'Crazy ideas' prove fruitful at venerable Chapoutier winery

VINTAGE POINT

March 31, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Just listening to Michel Chapoutier, it would be easy to conclude that the young man is a little, well, odd.

Here he is talking about giving his grapevines "a paid vacation." He goes on about how he learned more about winemaking from reading dusty, old family records than from distinguished professors of oenology.

And all the time this diminutive young man gestures broadly and grins wildly -- looking more like a jockey on uppers than the winemaker of one of the oldest and largest family wine firms in France's Rhone Valley.

Just listen, and you might think the only lucid thing Michel Chapoutier says is when he admits he has a lot of "crazy ideas."

But go beyond listening, taste his wines, and you might just come to the conclusion that his "crazy ideas" make a lot of sense.

At 27, Michel Chapoutier is making a lot of people believe in him. Since taking over the helm of his family's firm from his father in a virtual palace coup in 1988, Mr. Chapoutier has staged one of the greatest turnarounds of any major winery anytime, anywhere.

In effect, what he has done is take the 183-year-old house of Chapoutier back to its glory days when its name was the most respected in the Rhone -- famed for the concentration and longevity of its wines.

A 1984 visit to the family winery in Tain, at the base of the famed hillside vineyard of Hermitage, showed both the pride and the problems of Chapoutier. Its older wines -- red and white -- from the 1950s, the 1940s and as far back as the 1920s were exceptional.

However, the most recent wines, from the highly regarded 1983 vintage, were far less impressive. It's not that they were poor -- it never got that bad at Chapoutier -- but they were ordinary. The wines were correct but there was nothing dramatic about them.

At the time, and for the preceding two decades, the winery was under the direction of Michel's father, Max, an enchanting man and gracious host but not a great winemaker.

For most of the 1980s, Michel pursued his education, bided his time and traveled through the winemaking regions of the world. As he traveled and tasted he came under the influence of some of the world's great winemakers -- including Marcel Deiss and Leonard Humbrecht of Alsace, Randall Grahm and Andre Tchelistcheff of California and his Rhone neighbors Gerard Chave and Marcel Guigal.

"What was important for me was to open my mind and not be formed by my father -- to bring new blood," Michel said.

During that time Mr. Chapoutier became profoundly aware that his family's winery had slipped in the regard of the world's wine enthusiasts. In 1988, after working in the winery for three vintages, he told his father, in effect: You go or I go.

Max Chapoutier went, taking an early retirement, but not without hard feelings that continue to this day, Michel said. With the support of their 81-year-old grandfather, Michel took over the winemaking and his brother Marc took over as marketing chief.

What Michel then did, in effect, was to change everything about the way Chapoutier makes wine. Out went the giant chestnut "foudres" and in came small barrels of Troncais oak. Fermentation times were extended, and commercial yeast strains were eliminated in favor of wild yeast. Filtration, which can rob wines of taste and aroma, was abandoned.

Change didn't come easily. "I had to work with people who saw me born," said Mr. Chapoutier, and many of them had done things one way all their lives. Now this whippersnapper, not even 25 at the time, was telling them it was all wrong.

"I think I was able to do that because I am not a reasonable person," he said.

Even more dramatic changes took place in the vineyards, he said. Chapoutier not only went entirely to organic farming, it severely cut back on its production per acre by means of vigorous pruning.

Above all else, Mr. Chapoutier is a fanatic on two subjects: the "gout de terroir" and vineyard yields.

"Gout de terroir," the French phrase for "taste of the soil," RTC translates unattractively into English, but it is the concept at the center of most of the world's great winemaking. It means that great wine should pass along the unique mineral flavors of the ground in which the grapes were grown. It's the indelible fingerprint of a great vineyard.

To Mr. Chapoutier, low yields are the key to achieving gout de terroir. "You can never have a soil taste over 1 1/2 to 2 acres a ton," he said. (Normal yields in the wine business run from 3 tons to 8 tons an acre.)

Now, he says, Chapoutier is averaging just over 1.5 tons per acre, with a minuscule yield of 1 ton an acre in

Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

But Mr. Chapoutier wants to go beyond just normally severe pruning, and that's where the "paid vacations" come in. Each year, he said, he plans to take 10 percent of each vineyard and prune all the fruit off it, giving it a rest from grape production -- a wildly expensive proposition for the producer.

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