Michel Chapoutier: visiting one of the Rhône's most famous producers
Part 1, The Chapoutier story and tasting the wines

Chapoutier, 18 avenue du Docteur Paul Durand, 26600 Tain l'Hermitage
Tel: +33 (0) 4 75 08 28 65 Fax: +33 (0) 4 75 08 81 70
Website: www.chapoutier.com

Michel Chapoutier
in relaxed mood 

Michel Chapoutier is, as they say in the trade, a bit of a character. He’s clearly very smart, but also slightly—and one suspects, deliberately—unorthodox. The 47 year-old Chapoutier has established himself as one of the most visible figures in the wine world in the 21 years that he’s been running his family firm. An ambassador for the Rhône, he is not without controversy, and while he’s feted by some (notably the world’s most powerful wine critic, Robert Parker), he has attracted his fair share of criticism.   

In May I met him for the first time, on his home territory in Tain l’Hermitage, in France’s Northern Rhône region. Also present on this quick trip were Chris Kissack (of www.thewinedoctor.com) and Elizabeth Ferguson (of UK agents Mentzendorff). Within a few hours of meeting him, he was driving us through one of his Hermitage vineyards at great speed, with a Karl Jenkins CD playing at top volume. 

Looking at the hill of Hermitage from the west bank of the Rhone

Typical Chapoutier: he claims that he drinks at least two bottles of Champagne a day. ‘I am probably the most important customer of Champagne,’ he quips. Now he certainly loves Champagne, and on our short visit we consumed quite a bit of it. But two bottles a day? He’s not exactly a big guy. It wouldn’t leave room for much Hermitage.

Michel is a journalist’s dream, in that he talks in wonderfully quotable soundbites. ‘My idea is not to try to make the best wine possible,’ says Michel, ‘but to take pictures of the terroir.’ He suggests that there are three elements to terroir: soil, climate and humans. He also adds in the vintage as part of the equation. ‘If vintage is part of terroir, we shouldn’t try to correct the vintage; we should never acidify and never chaptalize,’ he asserts. ‘Too many winemakers try to correct the vintage. For me, the quality is done in the vineyard and the winemaking has to be extremely simple.’

In Chapoutier's Le Meal vineyard, Hermitage


Michel Chapoutier’s story is a remarkable one. In 1990, aged only 26 (he was born in 1964), he bought the family business from his grandfather (Marc), and promptly fired the other family members, including his father Max. It was a mess.

Marc had nominally handed over Maison Chapoutier to his son Max in 1977, but had remained very much involved. The young Michel had been travelling to other wine regions, and when he returned in 1987, he assumed responsibility for vinification of the Chapoutier family wines. However, his brother and father retained responsibility for the maturation of these wines, so the wines were not Michel’s. And the results weren’t good. The business was struggling.

In 1989 Michel had enough: he went to his grandfather and told him that he was leaving, and that he couldn’t work with his family any more. His grandfather said he couldn’t leave, and offered to skip a generation, missing out Max and handing the reins directly to Michel. But Michel didn’t want the benefits of his hard work to go to underserving family members, so issued an ultimatum: he wanted to buy the company himself, or he would leave.    

Michel got his way, and the company. Since then, the Chapoutier firm, which was in grave peril, has been transformed beyond recognition. It is now a thriving commercial success, and has expanded far beyond its roots in the Rhône.

To his credit, he’s a family man. Michel married Corinne in 1986, and is still married to her. She is much quieter and more reserved than Michel, but they seem at ease together. They have two children, now young adults: their son Maxime is at university in Melbourne, and their daughter Mathilde is currently living in Beijing. She speaks Mandarin. A smart business move?  

The Chapoutier family from their Christmas card, 2012

Michel is very well travelled, and his horizons spread far. The Chapoutier name can be found on bottles from Alsace, the Roussillon and Australia. He’s also involved in Champagne with Devaux in the Aube, and has set his sights on making wine in England—an as yet unnamed location, but somewhere west, with granitic soils. 

‘You judge a winemaker by the diversity of his or her cellar,’ says Michel. He says that he doesn’t drink his own wines at home, but instead drinks wines that he exchanges with other winemakers. ‘I never exchange by value,’ he emphasizes. ‘We exchange a passion, not a potential profit.’ As well as making wine, Michel owns a wine import company. ‘I have an import company because I have a duty to fight against French chauvinism.’

Some Chapoutier themes. He loves terroir, and in particular is a huge fan of granitic soils. ‘More and more I look for granite and gneiss,’ he says, adding, ‘where there are different soils in the vineyard the wines are really good.’ He’s also one of the most vocal proponents of biodynamics, and believes that the life of the soil is vital for good terroir expression. He’s also unconvinced of the need to blend varieties to get complexity. ‘I consider some of the most interesting wines are from Burgundy not Bordeaux,’ he says. ‘Plenty of great regions are mono cepage. The complexity of the wine comes from the bacterial life in the soil around the roots. To play with single varieties should be enough for complexity.’  

In Chapoutier's holding of L'Hermite, looking down to Bessards where Pavillon comes from

I’m particularly impressed by his white northern Rhône wines, and here his focus is on Marsanne. ‘Marsanne is an interesting grape with a low level of acidity,’ says Michel. ‘It’s not the acid that gives the potential for ageing; it is the phenolics. This comes from the maturity. The maturity of Marsanne will bring the phenolics that help the expression of terroir.’ He says that he doesn’t use Roussanne, because he wants whites that can age, and Roussanne is sensitive to oxidation.   

The famous chapel of St Christopher (La Chapelle) in L'Hermite


Here I am just focusing on the wines of the Rhône. Understanding the Chapoutier range is quite a task. A lot of different wines are made each vintage. There’s the negociant range, made from bought-in grapes, and then there are the estate wines. At the top of the tree are the single vineyard bottlings known as Fac & Spera (the family motto, which translates ‘do and hope’), or alternatively Sélections Parcellaires. We kicked off with a tasting of the Fac & Speras from 2007 (whites) and 2000 (reds).

Chapoutier Les Granits St Joseph Blanc 2007
From a 2 hectare plot with very poor, stony, granitic soils, this is just Marsanne. Full yellow colour. Intensely nutty, toasty nose. Floral with some vanilla notes. Fine and complex. The palate is powerful, intense, herby and bold with lovely mineral complexity. Very lively, textural and mouthfilling. 94/100

Chapoutier de L’Orée Ermitage Blanc 2007
From a 3.5 ha plot with alluvial deposits; all Marsanne. Rounded, aromatic nose is quite creamy and rich with generous ripe pear and peach notes. Fine and seamless. The palate is rich and complex with subtle minerality and perhaps a hint of matchstick reduction under the plump, textured fruit. A beautiful wine. 96/100

Chapoutier Saint-Peray Les Tanneurs 2009
13.5% alcohol.
This is mainly Marsanne with a little bit of Roussanne. Lively and focused with bright citrussy fruit and some richness of texture, finishing with nice acidity. Pure and fresh with some waxy notes in the background and hints of straw. Fresh and complex. 91/100 (£15 Alfred the Grape, Hercules Wines, Tanners, last Drop, Hailsham Cellars)

Chapoutier Condrieu Invitare 2009
13.5% alcohol. From granite soils. Very rich, bold and mealy with a slightly oxidative character on the nose. Buttery, toasty notes. The palate is richly textured, nutty, creamy and toasty. Broad and distinctive, but perhaps lacking a little in fruit purity? 90/100 (£35 Majestic, Corks Out, Handford, Hennings, Alfred the Grape, Slurp)

Chapoutier Chante-Alouette Ermitage Blanc 2007
Beautifully aromatic, this is a powerful white wine with rounded, honeyed peach and pear fruit backed up by subtle nuttiness. It’s fine and elegant, while at the same time being quite rich. Textured and broad with a lovely soft mouthfeel and a warm finish. A great expression of Marsanne. 94/100 (£42 Handford Wines, Lancelot Wines, Planet of the Grapes, Selfridges, Wimbledon Wine Cellar, Harrods, The Wine Society, Laithwaites)

Chapoutier Les Varonniers Crozes-Ermitage 2000
From a 3.2 hectare plot with granite soils. Showing some evolution. Earthy, graphite nose with some roasted notes, and cherries, plums, tar and spice. Quite taut still with plum and black cherry fruit on the palate, which is vibrant and quite elegant. Nice freshness, some minerality and good acidity. 92/100

Chapoutier La Mordorée Côte-Rôtie 2000
Meaty, spicy and quite animal with smoky notes and some grilled meat, as well as olive and bacon. The palate is fresh and meaty with some earthy notes. Spicy and warm, this is quite complex with a lovely mature quality. 92/100

Chapoutier Le Méal Ermitage 2000
Dark, spicy, slightly roasted nose is meaty and intense with some animal characters. Powerful, concentrated palate with bold black cherry fruit and some plummy notes. Intense, lively and ripe with a strongly mineral dimension and firm tannins. Real precision here. 95/100

Chapoutier L’Ermite Ermitage 2000
Fine, mineral spicy nose with some notes of tar and roast coffee. Beautifully aromatic, perfumed and floral. The palate is lively and intense with mineral and savoury notes, a bit like rain on pavements. Structured and lively with high acidity and dark fruits. 94/100

Chapoutier Croix de Bois Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2000
5 ha of Grenache here. Sweet herby nose is quite ripe and full with warm caramel notes, as well as some soy sauce. Meaty and broad. The palate is spicy and a bit earthy with broad flavours and some mineral notes. Tastes quite old. 90/100

Other Sélections Parcellaires tasted during the trip:

Chapoutier De l’Orée Ermitage Blanc 2001 (magnum)
Complex, broad, nutty and intense with lively pear and citrus fruit. Real freshness and complexity here, showing lovely depth. So fresh. 95/100

Chapoutier La Mordorée Côte-Rôtie 2006
Lovely freshness and intensity here: lively and precise with raspberry and black cherry fruit. Lovely subtly meaty notes here. Very fine and elegant with good acidity. Lively and precise. 95/100

Chapoutier Le Pavillon Ermitage 2001
Hints of meat and spice on the nose. Fresh but earthy with some bloodiness. The palate is fresh and vibrant with nice cherry fruit. Nicely savoury with gravelly grip and a drying finish. Notes of spice and earth, in a savoury style. 93/100

Chapoutier Le Pavillon Ermitage 1991
A rare wine. Michel made this in the year that he and his wife Corinne had their first child. Yields were down to 10 hl/ha to make this wine—Michel had recently taken over and wanted to make the best wine he could, even in a difficult vintage. One-third was aged in the 228 litre chestnut barrels that were then still being used at the domaine. We were served it blind. Very fine, fresh and bloody with lovely cherry fruit and some meatiness. Firm tannins on the palate. A fresh, vital and beautifully complex wine with some earthy, spicy maturity but also lovely freshness. 95/100

The estate and negociant range
This is where you have to pick and choose a bit. While the S
élections Parcellaires, and in particular the whites, are remarkable world-class wines, the remainder of the range is maddeningly inconsistent. And these wines are expensive for what they are, too. To be perfectly blunt, some of these wines should be a lot better than they are given their prices, although there are some real highlights.

Chapoutier Saint-Peray Les Tanneurs 2009
Marsanne with a bit of Roussanne. Lively, focused, citrussy and bright with some richness of texture and nice acidity. Very pure and fresh with some waxy notes in the background and hints of straw. 91/100 (£12 Alfred the Grape, Hercules Wines, Tanners, Last Drop, Hailsham Cellars)

Chapoutier Condrieu Invitare 2009
Very rich, bold and mealy with slightly oxidative notes on the nose, as well as notes of butter and toast. The palate is rich textured, nutty and creamy. Broad and distinctive; perhaps lacking a little in fruit purity? 90/100 (£35 Majestic, Corks Out, Handford, Hennings, Alfred the Grape, Slurp)

Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc Chante Alouette 2007
Full yellow colour. Nutty nose with some bright citrus notes. The palate shows waxy, nutty notes with some herbs. Quite a fresh profile with nice fruitiness. Lively and complex. 92/100 (£42 Handford, Lancelot Wines, Planet of the Grapes, Selfridges, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Harrods, The Wine Society, Laithwaites)

Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Belleruche 2009
Stylish effort for the price, with focused fresh cherry and berry fruit and some spiciness. A hint of minerality, too. 88/100 (£8.99 Majestic, EH Booth, Last Drop, Eagle Wines, Little Tipple, Hailsham Cellars)

Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage La Petite Ruche 2009
Very fresh with lively cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose. Lovely purity. The palate is bright, pure, fresh and primary with lovely sweet fruit and a hint of peppery complexity. 90/100 (£14 EH Booth, Eagle Wines, Hennings, Last Drop, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Sainsbury's)

Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Les Meysonniers 2008
Lively fresh peppery nose, with some sappiness. The palate is bright and focused with lovely fresh red cherry fruit and attractive pepperiness. Lovely tannins: so fresh and elegant. 92/100 (£17 EH Booth, Averys, Eagle Wines, Four Walls, The Wine Society, Lancelot Wines, Partridges, Tanners, Hailsham Cellars, Tesco.com)

Chapoutier Saint-Joseph Les Deschants 2009
Some nice direct black cherry fruit on the nose. Nice, pure, fresh black fruits on the palate with some meatiness. Pure and simple. 89/a00 (£19 Alfred the Grape, Last Drop, Partridges, Planet of the Grapes, Hailsham Cellars, Direct Wines)

Chapoutier Gigondas 2009
Nicely forward with sweet, fresh berry fruits, showing good definition and purity. Spicy, peppery savouriness adds interest. 90/100 (£21 Averys, Corks Out, Butlers Wine Cellar)

Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernadine 2008
Sweet herby nose is slightly baked and has hints of caramel. The palate is sweet and quite elegant with red cherry and plum fruit, as well as some earthy minerality and hints of raisins. 88/100 (£28 Averys, Eagle Wines, Lancelot Wines, Last Drop, The Wine Society, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Partridges)

Chapoutier Cornas Les Arenes 2007
Aromatically shy. Fresh, expressive and mid-bodied with some subtly meaty notes. A bit of pepper. Expressive with subtle green herby notes. 87/100 (£32 Averys, Butler Wine Cellar, Corks Out, Tanners, Wine Society)

Chapoutier Cote Rotie Les Becasses 2007
Fine, subtly spicy peppery nose with some green notes and a hint of olives. The palate is bright and peppery with red cherry and berry fruits, as well as good acidity. Just lacking a little depth. 89/100 (£45 Alfred the Grape, Planet of the Grapes, Tesco.com)

Chapoutier Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne 2007
Midweight with quite elegant black cherry and plum fruit, fine-grained tannins, and a bit of supporting oak. It's not a showy wine but it has elegance and finesse. Midweight style with some mineral notes as well as well-judged fruit. 90/100 (£50 Alfred the Grape, Planet of the Grapes, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, Selfridges, Tanners)

See also:

The Hill of Hermitage: one of the world's great appellations
Photographs of Hermitage: pictures from this remarkable appellation

My blog posts on the Northern Rhône

Wines tasted 05/11  
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