Its clay and limestone soil contains ferrous clay and its aspect offers an exceptional amount of morning sunlight, giving the wine a distinctive and dominating floral character and remarkable finesse.
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Posted on 2022.10.20 in Gigondas, Tavel, Rasteau, Vacqueyras, Lirac, Cairanne, Chablis, Côtes-du-Rhône, Muscat de Beaume de Vanise, France, Burgundy, Wine-Aid Packages, Southern Rhone  | Read more...
The image of a windmill is a perfect metaphor for humanity’s communion with nature; harvesting the air and using the rotation of a man-made propeller to generate power is synergy at its most basic, and it is also a good reminder that our favorite French vinelands have an equally strong association with cereal grains. In Beaujolais, Moulin-à-Vent’s iconic 300-year-old mill exists in both symbol and substance, standing nine hundred feet above the vines overlooking the villages of Romanèche-Thorins and Chénas.
In fact, there is no commune on a map called ‘Moulin-à-Vent’, so the symbol, the mill and the storied ‘Lord of Beaujolais’—noted for its noble red fruit aromas and arc of development within the bottle that may span a decade—are all a resting place for the imagination.
Moulin-à-Vent’s original superstar was a woman called Philiberte Pommier (1763-1862); an eccentric of de Gouges proportions who first discovered that the Gamay grape reached remarkable heights when planted on the granitic soils adjacent her property. Once that genie was out of the bottle, she put it back in, and for the remainder of her long life, Madame Philiberte worked to perfect techniques of parcel selection, pruning and aging of her wines, just before she died at the age of 99, her wines were still winning awards at the Universal Exhibition in London.
Her secrets have aged as well as her wines, and when Jean-Jacques Parinet and his family purchased the estate in 2009, they wisely opted to make full use of her legacy, creating wines that represent the unique long-lived potential of the appellation: Along with Jean-Jacques’ son, co-proprietor Édouard Parinet, Château du Moulin-à-Vent embodies the prestige and pride of its namesake and the wines in this week’s package are each exemplary of the many noble faces that the appellation adopts as it adapts to changing climate and consumer tastes.
A sense of place—the Grail of French winemaker—begins with the substance of place, the soil. In Moulin-à-Vent, this is a tale of thin, weathered granite sand, pink and white, enriched by high mineral nutrients and granite bedrock striped with seams of manganese, copper, iron and similar metallic oxides. In fact, the climats around the windmill are littered with abandoned manganese mines, and this is unique among the Crus, giving the wine its color, density and signature minerality—an invaluable feature of its power and longevity. Longevity and beneficial bottle aging is a concept that crops up regularly in descriptions of Moulin-à-Vent, and for good reason: In way, this quality makes it the antithesis of what most people imagine when they think of Beaujolais.
Whether it is Burgundy drifting south or the Rhône drifting north depends on your perspective; Beaujolais’ ten Crus and 12 appellations are found north of Lyon between the Rhône Valley and Burgundy. What is clear is that climate change continues to march through French vineyards like a conquering army. In 2022, picking began on August 17, and as long as local winegrowers can remember, the harvest has never started so early. The start of harvest is calculated according to grape maturation, and the record for early ripening may be laid directly at the door of climate change.
Says grower Jean-Pierre Rivière about this year’s harvest: “We have never experienced a drought of such intensity or, more precisely, for so long. The lack of water began back in March. In 2019, the drought was only limited to the summer months, but this year, it’s been going since the spring. The foliage is struggling. The vines are suffering. The grapes have not fully developed.”
In 2019, Beaujolais enjoyed one of the sunniest growing seasons on record, but the balm followed devastating frosts in April and was punctuated by horrendous hailstorms that struck mid-to-late August and dramatically reduced yields. Still, despite the challenges, the smaller harvest made wines that are richly concentrated with fine, balancing acidity that offer the sort of verve and structure to make them candidates for the long haul.
That the complex geologies of Moulin-à-Vent ensure its reputation for being one of the best of the Beaujolais Crus is beyond question, but its elevation to such a status is primarily down to the work of a single, eponymous estate: Originally called Château des Thorins, Château du Moulin-à-Vent was then in the hands of Madame Philiberte Pommier who (more than 250 years ago) recognized along the wind-beaten slopes of Moulin-à-Vent several microclimates that were so suited to the Gamay grape that they could elicit from this rustic grape robust textures, deep flavors and an age-worthiness that might bring sensory changes to rival those of Pinot Noir.
The Parinet family bought the property in 2009, and under Jean-Jacques and Edouard Parinet (with Brice Laffond as winemaker) the focus has been to recapture the estate’s glory days with detailed, site-specific Gamay. It’s not only been a labor of love, but a labor of luck—like your family, you can’t choose your terroir. Says Édouard, “Three things make Moulin-à-Vent the ‘Lord of the Crus’: First, the drying winds during harvest time, then the eroded granitic, sandy-textured soils, and lastly, the presence of heat-reflecting silica, especially in the upper areas of the appellation. Each of these features creates stress for the Gamay vines, resulting in smaller, more concentrated berries than those of the other crus.”
At this point, technique and expertise comes into play: “We do not utilize semi-carbonic maceration, a typical winemaking practice in Beaujolais, which emphasizes fruit while reducing tannic structure. Instead, the grapes for our wines are crushed and then fermented in stainless-steel tanks followed by aging for at least 12 months in mostly used French oak barrels.”
Parinet further explains: “Traditional winemaking enables us to better show the diversity of terroir in Moulin-à-Vent rather than if we used carbonic or semi-carbonic vinification, which is known for really revealing the primary aromas of Gamay. And if you show the primary aromas of Gamay, you don’t show as much diversity of terroir.”
The nearly one hundred acres under the Parinet name are entirely within Moulin-à-Vent, and encompass the best terroirs and the most prestigious vineyards the appellation offers.
Overall, Moulin-à-Vent comprises around 1500 acres, with around 300 producers and an annual production of around 1.5 million bottles. Unlike other well-known Beaujolais Crus such as Morgon and Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent’s character is heavily influenced by the presence of decomposed, pink granitic soils which add fragrance to the wines when they are young but allow it to age for 10 or more years, when it may develop characteristics akin to Pinot Noir—although this is less remarkable when you learn that Gamay is actually a hybrid of Pinot Noir and an ancient white grape called Gouais Blanc. Cellaring lends a rich carnality to the fruit, with deep savory notes of dried cherries, leather and chalk along with licorice and spice.
Moulin-à-Vent boasts 23 lieux-dits, and an accomplished winemaker understands that slightly refining the specifics to suit to each parcel individually is a means of bringing out the fullest of the terroir’s reflective potential and to produce the most richly sculpted palate. These methods are subject to change based on the variations of each vintage, and may involve double-sorting, blending the use of de-stemming with partial whole-bunch fermentation, altering maceration times and the size/type of maturation vessel. By remaining flexible with the execution and steadfast in the goal for each lieu-dit, Château du Moulin-à-Vent is able to consistently deliver Cru Beaujolais that covers a broader swath of the spectrum than many wine drinkers have been led to expect.
“Château du Moulin-à-Vent manifests a dedication to a natural approach, strict quality standards, and commitment to sustainable agriculture,” says Édouard Parinet.
In the realpolitik of vineyard management, this includes the use of compost and natural soil amendments; use of organic or naturally derived pesticides, herbicides and fungicides; hand-pulling of leaves; integrated pest management and the use of beneficial insects and cover crops. Additionally, Château du Moulin-à-Vent advocates the use of chemical intervention only when needed to fight disease, pests or other problems and only in affected areas.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent’s 6-bottle package contains one of each of the following three lieu-dit cuvées in addition to three bottles of the château’s flagship wine.
The circular lieu-dit ‘La Rochelle’ lies near the top of Vérillats mountain at an elevation of around nine hundred feet. The soils here are known as ‘gorrhe’—they are granite and schist-based, similar to what is found in Portugal’s Douro, formed three hundred million years ago and brought to the surface in the mid-Tertiary period by the uplift of the Massif Central. The Gamay vines of ‘La Rochelle’ are more than eighty years old and face south, firmly within the wind tunnel that produces the concentrated, multidimensional grapes for which the estate is famous.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ‘La Rochelle’ ($71) – 1 bottle
75% whole cluster; pumping-over during cold pre-fermentation soak and at the end of fermentation to increase roundness and finesse. Punching the cap at the beginning of fermentation and afterward, aged 12 months in 30% French oak barrels chosen from the Allier and Vosges forests, the remainder in stainless steel. The wine shows elegantly textured inky-purple berries with aromas of violet, cherry and orange zest; the tannins are bright, but not overbearing, and the minerality is quite pronounced. (1,450 bottles made)
Neighboring ‘La Rochelle’ a bit higher up the slope is ‘Les Vérillats’, one of the earliest delineated terroirs of Moulin-à-Vent. It’s an east-facing vineyard at an elevation of just under a thousand feet. Soils are similar to ‘La Rochelle’ with about two feet of porous granitic sand over bedrock; the vines are around 65 years old.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Les Vérillats’ ($57) – 1 bottle
30% whole cluster fermentation; pumping-over during cold pre-fermentation soak and at the end of fermentation to increase roundness and finesse. Punching the cap at the beginning of fermentation, then aging12 months; 30% French oak chosen from the Allier and Vosges forests, 70% stainless steel. The wine is full and supple; it shows the characteristic Moulin-à-Vent petrichor behind blackberry and star anise layered with acidity. The tense structure cries out for more time in the bottle to reveal its full panoply of flavors. (3,420 bottles made)
‘Champ de Cour’ sits near the bottom of the Vérillats slopes, and as such, the soils have a heavier clay content, producing a unique powerball profile in the wines. Easterly facing vines are around 35 years old; the soils are deep and do not drain as easily as those of the other climats, and in addition, the vines are sheltered from the drying winds that affect the lieux-dits higher up.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ‘Champ de Cour’ ($57) – 1 bottle
75% whole cluster; pumping-over during cold pre-fermentation soak and at the end of fermentation to increase roundness and finesse. Punching the cap at the beginning of fermentation and aged13 months; 20% French oak barrels, 80% stainless steel. The deep red color of the wine offers a hint of its massive concentration; the nose is an explosion of red fruit, with roasted and spicy pepper and saffron notes. A full-bodied wine of considerable elegance, lively tannins and superb length, with a mineral finish. (2,915 bottles made)
A selection of 3 top terroirs in Moulin-à-Vent—‘Les Thorins’, an iconic south-facing lieu dit, ‘Le Moulin-à-Vent’, facing east and ‘Aux Caves’, characterized by shallow soils rich with silica and 80 year old vines.
Château du Moulin-à-Vent, 2019 Moulin-à-Vent ($36) – 3 bottles
The Château’s flagship wine: 60% whole cluster; pumping-over during cold pre-fermentation soak and aged 12 months; 20% French oak, 80% stainless steel. Rich, opulent and complex, the wine displays ruby-red with purple tints and offers up lovely aromas of ripe red and black berries, hints of spice and floral notes, especially rose, peony and violet. Excellent body with a firm, dry core of tannins and beautiful length. (16,800 bottles made)
The truism about the Germans and Riesling holds equal validity in Beaujolais with Gamay: They each have but a single grape, but build better wines from it than anyone else on earth. This is not to suggest that Beaujolais and its ten fascinating Grand Crus are homogenous—the opposite is true. Each region, each climat and each winemaker provides slight variations in terroir and technique.
Nowhere does the dual nature of Beaujolais appear more profoundly than in the choice faced by winemakers to vinify in the traditional ‘Burgundian’ way, or to rely on the semi-carbonic macerations that produce the fruity, ridiculously early-drinking Nouveau-style wines. Both techniques have their place in Beaujolais, and both produce strikingly different flavor profiles.
Traditional Burgundian-style production relies on destalking and crushing the grapes prior to fermentation, a mean of opening up the fruit up and bringing out the tannins. Only then does fermentation start, either through natural yeasts on the grape skins or from a commercial additive. In most cases, wines made this way in Beaujolais will also have wood aging. Alternately, semi-carbonic maceration involves fermentation that starts in closed containers. The wine is then transferred to traditional fermentation vats and yeast is added to continue the process. While some of the wines will go into wood, many will continue to age in tanks, which highlight the fruit and lower the tannins.
‘Decanter Magazine’ recently staged a vertical tasting of Château du Moulin-à-Vent, vintages 2010-2019 (and published in the July 2022 issue), believing that the revitalization of the estate by the father-and-son team of Jean-Jacques and Édouard Parinet (and their brilliant winemaker Brice Laffond) has been so successful that they were willing to give Master of Wine Andy Howard a crack at determining if all the hype around the ageability of Moulin-à-Vent is warranted. Wines from 1996 and 1976 were also tasted.
No cliffhangers here: Howard MW’s opinion was a resounding ‘yes’.
As most Beaujolais fans know, the wines of the ten Crus of Beaujolais can be among the world’s most terroir-expressive. Subtle shifts in sun exposure and soil structure from commune to commune can be detected in the glass, even among those with untrained palates. The wines from Château du Moulin-à-Vent are traditional standouts for their robust texture, deep flavor and age-worthiness made possible by Jacques and Édouard Parinet’s adherence to Burgundian winemaking methods and their steadfast refusal to employ semi-carbonic maceration. Because of that, their wines reveal the best of Beaujolais’ most powerful Cru, the wind-funnel slopes of Moulin-à-Vent.
According to Howard MW: “The tasting certainly demonstrated a distinct shift in style with the change in oak management. Whereas the older vintages (although with undoubted aging potential) demonstrated a firmer tannic structure, the more recent vintages were much more expressive, floral, delicate and refined. However, there is every reason to suspect that these wines will deliver the same ageing capacity as the more ‘traditional’ style.”
With investment in both vineyard and winery, Château du Moulin-à-Vent is the clear leader in producing a more elegant and refined exhibition of the Gamay grape. Still capable of long-ageing, many wines are perfumed, smooth on the palate and very pleasurable while young. And all of this is combined with price-points which are mind-blowingly inexpensive in the context of good Pinot Noir from nearby Burgundy.
Lieux-dits are a wine lover’s Google Earth; a satellite view of an appellation focused on a tiny, representative parcel. Not all vineyards have lieux-dits, and among those that do, not all are created equal. In general, it’s a term that refers to a geologically homogenous portion of a vineyard with a self-contained story to tell about its quality or, occasionally, its significance to history. Although lieux-dits are generally not required to be formally registered, they are always named, and that name may occasionally be confused with a producer’s cuvée name, which is often similar. Different appellations have different laws regarding lieux-dits; in Alsace, for example, they are mandatory for Grand Cru AOP labels, whereas in Burgundy, Grand Crus are forbidden from using them.
In the Rhône, lieux-dits are often associated with the region’s top estates, and those that do not have an officially registered place in the French Cadastre are considered ‘les marques’ of their producers. In either case, they are ‘terroir distilled’—an extremely fine-tuned expression of an individual location. To recognize one is to recognize that within the sprawling Rhône there exists an almost microscopic essence that only a lieu-dit can reveal.
* The idea that particular patches of land produce particularly great wines is not new. The philosopher, John Locke, who visited Bordeaux in 1677, noted the ‘particularity in the soil’ of Château Haut-Brion that distinguished it from its neighbours. A book by Abbot Arnoux, published in London in 1728, attributed the greatness of Montrachet in Burgundy to a particular strip of earth on the Côte d’Or.
Domaine Santa Duc’s 6-bottle pack contains one of each of the following wines at $359.
At Santa Duc, in the verdant environs of Gigondas, heritage is as deep as the iron-rich soils. Six generations have leapfrogged each other as caretakers of the storybook estate at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail hills and each has brought to the party a unique respect for terroir and tradition. Yves Gras, Domaine Santa Duc’s winemaker for 32 years, became a standard bearer for innovation with his elegant wines; he replaced barrels with 3600-liter casks to tone down the oak and championed a greater percentage of Mourvèdre used in cuvées. His ongoing quest for cooler terroirs capable of producing great wines ultimately took him from the plateau of Gigondas to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (10 miles to the southwest), where he was able to purchase several choice parcels.
With the 2017 vintage, Yves’ son Benjamin Gras took over the domain and quickly proved himself to be as much a visionary as his father, switching immediately to biodynamic agriculture and building a state-of-the-art winemaking facility on the property. Benjamin has the passion, the Gras DNA, but also the educational pedigree to buoy his future: After obtaining a diploma in oenology at the University of Bourgogne in Dijon, he spent time at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Bodega Vega-Sicilia, and the OIV MSc in Wine Management program gave him the unprecedented opportunity to visit more than two dozen wine producing countries and study their techniques, their terroirs, and their traditions.
In Southern Rhône, unexpected June rainfall caused some difficulties with mildew and farmers lost a good portion of the crop. Eventually, the damp weather dried up, replaced by a hot, dry summer, and by harvest, temperatures were high and producers had to work quickly when handling the grapes. The reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras are especially good, with dense concentration and solid structures.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a land of sunshine and wind, and these factors combine to make Rhône’s most famous appellation naturally resistant to bugs and mildew; here, pesticide-free farming is not innovation but traditional precedent. With more than 8,000 acres under vine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the largest appellation in the Rhône; 94% of the three million gallons of wine produced each year is red, and of that, 80% of the content in every dark, heavy, distinctively-embossed bottle is Grenache, although another 12 varieties are legally permitted. These wines will never display the austere elegance of Bordeaux or the brooding sophistication of Burgundy, but they are sumptuous, opulent and hedonistically accessible throughout their youth and often remain so after many years in the cellar. That said, they can vary wildly in price and character; many are generic in style and reputation, and the wines contained within this package have been chosen especially for the specificity of their lieux-dits and their ability to express Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s quintessential goût de terroir.
1. Domaine Santa Duc, Châteauneuf-du Pape ‘Les Saintes Vierges’ 2018 ($70) 3 acre parcel in lieu-dit Les Saintes Vierges – Santa Duc’s first and most treasured CdP lieu-dit, located in the east side of the AOP. Vines average seventy years of age and are planted on soils rich in quartz and mica with shell debris and compacted sand from the Miocene period. The wine presents a marvelous display with aromas of anise and black plum flecked with notes of spicy cardamom; the palate is rich and filled with red fruits and silky tannins.
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2. Domaine Santa Duc, Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Le Pied de Baud’ 2018 ($70) 2.5 acre parcel in lieu-dit Le Pied de Baud – Benjamin Gras’ goal in winemaking is balance and tension—tension occurs when two qualities duel for dominance (in this case, fruit and acidity), and balance is achieved when they meet in the middle. From a forest-encircled parcel of superb land on the Mont Redon plateau, the wine shows sweet black raspberry syrup, spice-cake and candied lavender amid fine-grained tannins and a pronounced minerality.
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3. Domaine Santa Duc ‘Habemus Papam’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2018 ($54) 7 acres in total in lieux-dits Le Pradel and La Font du Pape – The vainglorious name means ‘We have a Pope’ and Santa Duc describes this wine as ‘episcopal’. Celestial underpinnings aside, the wine comes from two plots to the west and center of Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the earth is rich with sandy clay above and calcareous subsoil below. The cuvée is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah with an average vine age of 60 years. The wine has a nose of violets and smoke interspersed with deep red wild berry notes and a pristine and opulent mouthfeel.
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Where Châteauneuf-du-Pape is sun and wind, Gigondas is forest and scrubland filled with wild lavender, sage and thyme, forming the archetypal ‘garrigue’ of Southern France. These brambly, herbal aromatics are a common in tasting notes of Gigondas wines, and it is perhaps testimonial to the phenomenal power of terroir that grapes and wildflowers can coax the same flavors from the earth: a combination of limestone soils on the Montmirail slopes to the east, and rocky, sandy, free-draining soils on the flatter, lower-lying plains to the north and west. Maximum yield in Gigondas is set at 36 hectoliters per hectare, only slightly more than the restrictions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As an additional quality assurance, a technique known as ‘triage’ is employed—the mandatory separation of healthy grapes from imperfect grapes.
4. Domaine Santa Duc, Gigondas ‘Les Hautes Garrigues’ 2018 ($69) 7 acre parcel in lieu-dit Les Hautes Garrigues – ‘Les Hautes’ is the Gras family’s legacy vines—they have existed at the heart of the domain since it was founded in 1874. Geology has been involved for far longer; the red clay and gravel soils were formed as a colluvial fan known as the Cône de la Font des Papes during alternating ice ages. The blend here is even-steven—half Grenache and half Mourvèdre from vines that are around 75 years old. The wine expresses an assertive nose of black cherries, chocolate, ginger and menthol on a background where the classic garrigue notes are omnipresent.
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5. Domaine Santa Duc, Gigondas ‘Clos Derrière Vieille’ 2018 ($54) 8 acre parcel in lieu-dit Clos Derrière Vieille – Clos Derrière Vieille is a phoenix-from-the-ashes redux; in such poor shape was the vineyard when Santa Duc bought it in 1994 that it took years to regain its former status. Situated at an altitude above one thousand feet, and arranged in narrow terraces that follow limestone outcroppings, the soil is moisture-retaining marl and rich limestone, allowing a deep root system. The name means ‘Behind the Old Woman’, a reference to the church behind which the vineyard sprawls. 80% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre and 10%, Syrah, the wine is bright and crunchy with acidity and fruit-forward, showing dusty earth, dried cherries and Herbes de Provence.
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6. Domaine Santa Duc ‘Aux Lieux-Dits’, Gigondas 2018 ($42) 17 acres in total in lieux-dits Goujard, le Clos Derrière Vieille, Les Pailleroudas, Les Hautes Garrigues, Les Carbonnières, Les Rocassières, Plane and Les Routes – A selection from all of Santa Duc’s vineyards may defy the spirit of the lieu-dit, but the wine becomes its own statement. It is a classic Gigondas from a powerful vintage with an intense nose of spring flowers, cassis, blackberries, wood-smoke and cherries, full, elegant and dense with a persistent finish.
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The concept of terroir reigns supreme over the essence of what makes Champagne unique, and much of the discussion—as it is in Chablis, a hundred sixty miles to the south—amounts to chalk talk. Subdivided into seven distinct regions, (The Montagne de Reims, The Grand Vallée, Vallée de la Marne, The Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, The Côte des Blancs, The Coteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat & Montgueux and Côte des Bar in the Aube) these areas can be demarcated by subsoil—a subject we’ll dig into deeper. Enough to say that chalk content is a chief difference among them, and in Champagne, the chalk is formed of calcite granules built from the fragile shells of marine micro-organisms. Being highly porous, this sort of base acts as a reservoir that provides the vines with a steady supply of water even in the driest summers—which, in France, are increasingly become the rule. Chalk draws water upward through capillary action, and effort required to tap into this supply puts the vines under just enough stress during the growing season to achieve that delicate balance of ripeness, acidity and berry aroma that is the hallmark of all fine Champagne.
As an exemplar of terroir in Montagne de Reims, and in particular the two famously picturesque Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay, this week’s selection features the complex and expressive wine of Champagne Penet-Chardonnet. Alexandre Penet, who took over the estate in 2007, has made his mark on the region quite eloquently; among his representational innovations is his dedication to low dosage wines—all his Champagnes are Extra Brut and some are Brut Nature, with no sugar added at all. Additionally, Penet has approached single vineyard selections as a keystone of his portfolio whereas Champagne producers have tended to favor blends from several villages that supply, of course, a variety of terroirs. The focus on site expression rather than the potential synergy of a cuvée is an approach more associated with still winemakers in France—a point that Penet is happy to underscore with his mission statement: “High-quality champagne is so much more than just the bubbles,” he maintains. “Champagne should be enjoyed in the same way as a still wine.”
Between the Marne and the Vesle Rivers lies a broad and undulating headland of remarkable forest, including the world’s largest preserve of dwarf beech trees. The region offers a golden opportunity for botanists, and if you happen to be a wino, you’re also in luck: The gold can be found along the slopes of the seventy-million-year-old mountain of Reims. The landmark massif is a cross-section of chalk, sand, clay and limestone, an ideal crucible for Champagne’s trio of grapes, but especially for Pinot Noir: This is the varietal most widely planted throughout the region except in Trépail and Villers-Marmery, where the Chardonnay finds its own marvelous sanctum.
The vineyards of Montagne de Reims lie in the most northerly sector of the Champagne AOP, hugging the western and northern flanks of the mountain in a huge semicircle that extends from Louvois to Villers-Allerand. Vines carpet the limestone slopes and steep valleys and follow the contours of the mountain from Trépail to Villers-Marmer before disappearing into the folds and creases of its northern flank. The vines are planted on its slopes at varying expositions ranging between north-west to south-east, forming an arc that is open to the west. The challenge for growers in this northern outpost is avoid the morning frost and to expose the vines to a full day of sunlight to encourage as much ripening as possible.
The city of Reims is situated on this mountain of chalk and from it, the Romans built cities; the empty limestone quarries they left behind, called ‘Crayères’, provide ideal humidity and steady temperatures for the slowly maturation process required in the acidic wines that this cool northerly region tends to produce. Thus, in the Montagne de Reims, all the Champagne stars have aligned.
Champagne is the traditional celebratory beverage served at weddings, but was never more appropriate than at the 1967 marriage of Christian Penet to Marie-Louise Chardonnet, joining in matrimony 400 years of wine tradition in Champagne. With this union, the family business expanded to cover fifteen acres of Grand Cru vines—13 in Verzy and two in Verzenay—and thus, before the birth of their son Alexandre, Penet-Chardonnet was born.
As a wine region, Champagne has always had an ambiguous relationship with innovation. On one hand, the process of bottle-fermentation is so established that its name—méthode traditionelle—translates to ‘traditional’. Still, every small grower Champagne wants to increase its exposure to the world’s stage, and to stand out in a field that numbers in the thousands often requires thinking outside the wine crate. Alexandre Penet, who grew up in the cellar watching his grandfather and father make Champagne, made a conscious decision to divert from tradition: He went to college to study engineering and, after qualifying, left Champagne to work overseas in Brazil and in Africa in industries far beyond the winemaking umbrella. In addition, he managed to squeeze in an MBA from the University of Chicago Business School.
But the lure of the vine is strong, and so is the family name. By the time Alexandre had succumbed to both, he’d gained enough real-world experience to understand precisely the kind of wine he could—and should—be making. The clarity of his vision required embracing a unique approach to the sublime properties his family owned in order to coax from them the maximum potential. His most novel shifts in the Champagne paradigm are discussed in detail below, but his legacy in Montagne de Reims can be summed up more succinctly:
Alexandre Penet creates wine for true Champagne enthusiasts, in limited releases and with labels explosive with information to appeal to the nerdiest among us—the blend, blending, the duration of aging, the vinification method, the date of bottling, the date of disgorging, the dosage, and in relevant bottles, the date of harvest for a specific plot.
Site specificity is the heart and soul of the concept of terroir. Even chefs de cave who blend do so based on characteristics found in the various source wines, and these come from the vine’s location. Still, this is a technique that champions homogeneity—the goal of a House who does not want to advertise the ups and downs of vintages or vineyards, but rather, to produce wine in a consumer pre-approved style. Thus, Champagne cuvées becomes the art of the blender.
Alexandre Penet is from a different school: The art of the earth. Among his baseline commitments when he left bureaucracy for winemaking was that any wine should faithfully reflect its place of origin. With exclusively Grand Cru vineyards from which to draw, of course, he had a considerable head start.
When the lieu-dit concept enters the picture, the view through the microscope narrows. Champagne contains 17 villages that can boast Grand Cru status; this means that 100% of the grapes used in the wine come from a village so named. It’s a concept that originated in 1920 in ‘The Échelle des Crus’ (Ladder of Growth) system and it’s worth noting here that more than half of these Grand Cru villages are in Montagne de Reims. The lieu-dit, or named vineyard system is older—the field name of each lieu-dit has been documented since the creation of the land registry by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1807. In scope, therefore, a lieu-dit covers a narrower, more based upon the reasonable deduction that different bits of given appellation, or cru, perform differently.
Understanding and showcasing these differences is the goal of site-specific wines, and in Champagne, there is no greater advocate for this expression than Alexandre Penet:
“I am a true believer in letting the wines express their origins,” he says. “The winemaker’s purpose being to provide guidance and mentoring rather than imposing his own will on the wine.”
The Montagne de Reims is many things—it is storied, it is prolific, it is uniquely situated for the production of outstanding wine grapes. One thing it isn’t is monolithic. In fact, it’s not even really a mountain, but a broad plateau, the Grande Montagne, comprised of many hills and valleys encircling Reims. The Grand Crus that host Penet-Chardonnay’s vineyards lie on the northern segment. Along with the villages of Mailly, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Puisieulx and Sillery, Verzenay and Verzy have mostly north-facing slopes, producing distinctly different wines than those from the south-facing slopes of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Louvois:
Pinot Noir blends from north-facing slopes do not display the same powerful, vinous character as those from south-facing slopes. Freshness and elegance are at the forefront of Pinot’s expression, and thus, there is less need to blend in too much Chardonnay. When slopes face north, the grapes are fairly slow to ripen, and these vines are often the last to be harvested. Even then, they contain high level of acidity and produce in wines that often requires few years to develop their full potential. In general, they tend to showcase the red berry and spice notes and as Grand Cru wines, have all the depth and complexity expected from the top of the pyramid.
Consisting mainly of north-facing slopes, Verzy’s thousand acres of vineyards are planted mostly Pinot Noir, with Chardonnay making up 22% and Pinot Meunier 12%, all classified 100% Grand Cru. The north-facing slopes means that Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes from Verzy tend to be less commanding but more finely nuanced than those that originate from villages with south-facing slopes, such as Aÿ, Ambonnay and Bouzy.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Roederer’s chef de cave, explains the differences between Verzy and nearby Verzenay: “The soils of Verzy are much whiter than Verzenay; it’s chalkier the closer yo get to Villers-Marmery. You can see it when you plow—the soil is very fine, very chalky. Across the border in Verzenay, the soils become deeper and heavier, and produce richer wine with less finesse.”
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Prestige Grande Réserve’, Grand Cru Verzy 2008, Extra-Brut ($99)
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. The grapes for this exceptional wine originate from the estate’s Verzy properties and were aged on lees from bottling up until its date of disgorgement. Very complex and powerful, it develops aromas of stewed apple, straw and doughy biscuit notes. The palate is edgy with minerality and shows spiced and subtle woody notes.
(Bottled May 2009, disgorged January 2021, dosage at 6 grams/liter, less than 5000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Blanches Voies’ Blanc de Blancs 2012, Extra-Brut ($110)
100% Chardonnay. ‘Les Blanches Voies’ is located in the heart of Verzy; it is north-east oriented with an 8% grade, on soils ideal for the Chardonnay to which it is planted exclusively—the vines are now 27 years old. A rare cuvée, one of the very few Grand Crus made from a single plot and one of the very few Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagnes from Montagne de Reims.
(Bottled May 2013, disgorged April 2021, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Epinettes’ Blanc de Noirs 2010, Extra-Brut ($120)
‘Les Epinettes’ is among the best plots in Verzy; its orientation is northwest at a 3% grade, and is planed exclusively to Pinot Noir vines, now more than 40 years old. Sharp, precise and powerful, it shows peach, apple, nectarine and candied lemon backed by a fine yeasty mousse.
(Bottled May 2011, disgorged January 2021, dosage at 3.6 grams/liter, less than 3000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzy Lieu-dit ‘Les Fervins’ 2009, Extra-Brut ($110)
‘Les Fervins’ occupies a prime spot in Verzy on chalky soil with a perfect south-east orientation, atop which sits the cross that is the logo of Penet-Chardonnet. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, the wine shows focused aromas of apple, caramel and lemon minerals with a hint of iron-rich meatiness along with salt and spice.
(Bottled May 2010, disgorged October 2021, dosage at 4.8 grams/liter, less than 5200 bottles made.)
Verzenay is no stranger to recognition; it was one of the three original villages granted Grand Cru status along with Cramant and Aÿ. As one of Champagne’s leading terroirs, all the major Houses have a presence here; they are known as ‘vendangeoirs’, which is also the French word for the baskets that grape-pickers use.
Located in the middle of the slope on the north side of Montagne de Reims, between two protruding hills, the commune had a vineyard area of slightly more than a thousand acres, of which 86% is planted to Pinot Noir. The long-recognized quality of Verzenay grapes is more a result of elevation and exposure than any specific soil type—the vineyards provide multitude of different bases: chalk, limestone, sand, clay and more. As a result, the wines from Verzenay have great complexity which extend to somewhat masculine descriptors—dark in flavor with a distinctive gaminess and undertones of iron. As the climate warms, it is noted that the wines of Verzenay manage to retain their tautly-focused structure and small-shouldered roundness.
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Cuvée Diane Claire’, Grand Cru Verzenay 2009, Extra-Brut ($130)
There are two ‘Diane Claires’ in the extended Penet-Chardonnet family, so pick your prestige-earner (though likely it’s both). 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, the wine originates in the best of Penet-Chardonnet’s Verzenay parcels; it is made primarily from with wines from the exceptional 2009 harvest, aged on lees since it was bottled in 2010 until its date of disgorgement. Amber in color, the wine is exceptionally aromatic and racy with grilled, spicy and iodized notes above green apple and orange zest.
(Bottled May 2010, disgorged March 2020, dosage at 5.6 grams/liter, less than 5200 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Cru Verzenay Lieu-dit “Les Champs Saint-Martin” Blanc de Noirs 2011, Extra-Brut ($110)
‘Les Champs St Martin’, consisting of 33-year-old Pinot Noir vines, sits at the relatively flat base of the Grande Montage de Reims. 100% Pinot Noir, the wine displays aromas of key lime, orange peel, raspberry and strawberry while on the palate, notes of white cherry, wet minerality, almond and berry jam lead to a soft and exceptionally generous finish.
(Bottled April 2012, disgorged March 2020, dosage at 4.8 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
The term ‘solera’ brings to mind Spain’s unique and rather complex system of Sherry production where a large number of casks are employed and winemakers rely on fractional blending of older vintages into new to achieve maximum quality. Barrels in a solera are arranged in different tiers called ‘criaderas’; each tier contains wine of the same age while the oldest holds wine ready to be bottled. When a fraction of the wine is extracted from a given barrel, it will be replaced with the same amount of wine from the criadera that is slightly younger and typically less complex. This, in turn, will be filled up with wine from the next criadera, and so on.
In fact, the method used in Champagne is similar, though not identical, and is more accurately referred to as a ‘perpetual cuvée.’ Under this system, still wine is stored in tanks or barrels, and at bottling time, a portion is drawn from the oldest tank and the resulting empty space is filled with younger wine from another barrel. Thus, any given tank (beside the first) contains a blend of different vintages.
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Terroir & Sens’, Grand Cru Extra Brut ($68) Base-Wine 2012
At 8000 bottles produced, this is a blockbuster for Penet-Chardonnet. 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, the cuvée blends grapes from both Verzy and Verzenay, finding qualities in each that build and synergize. Scents of golden apples, currant, raspberry and freshly baked bread straight from the oven are alive within steady stream of pinpoint bubbles.
(Bottled May 2013, disgorged October 2021, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 8000 bottles made.)
Champagne Penet-Chardonnet ‘Terroir & Sens’, Grand Cru Rosé Extra-Brut ($81) Base-Wine 2011
Partially aged in small oak barrels without malolactic fermentation, the salmon-colored ‘Terroir & Sens” opens with a deep, intense, slightly oxidative nose and toasty, matured and vinous palate of small red fruits, pralines and brioche. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, the wine is a blend made from a selection of Grand Crus parcels in Verzy and Verzenay as well as from reserve wines.
(Bottled April 2012, disgorged October 2020, dosage at 5.2 grams/liter, less than 2000 bottles made.)
Malo is short for malolactic, but it’s also Spanish for ‘bad’. And at Penet-Chardonnay, the word translates either way. It is a process by which, after the initial yeast fermentation achieves desired alcohol level, the aggressive acidity left behind (especially in the cooler-weather grapes of Champagne) a secondary fermentation occurs via bacteria either naturally present in the must or added by the winemaker. Through the process, the wine’s sharp, green-apple malic acids are transformed into creamier lactic acids, the same acid that is found in milk—hence the root word in lacto-intolerance. It’s a useful trick, but there is no question that allowing or initiating malolactic fermentation changes some of the purity of taste that remains in wines that are aged and preserved via malic acid.
And any alteration in fruit expression is something that a passionate winemaker must weigh against benefits. Alexandre Penet considers some of the milky, buttery aromas that scream ‘malo’ to be detrimental to the honest voice he strives for, and as a result, he forgoes a step that most Champagne producers embrace.
If ever a vintage snatched victory from the jaws of defeat it was 2008. What began as a disaster—a cold winter preceded a chilly spring and a dank mid-summer, but then—as if a switch was thrown—the weather did an about-face and delivered bright, dry, sunny days which pushed the grapes towards phenolic ripeness. The freezing winter had served to fully shut down the vines, so when steadier weather eventually came, the grapes were in good health to take full advantage of the idyllic conditions. The cooler than average growing season also allowed grapes to ripen slowly, preserving much-needed acidity, which in Champagne is de rigueur.
Vintage 2008 was a sublime year for Champagne; if only the world’s economy had kept pace.
The 2009 growing season was kissed by on high; a dry winter that left the water tables low was quickly put right by judicious springtime rains. Both budburst and flowering were successful and timely. A few vicious July storms affected Aÿ, but most of Champagne basked in sunshine, with August delivering warm days and cool, refreshing evenings. Dry heat helped prevent rot and disease from taking hold, and 2009 Champagnes tend to display rich, ripe orchard fruit that reflect the warm year. Acidity, though not searing, remains very much present and the wines continue to drink near the top of their game.
Sorting in the vineyard was the name of the game in 2010; the growing season itself was lackluster, with pleasant summer weather morphing into drought and mid-August deluges saving the water tables, but grapes became diluted and waterlogged. Rot and unwelcome botrytis also became a serious problem, and the wet conditions continued through to the harvest in mid-September. Few Houses declared a vintage unless they had particularly good luck in the field.
2011 was, overall, a forgettable vintage. Spring was much warmer and drier than usual with March setting a balmy stage for a hot and dry April and May. This led to a historically early flowering. As if in backlash, June and July were abnormally cool and humid and when the heat reappeared in August, it was with such a vengeance that caused some vines to shut down. By harvest, temperatures had cooled, but unpredictable rain still posed a problem. The intermittent storms tended to stall the development of grape sugars and acidity, leaving many wines lacking body. Chardonnay tended to perform better than its red counterparts, however, the wines tended to lack both structure and fruit character with little in the way of alcohol or acidity to make up for it.
That said, superbly positioned Houses like Penet-Chardonnet made acceptable wines that are probably reaching their peak now.
Although the 2012 growing season tossed out plenty of curveballs, the vintage remains very strong. A warm winter slithered into an extremely wet spring in which both frost and a particularly vicious hailstorm devastated yields. Unsurprisingly, flowering was uneven and the tough conditions also opened the vines up to disease. However, August was a godsend; warm weather and sunny skies spun the vintage around. That month brought steady heat with temperatures sometimes rising so high that vines began to overheat. However, a smooth, sunny September allowed the grapes to finish the ripening process and Pinot Noir and Meunier were both able to fully ripen while well-rounded Chardonnay retained the necessary acidity.
Having been defined and delimited by laws passed in 1927, the geography of Champagne is easily explained in a paragraph, but it may take one a lifetime to understand it.
Ninety-three miles east of Paris, Champagne’s production zone spreads across 319 villages and encompasses roughly 85,000 acres. 17 of those villages have a legal entitlement to Grand Cru ranking, while 42 may label their bottles ‘Premier Cru.’ From north to south, seven main growing areas (The Montagne de Reims, The Grand Vallée, Vallée de la Marne, The Coteaux Sud d’Epernay, The Côte des Blancs, The Coteaux du Morin, Côte de Sézanne, Vitryat & Montgueux and Côte des Bar in the Aube) encompass nearly 280,000 individual plots of vines, each measuring a little over one thousand square feet.
Although a single AOP covers all sparkling wine produced in Champagne, there are seven distinct sub-regions, each of which was originally associated with a single grape variety. Of course, geography changes throughout the area, so pockets of Champagne’s three main grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) can be found in each district.
Champagne is predominantly made up of relatively flat countryside where cereal grain is the agricultural mainstay. Gently undulating hills are higher and more pronounced in the north, near the Ardennes, and in the south, an area known as the Plateau de Langres, and the most renowned vineyards lie on the chalky hills to the southwest of Reims and around the town of Epernay. Moderately steep terrain creates ideal vineyard sites by combining the superb drainage characteristic of chalky soils with excellent sun exposure, especially on south and east facing slopes.
Beyond the overview lies a permutation of particulars; there are nearly as many micro-terroirs in Champagne as there are vineyard plots. Climate, subsoil and elevation are immutable; the talent, philosophies and techniques of the growers and producers are not. Ideally, every plot is worked according to its individual profile to establish a stamp of origin, creating unique wines that complement or contrast when final cuvées are created.
“The Emperor would drink only Chambertin.” – Louis Constant Wairy, Napoleon’s valet.
What does Gevrey-Chambertin have in common with Westland, Michigan? Not much, except that Westland was named for a mall and Gevrey-Chambertin was named for a vineyard. As those schooled in Burgundian lore know, during the nineteenth century it became fashionable for villages in the Côte d’Or to adopt double-barreled names, adding a hyphen followed by the name of their most famous vineyard: Thus Chambolle added Musigny and Gevrey added Chambertin.
In minimalism, less may be more, and in wine—especially those with a hyphenated name—more may be less; a village-level Gevrey-Chambertin, for example, does not seek to compete with the quality of ‘Le Chambertin’ itself. But if nothing else, its name reminds you that it comes from a rarefied zip code. And to be sure, the region is hallowed grapeland, graced with the Holy Trinity of terroir—elevation, climate and soil structure. Contained within the appellation are nine Grand Crus and 26 Premier Crus (whose name on the label may be followed by the name of the climat of origin) as well as nearly a thousand acres of Village wine.
This week’s selection includes a cross-section of the various quality levels produced in Gevrey-Chambertin from two top producers, Domaine Henri Rebourseau and Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils . Also from Guillon are two wines from nearby Marsannay, an appellation so close to Gevrey-Chambertin that it might be referred to as Burgundy’s Queen to Gevrey’s King. But in truth, so splendid are these wines that they transcend arcane assignments of gender, coming, as they do, from truly nonbinary Elysian Fields.
In the far northeast of Burgundy, about twenty miles south of Dijon with the valley of Saône valley to the east, lies the Rodeo Drive of red wine, Gevrey-Chambertin. The town itself is touristy, picturesquely festooned with vineyards from end to end, but certainly one of the must-visit areas on any French wine tour. Should the tour include a tasting (and if it doesn’t, skip it), you’ll find that the wine, at all levels of quality, share certain characteristics, many of them in seeming contradiction: In general, Gevrey wines are big without being heavy, rich without being cloying and full-bodied while retaining a velvety, delicate texture.
This inherent tension is what makes Gevrey-Chambertin a superlative, even in the star-studded Côte de Nuits. But it must be remembered that this quality represents many centuries of trial and error: The best vineyards are based around the foothills of the famous hill of Lavaux, on the east-facing slope where they are hit by the morning sun, which disperses any fog and warms the vineyard into the late afternoon. Soils, of course, impart their geological magic–the vines in the Premier and Grand Cru sites are grown on shallow brown limestone with sections of clay which holds onto the heat of the day, warming the vines overnight and further increasing their ripeness and power. Organoleptically, the Pinot Noirs of Gevrey suggests blackcurrants and jammy strawberry compote when young, with distinct notes of licorice heightened by maturation in new oak casks. As these wines age, they acquire earthy notes aromas that hint at animal pelts, musk, spicy vanilla and Havana cigars. The top flight Crus are unparalleled, of course, and no more apt descriptor for them exists than ‘blood and iron.’
Calescent and copious—big words to describe a big vintage, equally fascinating and enjoyable for those who like potent, youthful Pinots and for those willing to wait out a prolonged span of aging.
A hot, dry summer generally requires a wet preceding winter to top up groundwater reserves, and 2017/18 was just that. Conditions warmed up in time for a beautiful early flowering—another requirement for a bountiful harvest. The summer, as indicated, was hot and dry, although the farther north you went, sporadic rainfall was welcomed. The only anomaly during the season was hail in Nuits Saint Georges; two storms striking the south of the village and Prémeaux-Prissey at the end of June and the beginning of July, wiping out as much as 40% of the crop in some vineyards.
Due to the heat, the picking window for Pinot Noir was short, as levels for sugars, acids and phenolics rose quickly and called for an early harvest. In addition, three success factors came into play: Winemaking style, a vineyard’s specific terroir and the age of the vines proved even more consequential variables than usual. Broadly speaking the wines are relatively low in acidity and relatively high in alcohol, rising from a modest 13% up to 14.5%.
The wines of Gevrey-Chambertin in particular offer a genuine sense of freshness hand-in-hand with the vintage’s characteristic and powerful sun-ripened fruit.
‘Local boy makes good’ is a common enough tale in Burgundy, where land—which can command a price tag twice that of Bordeaux—is generally held by families. Most success stories involve inheriting it or marrying it. Rare is the breakthrough of an outsider who can, for example, step off a train in Gevrey-Chambertin without connections or formal wine training and forge a Burgundian empire within an enclave already pretty imperialistic.
Enter Jean-Michel Guillon. Born into a military tradition, Jean-Michel Guillon chose to settle in France after his past service in the Polynesian Islands and in 1980, without much formal training, planted grapes on five acres of land. What began as a nascent fascination grew into an overarching passion, and the estate today covers nearly forty acres spread over more than 20 appellations. It is work that, like the best Gevrey-Chambertin wines, took years to peak, both stylistically and critically: 2020 turned out to be Jean-Michel Guillon’s best vintage ever.
He explains: “It is all the result of my love for this land, and any acclaim I have received is based on innovative production processes and more importantly, taking into account the ecological needs of the vine. The climate crisis and the scarcity of natural materials is taken very seriously at the winery. Global warming is at the heart of the destruction of habitat and the appearance of certain diseases. In order to facilitate cultivation and harvesting, we have worked diligently to reduce our carbon footprint by using phytosanitary products that respect the environment.”
Among his most aggressive innovations may be his use of new oak—100% at all levels, including the Bourgogne Rouge, his entry-level wine. On this front he quotes Henri Jayer, perhaps Burgundy’s most inventive winemaker: “There are no great wines without new barrels”. As such, Guillon & Fils is the biggest buyer of new French oak in Burgundy after Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the Hospices de Beaune, most arranged through a long-standing partnership with the Ermitage and Cavin cooperages.
And speaking of ‘son’, after forty years of love and labor, the elegant Jean-Michel Guillon has adopted a Burgundian style of primogeniture after all, handing over the management of the estate to his son Alexis. Two younger sons are waiting in the wings, much like King Charles III; thus, in a roundabout way, Gevrey-Chambertin again earns the nickname ‘The King of Burgundy and the Burgundy of Kings.’
President of the wine association for 12 years and of the cellar of the Vignerons de Gevrey-Chambertin ‘La Halle Chambertin’, the elder Guillon’s winemaking career ended with participation in the Saint-Vincent Tournante 2020 in Gevrey-Chambertin.
So specific are the ‘cru’ vineyards of Burgundy that ‘regional’ vineyards may exist in the literal shadow of more renowned domains, occasionally separated by hundreds—or even as little as dozens of feet. Régionale wines tend to be somewhat generic, culled from vineyards located along the foot of more prestigious wine-growing slopes on limestone soil mixed with some clays and marls, where the earth is stony and quick-draining.
Unlike Bordeaux, where classifications are based on individual châteaux (capable of buying other vineyards and expanding), Burgundian label classifications are more geographically focused. A single vineyard, therefore, may have multiple owners, each with a small piece of the action. The non-specific ‘Bourgogne’ label first appeared in 1937, and in 2017, a further classification permitted wines from vineyards located within the Côte d’Or to be labeled as ‘Bourgogne Côte d’Or’; it’s a great tool for a consumer looking to explore the wide diversity of vineyard among the Hills of Gold while maintaining a terroir-focused, climat approach to Burgundy.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, ‘Terroir de Gevrey’ Bourgogne Rouge ($42)
Ruby-red and luscious, this mineral-driven wine shows a pure, ripe and elegant nose of cassis and lightly spiced plum that complements the balanced body. The wood for which Guillon is famous is prominent but not dominant, allowing the berry notes to ooze through.
In the Burgundian hierarchy of classifications, wines allowed to label themselves ‘Villages’ make up about 37% of the wider appellation’s total production. Ranked above ‘Regional’, it is the first category in which the concept of ‘terroir’ can truly be tested. Certain characteristics and styles are ascribed to wines from various villages and their surrounds. In fact, Burgundy is a constellation of villages, but only a handful produce wine good enough to warrant the label. With the same grape restrictions as Grand and Premier Crus (including a little Aligoté), Village wines have a slightly higher allowed yield per hectare.
When you’re number two, you try harder: At the Villages level, Gevrey-Chambertin is ranked second, below Vosne-Romanée and above Chambolle-Musigny.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, ‘Cuvée Alexis’ Gevrey-Chambertin ($98)
Named after the (then) heir apparent Alexis (long live the new king), this blend is more elegant and perfumed than Guillon’s other Gevrey Villages wines, hailing from 60-year-old vines. It features an expressive nose peppered with pretty nuances of blackberries, wild herbs and smoky forest floor, yet the palate is fresh and fruity, displaying a full array of strawberry, cherry and sweet spice behind notes of iron filings and crushed stone.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, ‘Cuvée Père Galland’ Gevrey-Chambertin ($98)
Named for René Galland, the man who first helped Jean-Michel learn to make wine. As proper homage, the bouquet is almost fierce, rich and redolent of muscular dark fruit and iron, making it a remarkable Villages wine that could easily be mistaken for a Cru. It expands on the palate to include smoke, coffee, cola perfumed by fresh violets and lavender.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, ‘Vieilles Vignes’ Gevrey-Chambertin ($130)
This hedonistic wine from 90-year-old vines is, as expected, perfumed on the nose and massive in the mouth, showing fresh figs, raspberries, black currants and orange zest on the palate and dry extract on a balanced and notably more complex finale.
In the legal lexicon of French wine, a ‘lieu-dit’ is the smallest parcel that can be named in an appellation; it may be a vineyard, or part of a vineyard, or even a few rows of vines. It earns a name through consistently providing superior wine grapes. The term is often used interchangeably (and incorrectly) with ‘climate.’ In fact, one can find several lieu-dits within a single climat, or a climat that only covers part of a lieu-dit. In simple terms, ‘climat’ refers specifically to a winegrowing plot whereas ‘lieu-dit’ is a generic geographical term.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Les Crais’ ($78)
The Pinot Noir parcel ‘Les Crais’ sits east of the main road on the Brochon side of Gevrey-Chambertin; it was planted in two parts, one in 1979/1980 and the other in 1990/1991. Soils are gravel made of decomposed limestone. The wine is racy and intense with juicy raspberry aromas, ripe cherry and anise sparks, offering remarkable length.
A novice may point out that the illogic in the Cru hierarchy can be confusing, because Premier Cru is below Grand Cru, even though the word ‘premier’ translates literally as ‘first.’ A pro will quickly point out that logic is not always the best device to use when translating wine laws. Often abbreviated ‘1er Cru’, these wines—like all wines earning any sort of ‘Cru’ designation—represent excellent vineyards and make up about 10% of Burgundy’s wine production. A notch below Grand Cru, usually in price and arguably in quality, the size and gravitas of that notch is often a matter of taste. As a loose rule, Premier Cru vineyards are found just above or below these prime locations that have been granted Grand Cru status, while Village wine usually remain concentrated in the valleys. There are 635 vineyards designated Premier Cru in Burgundy.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Les Champeaux ($144)
Les Champeaux is a 17-acre vineyard at the northernmost limit of Gevrey-Chambertin, just south of Évocelles. Although Les Goulots and Combe aux Moines are above it, Les Champeaux is perched quite high on the slope, at one thousand to about 1400 feet elevation, facing east to southeast. Champeaux is a patchwork of smaller parcels, some of which are terraced, so the vineyard’s slope varies from gentle to steep. Guillon has produced wine from 40-year-old vines and displays a sensationally concentrated, intense palate behind a bouquet of black fruits and toasty new oak, giving a hint of licorice and spice to the finish.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Les Champonnets ($153)
Les Champonnets is situated on the same line as the Grand Crus, very near to Ruchottes-Chambertin, although it is tucked up high near the entrance of the Lavaux Valley. It contains a combination of old vines (60-70 years) interspersed with younger vines that are about half that age. The soil of Champonnets is deep, yet with a strong limestone component that shows through in the wine—deep and rich, with plush forest berries, undergrowth, humus, dusty chocolate and pie spice on the finish.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru La Petite Chapelle ($179)
La Petite Chapelle is a ten-acre vineyard situated at the base of the Côte d’Or escarpment, one of the lowest-lying of the Premiers Crus and one of the easternmost in Gevrey-Chambertin, lying below the Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru climat, and just south of Cherbaudes. The enclave of En Ergot sits on Petite Chapelle’s southeastern quadrant. Guillon’s La Petit Chapelle displays itself in strong, crimson-garnet hues with discreet purple reflections. The nose is sweet cherry fruit, subtle raspberry and some hibiscus, opening to provide lime zest. It is juicy on the palate, taut, and juice with red berries and well-integrated tannins, salty minerality and nougat. It remains very youthful, with nice length and fine aging potential.
Although Grand Cru production only makes up about 2% of all production, and although there are only 33 vineyards so named, it is likely that an even passing fan of Burgundy has heard of them all. This is truly where the creme de la creme of Pinot Noir exists and, in fact, they used to be called ‘Tête de Cuvée.’ Of course, there are several consecrated Grand Crus designated exclusively to Chardonnay, but none in Gevrey-Chambertin, which is red wine country. Grand Cru wines are generally allocated only to the well-connected and Michelin-starred cellars. Add to that the ever-expanding global competition for Burgundy and successive years of small harvests, and these legendary wines become even more difficult to find.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Son, Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru ($349)
Mazis-Chambertin is the northernmost Grand Cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits; it covers 22 acres of superb soil on the upper slopes of Gevrey-Chambertin’s Grand Cru belt. The vineyard is divided into two climats, the upper Les Mazis-Hauts and the lower Les Mazis-Bas, the latter having slightly deeper soils. Location, location, location: Mazis-Chambertin is on the same part of the slope as the Chambertin vineyard, about 1600 paces to the south, just beyond the similarly well-regarded Clos de Bèze. The Grand Cru Ruchottes climat lies on the slope above, to the west. As to the wine, a densely fruited nose of dark berries is at once earthy, spicy and feral. The imposingly-scaled, lavishly rich and sleekly muscled flavors are firmly structured though not aggressive and the sheer depth of the palate lingers throughout a long, fanning finish;
Referred to as the ‘The Côte de Nuits’ Golden Gate’, Marsannay produces wine in all three chromatic styles—red, white and rosé—but the reds, in particular, are heralded for their richness, resembling in style the wines of neighbors Fixin and Gevrey-Chambertin. As an appellation, Marsannay encompasses the communes of Chenôve, Marsannay-la-Côte and Couchey.
The best vines are planted mid-slope with easterly or southerly exposures, and have historically been considered of only modest quality, with no Premier Cru—and certainly no Grand Cru—sites. However this issue has been under review in recent years, and two neighboring sites, Clos du Roy and Les Longeroies, gained Marsannay Premier Cru status in 2020.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Marsannay ‘Clos des Portes’ Monopole ($63)
Although this is technically a Marsannay, the wine is made using the same Guillon standards applies to Chambertin—similar low yields drawn from seriously old vines and matured in 100 % new barrels from Nivernais oak (made by master coopers at Tonnellerie Berthomieu). ‘Clos des Portes’ is monopoly, meaning that Guillon owns the entire cru. The wine offers a ripe and distinctly earthy nose with aromas ranging from rich black to bright red fruits, leading to a seductively textured, medium-bodied mouthfeel that is juicy with mid-palate concentration.
Domaine Jean-Michel Guillon & Fils, Marsannay ‘Les Quenicières’ ($61)
Lavishly oaked with creamy and toasty aromas behind the floral—peony, iris and clove. The mouth is round and gourmet. This wine reveals blackcurrant and spicy aromas with elegant tannins on the finish and persistent minerality also expressing earthy notes of fern, moss and truffle.
The patchwork of vineyards that makes up the Côtes de Nuit is nothing compared to the gaggle of names that make up Domaine Rebourseau—keep them separated if you dare, and I only have to go back to 1980, the year that Pierre Rebourseau handed over the management of the estate to his grandson Jean de Surrel. Jean de Surrel adopted organic winegrowing practices and a biodynamic approach. Then, in 2018, the Bouygues family joined the estate, and as majority shareholders, Martin and Olivier Bouygues (who also own Château Montrose in St. Estèphe) joined forces with the de Surrel family to continue the estate’s heritage. Subsequently, Bénigne and Louis de Surrel took over from their father under the supervision of Hervé Berland, who’d spent three lauded decades at Château Mouton Rothschild.
There’s two hundred more years of confusing Rebourseau torch-passing behind that; perhaps for another time.
The Domaine preserves its family ethos and seven generations of tradition, but the old style of wine—heavy and a bit clumsy out of the cradle—has been given a stylish facelift under Bouygues management, becoming lighter, with a greater emphasis on finesse.
Even so, the estate continues in its biodynamic farming, and boasts some of the oldest parcels in the Côte de Nuits; around half of the vineyards are located in the Grand Crus of Chambertin, Clos-de-Bèze, Charmes-Chambertin, Mazy-Chambertin and Clos-de-Vougeot and they maintain holdings in Premier Crus as well.
According to Louis de Surrel, this is a daunting prospect: “It’s very frightening to make a Grand Cru wine,” he admits. “Honestly, every time I step into the vineyard, it’s like a mise-en-abyme: I can’t help thinking about all the generations that have come before, and that responsibility haunts me sometimes. It is a two-pronged approach: We try to have the best vinification techniques but our first and foremost priority is the vineyard.”
Louis is as fascinated as he is intimidated by the intricacies of Burgundian terroir: “In Gevrey-Chambertin, there are 69 climates and every one of them is different,” he says. “But expression of terroir is by no means limited to the Grands Crus, and even at village level, these wines have their own identities. In front of the domain, we have two plots: Aux Corvées and La Brunelle. They almost touch each other, separated by a three-meter path; they are totally different wines. That, for me, is the magic of terroir.”
In Burgundy, any serious discussion of terroir begins at the Village level, and the most important of these appellations are aligned in a neat north-to-south line from Marsannay to Maranges. They generally located on a commune’s eastern side, where the angle of slope is slight, or along the far western fringe, adjacent to forest-capped ridgelines, where both elevation and slope are far more significant. Between these extremes binds the Premier and Grand Crus.
Domaine Henri Rebourseau, Gevrey-Chambertin ($99)
A velvety briskness underscores lovely, forward, berry-charged fruit with notes of blueberry, strawberry and cranberry and touch of menthol on the finish. Built with energy and elasticity, this is a marvelous example of the complexity available even in a Village level Gevrey-Chambertin.
Lieux-dits are a wine lover’s Google Earth—a satellite view of an appellation focused on a tiny, representative parcel. Not all vineyards have lieu-dits, and among those that do, not all are created equal. In general, it’s a term that refers to a geologically homogeneous portion of a vineyard with a self-contained story to tell about its quality or, occasionally, its significance to history.
Domaine Henri Rebourseau, Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Aux Corvées’ ($99)
Aux Corvées is a six-acre lieu-dit in front of the Rebourseau home, on one side of the approach, marking a boundary between Les Corvées and La Brunelle and representing a clear variation in character. Chores’ vines are around a half-century in age, and the scree deposits are more varied; soils are relatively deep, reaching depths up to six feet. This produces a harmonious Gevrey, with pure, translucent berry notes and tarry undertones. It shows a core of ripe strawberry on the palate and a voluptuous, velvety texture laced with supple tannins and fine acidity.
Domaine Henri Rebourseau, Gevrey-Chambertin ‘La Brunelle’ ($117)
La Brunelle, situated at the heart of a projecting ledge that forms a silt trap, has been described as one of the greatest successes of the Combe of Lavaux’s alluvial cone. On the surface brown soils predominate, just below are the limestone gravels that are effective in maintaining the heat. In the lower portion, clustered piles of calcareous stones are to be found with a layer of sand and clay about ten feet below the surface. Jammy dark cherry dominates the nose and leads to a concentrated, full-fleshed palate that rises far about a Villages label—as lieu-dits are wont to do.
Grand Cru wines are the Burgundian apex for price, and in theory, quality. These represent single-vineyard sites of such renown that they have achieved their own AOP status, independent of the village they lie within. Maximum yield and minimum must-weight levels become even more restrictive, and monopole Grand Cru AOP law mandates hand-harvesting. Some of the largest sites have sectors that hold greater potential than others within the same vineyard—but, of course, the skill of the individual producer is often an equalizing factor.
Domaine Henri Rebourseau, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru ($288)
Les Charmes Chambertin is situated on a limestone outcrop thinly covered with a shallow layer of rendzina soil—pebbly and marly with significant iron content; in fact, iron particles appear at the surface. This appellation is separated from the Chambertin appellation by the Route des Grands Crus and differs from the Mazoyères-Chambertin, which is situated lower down the hill; Rebourseau’s vines are a monopoly in the upper area. The wine shows wild strawberries interlaced with vanilla spice, seamlessly combining structure with an unctuous essence.
Domaine Henri Rebourseau, Chambertin Grand Cru ($449)
The ne plus ultra vineyard in Gevrey is Chambertin, situated on outcrops of lower Bajocian crinoidal limestone in the middle of the hill, while at the top of the slope Bajocian marls dominate. The thin layer of scree and silt covering the entire vineyard is made of decomposed brown limestone. Rebourseau’s plot—a bit more than an acre of 60-year-old vines—is mid-slope, which benefits from excellent ventilation. The altitude is ideal and stones are abundant so that drainage is natural, while its exposure to the rising sun is incomparable. As a wine, it checks all the boxes: body, color, bouquet and finesse.